Why we see and hear what we do not see and hear

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts was one of the best things on TV. He introduced people, not only young but even older people, to music, what it is, what does it means, and how to enjoy it. In the 1958 hour-long film, the first in the series, he focused on What Does Music Mean? While doing so, he told us what music is. It is the combination of notes, just as speech is the combination of words. He made his point by clear, brilliant analyses, and by examining the music of Ravel, Rossini, Strauss, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Weber.

He started by playing The William Tell Overture and asking his audience what do they think about when they hear this music. Virtually everyone responded that it is music of the American wild west, and they think of The Lone Ranger. He then explained that we think that the Overture is about a racing horse in the wild west because we were told this many times. But the Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, who wrote the opera in 1829 in which the Overture appears, knew little or nothing about the American west and did not have this in mind at all. Rossini wrote it to portray a musical picture of life in the Swiss Alps: dawn, a storm, calm after the storm, a short three-minute march by Swiss soldiers. There are no horses in the opera or cavalry charges. We hear what we are told to hear, not what was intended.

To prove his point, he told a made up story which he said could be understood as an interpretation of a piece of music, and the story did interpret the music, although the music’s composer had something totally different in mind; it was not about a jail break, it was about the Spaniards Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza with Don Quixote thinking he is an ancient knight.

As I listened to the lecture, I realized that the same phenomenon of people hearing and seeing what they are told is one explanation how people in Germany believed the Nazis, how people in the US today have become so excited over the presidency of Donald Trump, and how so many religious people of all religions mistakenly see things in the Bible that are clearly not there.

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