Musings on Music

So, the perennial question: Why do we care about music? Why do we take pleasure in it, and why do we find ourselves emotionally moved by it – not quite the same question, I think.

Of course there’s all kinds of music. There’s music with words, and music without; music with action (opera and dance) and music without; music that arouses childhood associations and music we’ve never heard before. There’s music made by human voices and music made by strings and acoustic resonators (clarinets, horns, organ pipes) and music made by things you hit with a hammer, like bells and piano wires.

There’s orgasmic music and intellectual music. The Wall of Sound and the quiet string quartet.

Amid all this variety, is there even a single thing we can call “music”? Aren’t there perhaps as many reasons for liking music as there are kinds of music? Or – reductio ad absurdum of this straw man – as many reasons for liking music as there are musical compositions or performances?

Then there are cultural complications. Even in European music, the idea that the minor mode is somehow “sad” is a pretty recent development, and even in Europe, there used to be a good many more modes, each with its own affect (if you believe the theorists, and you probably shouldn’t). Even now, you can hear these older modes if you visit a monastery that cultivates the traditional observances.

Go farther afield and you find music with intervals that European ears can’t even hear; music based on repetition with almost inaudible variation (but the variation seems to be important). Music that doesn’t have a scale, supposedly, and consists of pure rhythm; though to my ears most percussion instruments have something that it’s not too crazy to call “pitch”.

Broadly, all music, I’d suggest, takes place, on the surface at least, in two dimensions: The dimension of frequencies (pitch and timbre) and the dimension of time (rhythm and tempo). Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one could say the same thing of most human speech, though sign languages replace frequency with position in physical space.

I’m an amateur musician myself – not very good, but I do plug away at it, and take a lot of that weird pleasure in it, which we’re trying to explain. And many moons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I studied linguistics. So perhaps it’s natural that I might want to look at both domains of experience in some kind of unified or at least connected perspective.

People often speak of the “argument” or “logic” or “rhetoric” of a piece of music. I had a teacher who insisted on the importance of “gesture” in performance. He didn’t mean histrionics on the piano bench, or the oratorio singer’s broad oratorical arm-sweep; he meant little details of the music, details smaller than the phrase; trills, appoggiature, little perturbations of tempo, conventional melodic figurations when the cadence draweth nigh. His analogy was a person speaking, and making gestures in the ordinary sense of the word: raising a finger to emphasize something important, brushing aside an irrelevant consideration with a testy little hand-wave. His pedagogical point was that just as such ordinary gestures might seem wooden or fluent, contrived or sincere, excessive or inhibited or, like Baby Bear’s bed, Just Right; so with gestures in music.

All this seems to add up to some long-recognized affinity between music and discourse. Long recognized but difficult to define.

One obvious problem is that while discourse has meaning (“cold day today” is either a true observation or not) and generally some interpersonal purpose (to persuade or at least to convey a thought or experience) it’s not clear how either of these essential aspects of discourse applies to music. Yes, there’s music with words; but the music brings something to the party that the words themselves don’t – or why bother?

And yes, there’s tone-painting, an idea beloved of European Renaissance and Baroque theorists – the music supposedly depicts what the words mean. Handel is yer man for this stuff; to take a well-known example, the chorus “All we like sheep” from Messiah. And it is lots of fun, a total romp really, but it also feels a bit like getting an in-joke, and doesn’t really go very far to account for why the music ravishes us away. And even in Handel, some of the most powerful stuff isn’t tone-painting at all; consider another great chorus, “For unto us a child is born”. The initial declamation is foursquare four/four; if you want to be allegorical, the doctor announces, It’s a boy; and then the thing erupts in ecstatic fioriture on the word “born”, which don’t seem to depict anything I have ever observed or heard tell of about childbirth.

And then there’s the stuff without words. Take the Brandenburgs — and then take them again, and again; you’ll never get to the end of them. B Five, the big harpsi solo, totally manipulative in old Johann’s characteristic way; oh let’s just modulate a few times, the good old circle of fifths, amazing how well that still works, though Corelli beat it to death; and then there’s a dramatic, gestural cadence; and then that rather flat-footed Vivaldian main theme again, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Oh how he made us want it!

And then there’s B6. Why, how, is the rondeau obviously about leave-taking? But this gets me a bit ahead of myself. Let’s leave B6 and the rondeau for a moment and go speculate.

My speculation: We have an inborn syntax and logic and rhetoric thing in our heads and we usually have it in harness, serving our discursive/rhetorical/persuasive social requirements. But it’s a faculty of its own, a capacity our brains developed, and like old Dobbin the cart horse, unhitched from the cart and free to run in the fields, it loves to just stretch its limbs without the burden of meaning. Syntax escapes its bondage to semantics, kicks over the traces, and runs wild.

Why do we enjoy this? Isn’t it a bit dangerous? Well, yes, it is, and lots of social-controllers over the years have had their doubts about it. The dangers of music are a favorite theme of prudes.

