Music and Truth

ausomeawestin posted a really interesting entry on his blog last week that made me think about the nature of music and whether it can be understood as something that discloses truths. This is a question that I have struggled with for a long time, but I would like to give a preliminary sketch of how I think music reveals truths about the world and what we are. While my approach differs from ausomeawestin’s I would strongly recommend that anybody interested in this subject read his entry; as he makes a very interesting argument that is quite plausible.

As ausomeawstin points out music is not something that represents concrete objects in the world.  It is hard to think of what a musical equivalent of a man sitting at a desk writing a blog would be. Simply put, music does not present us with a concrete picture of the world. But if this is the case is music able to disclose any truth?

To describe how music might disclose truths we must first distinguish different ways of listening to music. Typically when we listen to music we either have it on as background music, and pay little attention to it or find ourselves completely engrossed and absorbed in the music, such that it is the only thing we are conscious of. In the former case we are failing to pay attention to the music and so it cannot disclose or reveal anything to us, while the latter affords this opportunity because we are fully caught up in the music.

In addition, we might listen to music as a biologist dissects a fetal pig. In this approach to listening we listen to the music but not as an active participant absorbed in the music, but as an analyst who is breaking down the piece and trying to understand its constituent parts.  Let us call this “analytical listening,” and call the the approach to listening that involves being absorbed in the music “engaged listening.”Analytical listening can help us understand the nature of order and disorder and the place of these concepts in the world. On the other hand engaged listening can help to disclose a more fundamental fact about the nature of the self and so better help us understand our relation to independent objects in general.

When we listen to music analytically we are able to parse out and analyse the individual elements of music such as melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics. While all of these elements of music can reveal order and disorder, for the sake of this entry I will focus on harmony.

Dissonance and consonance are the fundamental basis of harmony. To explain the concepts of consonance and dissonance in a perhaps overly simple way consonant harmonies sound stable, at peace and pleasant, while dissonant harmonies sound unstable, ill at ease and primal. While a particular chord may not convey a particular emotion, the sound of the chord will typically either embody order or disorder. When I play C major chord on my guitar there is no sense from the sound that anything is out of order. Everything appears to be constant and is in its right place. On the contrary when I play a Cmin6 or better yet a C diminished chord it embodies disorder, and when I hear the sound of such chords it is as if the universe is breaking up while at once longing for reintegration. Consequently, through its use of dissonance and consonance music embodies order and disorder.

Consequently, analytically listening to music allows us to better understand order and disorder  as when we hear dissonance and consonance this further reinforces our understanding of order and disorder outside of music. For example, when we hear a minor chord calling out for resolution we  see the way in which reality is built between an interplay between disordered forces calling out for resolution, and ordered forces that tend to stabilize this disorder. Furthermore, as the listener begins to ponder order and disorder as fundamental constituents of reality they will see that just as the disordered diminished chord reaches out to resolve itself, so too do the disordered elements of the self reach out to find a form of unity or integration. My conflicting desires embody the reality of the dissonant harmony, as both conflict with one another, but yet somehow call for resolution.  As a result when we listen to music we gain a deeper understanding of order, and disorder and can better see how this conceptual distinction relates to the world and ourselves. Music thus illuminates and further enhances our understanding of order and disorder.

To move on to engaged listening, in some cases with this form of listening we transcend our sense of self, and so achieve a kind of union with the rest of reality. When I listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady or Agalloch’s The Mantle, I am not a listener detached from the music observing it as a science observes the processes of nature. Instead I am so caught up in the music that I am listening to that I lose track of my sense of self. In this state I am not a differentiated subject who stands apart from the rest of reality, but an unconscious, or perhaps pre-conscious participant in the unfolding of reality; in this context I am reunified with everything outside of myself.

When we analyse this experience of engaged listening it may seem that all we have here is a visceral experience of release or escape, but at the same time this experience shows us something important about ourselves and our relation to reality. What it shows us is that while we typically experience ourselves as independent subjects who stand over and opposed objects, that in another sense seeing ourselves as independent subjects does not tell the whole story. Instead this experience shows us that while from a certain perspective we may appear as purely independent subject we are also not wholly distinct parts of a singular reality in which every seemingly independent thing is integrated with everything else.  Consequently, through engaged listening we are able to see a different aspect of our relation to reality.

My analysis has only begun to scratch the surface of what music discloses and my thoughts may be entirely confused, but hopefully I have


Versatile Blogger Award

Thanks so much to Diotima’s Ladder for nominating me for the “Versatile Blogger Award.” I really appreciate it.

