While high: music in the body

Re-reading Carl Sagan‘s Mr. X essay made me think about recent experiences with music while high.  He writes:

A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me.

Music has always been a part of my own life.  I’m a piano player with some years of classical training, and some experience as a jazz player.  Though I’m well out of practice, my ear is relatively well developed, at least in terms of things like following harmonies and counterpoint etc.  That said, my experience of listening to music while high is enhanced in what I take to be same way as Sagan’s.  In particular, the way I experience counterpoint, melody and structure in music changes when I’m high vs. when I’m straight.  I notice many structural elements and compositional choices … or maybe it’s that I notice them in a new way — they seem somehow more important, crucial.  I also experience sequences and passages of notes in new ways.  When I close my eyes and listen to some music rich in counterpuntal lines, I’ve oftentimes felt as though the lines of music were physically present in my body — a line in a Bach cello suite, for example, may present itself as a trail of connected feelings in my left arm.

A rapid, staccato sequence might make its way up my trunk and into the core of my body, and then dissolve or sublimate as it encounters another thread of sensation corresponding to another musical line from some other region of my body.

Not surprisingly, I experience the emotional aspects of music much more fiercely when high than when straight.  The emotions I feel are sometimes just amplified versions of what I’d feel while straight, such as the extra-powerful rush I feel while listening to something like this:

But the emotional changes are sometimes even more powerful than that:  I’ve felt as though my experience of choral music in particular has produced some extremely powerful feelings and experiences.  For example, in the following piece (which is gorgeous and worth a listen, high or not):

… when the choir hits and holds its glorious harmonic resolution (around 5:13 in the video.)  At the time, I was laying in a warm dark room, wearing headphones and looking inward as the music wound and swelled through my body.  When that penultimate chord dropped — the one where the basses descend to their lowest point and the choir widens into a stunningly open chord — it was as if at that moment, the dark space within me opened in a kind of dimension-defying way.  I felt as though I had discovered that the black tunnel within my closed eyes had suddenly opened into a vast and unexplored space that while still obscure to my vision, was incomprehensibly more huge and all-encompassing than I’d ever realized.  It was as if I’d been walking in a small dark passageway and suddenly stumbled out of a doorway and onto the foyer of a dark cavern whose dimensions were equal to those of the universe itself.  It was that music, and in particular the openness of that chord, which allowed that perception to explode within me.  Without the chord I would not have felt the space, or the wonder accompanying the perception of it.  And as with the musical chord, as soon as it was there and established, the wideness began to fade and recede and before long resolved back into normal sensation as the harmonic tension was released.

As Sagan notes, these sensations are intensely present in these kinds of moments while high, but they also tend to persist.  This seems to be a matter of memories becoming reactivated when we listen to the same piece of music.  But these experiences also alter musical perception permanently in some way that I don’t yet fully understand.

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