Isn’t the exercise of all our capacities intrinsically pleasurable? Don’t we like to flex the arm, see and feel the muscle move under the skin? Even if there’s no particular immediate need to do so. To get a bit Freudian about it – in a good way – we have a cathexis in our faculties, an emotional or even erotic investment in all the things we can do, and it’s not arms-length either. The payoff is immediate. It comes right with the flex. It doesn’t take a detour through self-regard or self-conception. It’s right there.

So I might stop there. But I think there are other elements too, especially the element of feeling as distinct from pleasure. and so I’ll tell you a mescaline story.

I’ve always loved Bach’s Art of the Fugue (KdF), which has a rep as the dryest, most intellectual music ever written. I personally think this rep is absurdly undeserved and I find KdF deeply moving, for some of the reasons I’ve tried to suggest here. But the present story is about 20-year-old me, in college, in the late 60s, and taking a lot of drugs, as we all did. Most of the dope was pretty bad, and I finally gave it up for that reason, but on the night I’m remembering here, I got something represented as mescaline which actually turned out to be the real deal, and I was a very happy man.

Wandering around the campus, I found myself outside another student’s room, and he was playing KdF on what we quaintly called, in those days, his “stereo”. He had a good setup and the music sounded great. I must have stood there for half an hour, rapt. But what I mostly remember are the hallucinations: all those writhing voices, bass and tenor and alto, became mighty sea serpents and Leviathans, intertwining and then parting, giving a curious twist with a double-sharp; majestic, utterly inhuman creatures, not malign but completely themselves, without the least regard for me, playing in depths I could never hope to fathom. Yet I could glimpse, and admire – or no, that’s feeble; not admire, but adore. So somehow, as the poet says, one deep calleth to another.

I’ve thought about it a lot, since then, and the feeble (perhaps obvious) conclusion I’ve come to is that our brains have no watertight compartments. Intellection and emotion flicker simultaneously over the same flesh, and music, if you’re receptive enough, can bypass our usual instrumental-reason filters (“What’s this in aid of? What’s it for?”) and get them both going in some kind of unsuspected pre-ordained harmony. And music can even evoke real brain-stem stuff, the part of us that recognizes a snake without thinking.

And also the part that has always seen a snake as a fearsome yet thrilling envoy from the Underworld.

5 thoughts on “Musings on Music

  1. “il y a un autre bonheur…il y a un autre temps.”
    “Ce qui vient d’arriver, c’est que La Nausee a disparu.”
    “Mon Dieu! C’est ca surtout qui a change, ce sont mes gestes…il m’ a semble que je dansais.” (Sartre’s Roquentin, listening to some jazz in his local bar. it’s a great passage. next stop: Nausea goes to the movies.)

    animals don’t live on machine time. we are seeking escape from the tempo of our lives; breaking its rhythm to find some harmony. This is a big theme in “4 quartets”, and our lives are now even more…inbalanced doesn’t begin to cover it, as we not only expect our bodies to act as machines but our minds to act as computers (powered by piles of nuclear bullshit). we have a different relationship to “the flesh” through this physical activity, called “music”. (not that any music can compare with hearing 30,000 vets perform “Rolling Thunder: Wind Symphony for Motorcycle” in a Memorial Day concert in the Pentagon parking lot.)

    didn’t Scriabin do some thing in the Himalayas to try to get the mother ship to come back or usher in the age of aquarius or whatever? if we could just get the performance to harmonize, the setting, costumes, lighting, etc., reality would come bursting in. was he nuts? got carried away by the idealism in music?

    music provides one possibility of a repetition and reenactment which is also an elevation. tell the same story, but put it in a song and just how noble can one make, e.g., death by tuberculosis?

    one instance of musical translation, itself a repetition and variation, of Scarlatti’s K380 sonata. I first heard this from V. Horowitz on modern piano, then harpsichord, then guitar performances.

    and the performance itself is a trial. the young woman singing at the finale of “Paths of Glory”.

    btw, it sounds like you’ve been considering or at least thinking along some similar lines as Bernstein in his “Norton Lectures.”

    lastly for now, cuz where to stop, we should not underestimate music as a companion on the journey. Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again on My Own” has given me some give laughs in some dark alleys in life. they can play it when they flip the switch at my execution.

    Grim Reaper gets the chair. our age’s “death be not proud”

  2. I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s similar observation about “games”, essentially (ha) that there’s no Platonic “game” universal, but rather a diverse collection of stuff to which we apply the term. And yet, we more or less know a game when we see it, and our judgements more or less coincide.

    In songs with words, or musical settings of poetry, are the words essential to the music? The sense of them, I mean, not just the pitch & rhythm of the words. Or is the word-sense extraneous? Likewise dance, I suppose.

    …in those days.

    • In music with words, the words make quite a difference to me. Last Sunday my church choir sang a fine old Welsh tune I relish greatly, but with new insipid lyrics by some well-meaning poetaster. Terrible experience.

      • I would say so, sound and sense both. (Jean’s choir director suggested changing “O Lord hear my prayer” to “O Earth…”. Suggestion rejected, I’m happy to report.)

        • You see this among old Vermont hippies. They love singing shape-note hymns but they can’t stand the words. So they substitute “life” for “God” or some such feeble shit. To say the least, this seems like a failure of imagination.

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