The Transcendental Model

Glenn Gould recording the Goldberg Variations in 1955 Leonard Bernstein Conducting Boston Symphony ..

Large parts of musical experience can be expressed in words (Consider: 1 million+  online discussions of recordings in Amazon; articles by professional music reviewers; commentary on performances in the television show “The Voice”).

But there are other parts of music-experience that are almost-wordless or ineffable; that are private and personal; that are individual and deeply meaningful; that may be too evanescent to grasp; that may feel “infinite” or “unbounded” in some sense (can’t be boxed in with words). I will use the term “Transcendental” for this part of music-experience.

Transcendental music-experience is difficult to characterize and model.  But modeling is possible to a degree. To do so, I adapt some ideas from the renowned psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. A major part of Bion’s work was in characterizing and dealing with the “transcendental” aspects of human life. So the model which follows is adapted from some of that research (especially Bion’s concept of “O” which denotes very generally the transcendental aspects of life). Our model also uses some concepts from the subject of Mindfulness Meditation.

To convey the model (I call it the “Transcendental model[1]“), I will present 3 views. Then a summary; some illustrations; and closing comments.

Advisory: This is difficult subject matter, you may not get a precise understanding of every statement.  You may want to start by giving this article a quick read, and letting it “sink in” a bit before reading more slowly.

A. View#1: A complex of transcendental experiences

The following experiences would each qualify as transcendental experiences of music. The 7 items below are described as a “complex” in that they typically occur as a group (if any one instance occurs, then all of the others also will typically occur in some degree).

[1] My experience seems unlimited or unbounded in its intensity, richness, or subtlety.

[2] My experience is deeply personal and intimate. I could not possibly explain it to someone else, it feels like my unique personal experience.

[3] The experience is wordless and unanalyzable.

[4] There are aspects of the experience that seem totally new, unlike anything I have experienced previously.

[5] I feel a “free flow” of emotion and sensation as I take in the music. Each tiny moment seems unique and complete,  but also connected to what precedes and follows; and the experience is constantly evolving. Fluid: Anything can become anything, instantly.

[6] I feel “saturated” by the experience. It takes (a part of) me over totally and affects every atom of my being. It feels like the experience will stay with me forever.

[7] The (effects of) the experience continue to operate and evolve even after the music is over, without time limit. It is an open-ended experience.

B. View#2: Additional examples transcendental experiences

(Comment: all of the following experiences also usually trigger the complex of experiences from View#1 .)

[1] Awe; wonder

[2] Ecstasy

[3] Genesis Effect (the effect of wonderment that can occur when a piece of music begins)

[4] Dramatic ending

[5] Chaos, extreme disorder

[6] Spiritual

[7] Religious

[8] A sense of vast  “space”

[9] Alteration of time (including “time stands still”)

[10] Connected to: Other listeners, the performer, the composer, to people and forces at a distance, the universe, my “personal core”

[11] A feeling of personal change or transformation, or even world-change.

[12] Intimations of experiences outside the threshold of consciousness or ordinary mental activity.

C. View#3: Limitations of the Basic Model

(Note to the reader: If you do not know what the “Basic model” is, you can skip to section D.  The Basic model is roughly a formalized model of what can be verbalized by a professional music critic.)

[1]The Basic model measures the intensity of each receptor on a scale of 0 – 4. However, it seems that some receptors may not have an upper limit for intensity. E.g. awe, ecstasy.

[2] There are complex kinds of experience that do not seem to fit a model based on a small finite number of receptors.

[3] The Basic model does not address “networked” experience (where experience involves interaction with external persons or agents).

[4] It seems plausible that sometimes new receptors are formed spontaneously (this is possible because a receptor can be largely “software” rather than a specific physical object).

D. Summary: Definition of “transcendental experience”

[1] Approximate definition: A transcendental experience in music typically involves most of the following characteristics:

Infinite or unbounded in its intensity, richness, subtlety; personal and intimate; wordless and unanalyzable; “new” ; subtle and free-flowing with unlimited detail and continuity; saturating my being; persistent, evolving, open-ended, endless.

[2] In some cases, there are additional characteristics:

Connectedness (to other listeners, the performer, the composer, to people and forces at a distance, the universe); a feeling of personal change or transformation; intimation of experiences outside the threshold of consciousness or ordinary mental activity.

[3] In extreme (rare!) cases, there could be the following:

Revelation or extreme personal change; disorientation; personal crisis.

E. Illustrations of transcendental experience in music

[1]  Glenn Gould performing Beethoven Piano Sonata  #31 Op. 110 , final movement
This performance will probably stimulate a rich transcendental experience for the reader, also we can see how Gould responds to the music.

[2]  Sergiu Celibidache conducts Ravel Bolero (1971)
This performance will probably stimulate a rich transcendental experience for the reader, also we can see how Celibidache responds to the music.

[3]  Keith Jarrett + Miles Davis (1970)
This clip begins with some narrative by Keith Jarrett where he tries to describe the state that he and Miles Davis were in when performing.
I don’t take the narrative literally, but it does help to convey the transcendental aspects of the performance both for listener and musicians.

[4]  The Beatles: Strawberry Fields
Transcendental ! (Suggestion: As you listen, think of the lyrics as your guide through the song …)

[5]  Opening to Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra: from movie 2001 A Space Odyssey        OR
Opening to Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra: Dudamel, Berlin Philharmonic
One of the greatest Genesis effects, but transcendental in other ways as well.

F. Comments

The Transcendental Model is largely an adaptation from Bion’s concept of “O”. That concept is very rich (!!), and the present model could probably be extended and enriched by further consideration of “O”. If the reader would like to get acquainted with “O”, one good starting point would be James Grotstein’s paper .

A couple of advisories re “O”: First, it is not any kind of a simple concept, it deals with very difficult subject matter, it is difficult to grasp, and in fact it is probably not appropriate to try to “grasp” it in a conventional sense. Second: “O” has aspects that probably do not apply to music. For instance, one aspect of “O” is personal catastrophe (e.g. from physical trauma); and I think that an aspect like that has minimal relevance to music-experience.

In addition to “O”,  the Transcendental Model uses concepts from the subject of Mindfulness Meditation.


1. For our purposes, a “model” is a “simplified, somewhat schematic representation of whatever we are trying to understand”.  (When a subject is too complex to think about directly, sometimes a model is helpful.)