I cannot think of 15 blogs to nominate as I tend not to have the time to follow a ton of blogs. But here is a selection of blogs that I really appreciate that I would like to nominate for the “Versatile Blogger Award.”

1. Diotima’s Ladder

2. ausomeawstin

3. Dark Ecologies

4. The Renaissance Mathematicus

5. SelfAwarePatterns

6. bloggingisaresponsibility


Now, here are 7 facts about me. I am afraid they are not all that interesting.
1. Johan is not my real name; I just like the sound of it.
2. I have a very dark sense of humour, and have shocked people with it as I tend to come across as very quiet and reserved.
3. I really enjoy cooking without a recipe. There is just something exhilarating about trying to build a dish spontaneously.
4. I am a total music nerd. I can talk with people for many hours, about the distinctions between first and second wave Detroit Techno, as well as the changing sound of the modern post-metal scene. 😛
5. I am a craft beer aficionado. I even have a checklist of all of the styles of beer that currently exist. Out of 104 styles there are only 18 that I have left to try.
6. I meditate on a daily basis, and enjoy it.
7. I am very interested in the history of religion, despite the fact that I am not religious.

The Wire: Police, Politics, Public Safety and Statistics


Over the last while I have watched the first three seasons of The Wire. The show is fantastic in pretty much every way imaginable, but one thing that particularly struck me about the third season was the way the Baltimore police departments makes use of statistics to measure public safety. It seems to me that the third season of The Wire shows the way in which the statistics and analytics that are used by the police and state to measure public safety become more important and more real than the actual underlying reality that these statistics are supposed to measure and represent. When the metric become more important than the concrete reality that the metric tries to measure occurs we uncover a perverse situation in which the institutions that are set up to protect us are more concerned with achieving statistic goals than actually ensuring that people live in a safe and secure environment. There will be spoilers below so please if you have not seen the third season of The Wire and would like avoid these spoilers do not read on.

As the third season begins we see that the crime rate, and in particular the murder rate in Baltimore has risen, and that these rates are reaching a point that is unacceptable to the Mayor, Clarence Royce, and his administration. This leads the acting police commissioner Burrell, and other high ranking police officials such as Colonel Rawls to push their commanders to cut crime so that the statistics shed a more positive light on the Baltimore Police Department so that their jobs are more secure. When the police commanders seem hesitant to take steps to reduce their crime rate, Rawls essentially just says that the commanders need to do what needs to be done to bring down their crime rate. Nowhere is it suggested that we need to better ensure safety for the residents; rather the emphasis is on the statistics, as if they were a perfect barometer for safety of the inhabitants of Baltimore.

The third season of The Wire portrays that lowering the crime rate can be done in numerous ways, some of which generally help the community, while others have no necessary connection to it. For example, charging suspects for lesser offenses when they could be charged for greater ones, and turning a blind eye to crimes and not reporting them would both lower the crime rate but not necessarily augment public safety. Major Valchek is a representative of this approach to lowering the crime rate, as he quite bluntly says that they will find a way to make their crime rate look better whether it requires them to massage statistics or reclassifying crimes.
On the other hand we see one commander try to make his district safer. Major Howard Colvin takes the approach of creating free zones within his district where the police under his command will turn a blind eye to drug use and trafficking, and support needle exchanges, safe sex (condom distribution), drug treatment and also facilitate security among the dealers, by having police present to break up any squabbles that occur. These free zones are placed in areas where nearly no one lives to ensure that the crimes that occur do not affect the residents of his district. While the steps Colvin takes do bring down the crime rate drastically in his district, his approach also makes the residents of his district feel far more secure than they ever have, as the areas where they live are now not exposed to the violence and crime that seemed endemic to them. As would be expected when the upper brass finds out what Colvin has been doing, they are furious, and quite quickly shut down the free zones.

But what seems evident from the third season of the Wire is that there is a very stark difference between public safety, and the analytics that the Baltimore police department uses to measure its success. This is not to say that statistics could not be constructed that adequately track public safety, but that simply looking at the rate of crime does not indicate the safety of a community. Part of the meaning of public safety, is that people genuinely feel safe to move about in public space. Consequently, we must be mindful of the distinction between the actual reality of public safety and the metrics like the crime rate that we use to track it, as paying attention to the latter does not necessarily ensure the safety of residents of communities. And quite frankly it is horrifying for the police and institutions of the state to ignore the actual concrete reality of public safety, and focus only on the analytic that is used to measure their success.

This leads to a broader point that I would like to make about the use of statistics within the context of business, bureaucracy and other organizations. Often because of financial constraints and deadlines organizations are only able to construct very basic analytics to measure the success of their organizations as they do not have the time or money to develop rigorous analytics that more fully reflect reality. These basic analytics typically tell us something about the progress of the organization towards its goals, but they almost never tell us the whole story. Now, while it may be expedient to pretend that these analytics tell the story, but it is extraordinarily disingenuous and uncaring to do so, as merely focusing on the analytics ignores the fact that while we may be measured based upon analytics the impacts to people`s lives are not determined by analytics, but the concrete world that they find themselves in. If we want to take responsibility for our actions we must look past the flawed analytics that we typically must use in our working lives, to the concrete reality that we are trying to examine.

Some thoughts on free speech, the public sphere, inclusion and virtue

Often, when someone is ridiculed for publicly saying something that others deem offensive, the person who made the initial statement claims that they have freedom of speech and thus are being unduly criticized for their statements. The response to this is typically that while people have freedom of speech they are not free from criticism and ridicule for what they say. This final response reflects the libertarian conception of free speech in which each is free to speak freely, but must deal with the fact that others can criticize them for their speech.

The libertarian conception of free speech is very intuitive in that it suggests that each should have equal liberty to express themselves, while allowing a similar liberty for others.  But if we think about what a public sphere looks like that operates according to this libertarian conception we will see that the public sphere will never be a space where everyone will feel free to express all of their beliefs. If I hold beliefs that I know others find offensive I will not feel free to express these publicly in a public sphere operating according to the libertarian conception of free speech for fear of offending people and any further consequences that flow from that offense such as diminished career opportunities. This means that creating a public sphere that allows each to speak their mind freely will not necessarily create a public sphere in which each feels free to express their beliefs.

Now of course this does not mean that the libertarian conception of free speech is problematic; it just means that societal inclusion will not be completely fostered by adopting a libertarian conception of free speech as some will always fear condemnation from the majority, at least as long there is diversity of belief. The result of this is that it seems impossible to create a public sphere that is free in the sense that each can speak their mind without legal condemnation and one in which people feel free to speak their minds.  But there seems to be a yearning for a space in which we feel completely free to express ourselves. If the public sphere cannot provide this what space or spaces will?

My provisional answer is that the public sphere is not meant to be a space where we feel free to express our deepest convictions, but instead friendships, romantic relationships and other smaller communities, such as book clubs, sports teams and political associations, form these spaces. Having people who we can talk to about our deepest beliefs without fear of judgment is deeply important as it allows us to open up to others and have authentic, genuine conversations where we fully connect with another. But, the public sphere cannot provide this space to people as the diversity of opinion within the public sphere means that being fully open about one’s beliefs will always be a challenge for some.

However, while the public sphere cannot offer a space where all can feel free to express themselves, fear of the judgment and censure of others can negatively affect the public sphere, and the political community as a whole. if people are deeply afraid to express their beliefs,  because they fear they will be ostracized or isolated ,they will not feel included in the society, and will consequently be marginalized to some extent.  So we cannot just pretend that the idea that the private sphere offers the space in which we can feel free to express ourselves is completely adequate, as this would mean that we would be condoning marginalization and exclusion within the public sphere. To my mind the solution to this issue is not to try to limit speech as this would destroy the very core of freedom of speech. Instead, one strategy that allows us to limit the pernicious effects of fear of condemnation, isolation, and ostracism for the things that one says is the encouragement of particular virtues and the discouragement of particular vices in the citizenry as a whole.

The main virtues that need to be encouraged to deal with this issue are free spiritedness and courage. Free spiritedness allows us to see that our beliefs do not need the approval of others to be valid or valuable, and courage allows us to face our fears of condemnation. These two virtues thus allow us to more strongly speak up for what we believe in, rather than just trying to say what we know will please others, and a public sphere full of these kind of voices is better than one in which people avoid saying anything that may offend others.

Similarly, the vice that needs to be discouraged to deal with this issue of inclusion is fanaticism.  By fanaticism I mean the tendency to see your beliefs as the only reasonable set of beliefs that a person can hold, such that you wish to eliminate the influence and ostracize all of those who disagree with you. If this vice is avoided, or at the very least its influence is limited, this will allow people to feel more at ease expressing their deepest beliefs because while they know that others may deeply disagree with them, they do not have to fear being ostracized, or seen as someone whose influence is toxic to the public sphere. Even if fanaticism is discouraged and free spiritedness and courage are encouraged in this way this will not mean that people will feel entirely free to express their beliefs as some beliefs will undoubtedly offend many, but it should help to foster inclusion while still allowing all to freely express their opinions.