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

13 thoughts on “Music and Truth

  1. A fascinating topic. Music is one of those arts that feels the most mysterious to me, especially when you get into a discussion about its meaning. Your thoughts don’t sound confused to me!

    I can somewhat think of music analytically, but since I have no background in music and can’t even read music, much of what others may find is lost on me. I play guitar, but I couldn’t even tell you the names of many of the chords I play because I never learned formally. Sometimes I’ll listen to a song and focus on individual parts, thinking of how it integrates into the whole. Other times I’ll imagine what else could be added (I love to make up backup vocals while I’m singing in the car) 🙂 But on the whole, I couldn’t tell you what’s going on. I think you’re right to focus on harmony and disorder as the most accessible way to analyze music. The non-musician can understand this.

    I’ve heard from my professional musician friends that analysis can sometimes kill the music for them. In fact, I’ve noticed that they almost never listen to music. They go to work teaching music all day, then listen to NPR or nothing on their commute home. Then at home, silence again. In order for them to feel some sense of magic about it all, they have to listen to stuff they can’t readily understand. So I wonder how much of this kind of analysis disturbs the expression of the music and how it’s absorbed. Much of what professionals listen to sounds too discordant for me and others in general.

    I wonder whether there must be some mystery about the music in order to lose that sense of self. Of course, the higher the knowledge, the more refined the tastes, so there’s an even greater appreciation of truly great art. But I wonder if that refined taste excludes a lot of what I like about music, which is not some cerebral affair…it’s an emotional connection, and often of simple things like being rejected, losing love, missing someone…actually, it’s usually about sex. 🙂 I confess I don’t really listen to music that changes my perception of reality. I listen to stuff that anyone can relate to.

    That said, I’m not saying here that what I listen to is better in any way…the last thing I would want to do is democratize things. I’m really not sure what should be deemed worthy and I’m certainly not in a position to say.

    • I agree that analysis can kill music in some situations. When a piece of music becomes just a series of frequencies played on particular tools (musical instrument) rather than something that is powerful, impenetrable yet captivating. So, I think I know what you are saying when you suggest that part of what allows one to get lost in a piece of music is the mysteriousness of the particular piece.

      Part of what I was trying to get at however was that we have some power over how we relate to objects, in this case musical objects.So while I do think analytically engaging with music can kill the mystery of it, I do not think this necessarily will happen. If we are open to receiving an object holistically and non-analytically music can return to being something we can be lost in even after we have broken it down analytically. So, I guess for me it is less of a matter of whether the music is mysterious, and more related to our ability to continue to view objects holistically after they have been broken down and analyzed.

      I really like music that anyone can relate to; even though I also like a lot of discordant “musician’s music.” In fact, I would say that the vast majority of music that I listen to, I listen to more from a perspective of emotional connection, or catharsis, but there are a handful of pieces of music that have been in some sense illuminating to me, and I was really writing about those pieces.

      That is cool that you play guitar. I also play guitar and bass.I used to teach guitar I cannot sightread very well at all; my understanding of theory is as much cerebral as it is practical. But I find it interesting that out of all of the music that I have written, the pieces that I like the best are those that were composed not from a theoretical mindset, but just spontaneously creating without any deep reflection. This might speak to a sense in which an analytical orientation is opposed to musical creativity.

      • Well I’m glad that you’re able to make that shift from analysis to enjoyment. I don’t really have this problem since I don’t know any music theory, although I notice that when I learn how to play a song on the guitar, that song is sometimes less interesting to listen to afterwards. That could be for many reasons, though.

        If you taught guitar you must be pretty good. How did you learn how to play? How long have you been playing?

        I can’t read music at all for guitar. I read tabs and piece it together by ear (because the tabs online are almost always wrong). I have to say, I’m thankful I didn’t have internet when I as in middle school, otherwise I might not even be able to read tabs. I would have watched YouTube videos more than likely. Back then my only recourse was to go to the grocery store to look for Guitar World magazine…I would hope for a Led Zeppelin song, although I usually ended up with Metallica.

        You should share some of your music on your blog! I’d love to hear it.

      • Sorry for taking so long to respond; I have been very busy over the last week.

        I learned to play mainly through taking music lessons as a teenager, but I also have learned a lot from fellow musician friends. How did you learn to play?

        I might share some of my music at some point. The trouble is that I suffer from crippling perfectionism with regard to my music, so I tend to be reluctant to share my music.

      • Ah, perfectionism. Well, I’d love to hear it. Remember, most people aren’t going to be as picky as you are! I posted some crappy covers which I recorded on my iPod, and I promise, it wasn’t the end of the world. 🙂 That lack of inhibition might have something to do with my love of karaoke.

        I learned to play in middle school. I’m self-taught (using tabs, not reading music) and I never got far, but good enough to have fun. I did a lot of learning over the phone. Being so young, I couldn’t just get in the car and drive over to my friend’s house, so we would call each other and teach each other songs over the phone. I can’t believe how much concentration I had back then. It usually turned out that one or the other of us had the tabs to some song we wanted to learn, so we’d spend forever telling each other, “Index finger, 1st fret”…etc. I believe I taught him Stairway to Heaven this way, solo and all. Then he proceeded to play it better than I could. 🙂

        This guy is still my best friend. He ended up majoring in music…he has a natural ability like I’ve never seen. Now he and his musician friends talk in a language that’s absolutely foreign to me. But he remembers the way we used to learn and he’ll teach me things the old slow way. (Usually he’ll just hold the chord and I’ll look at his fingers to figure it out.) The funny thing is he doesn’t know any songs by heart anymore. So if we play something, he has to have the music in front of him and even if he doesn’t know the song, he can sight read like nobody’s business.

        Well, as you can probably tell by now, I’ve gone off on a tangent because I’m very proud of him. 🙂

      • Your friend sounds like an awesome musician. I will say that I don’t know any song off by heart anymore as i tend to experiment and come up with my own ideas rather than trying to learn others songs. I can’t sight read very well at all myself, and I admire anyone who can. While I understand what notes I am playing I never developed the ability to read them off sheet music.

        I have not recording equipment set up for a few years so I don’t have anything too recent in terms of music to share but at the first link I have something I recorded a few ago. The recording quality is not great, but I think the piece is interesting. At the second link I have the album I recorded as part of a band in High School.

      • Thanks for listening.

        I would be interested in hearing any song you have written if you would be willing to share it.

        No, I am not in a band at the moment. I want to find a group of musicians to jam with, even if we never play shows, but I struggle with finding musicians in my city that are open to playing an eclectic mix of styles of music.

      • I loved it! You’re really good…I imagine it would be easy for you to find musicians, but maybe not as good as you are.

        I kind of stopped playing in college, then I took it up recently. I just play cover songs. I used to write songs a long time ago, but the lyrics were awful. I got to listen to these old songs not too long ago when I went back to OKC and my friend pulled out a tape. We spent a long time looking for a tape player and ended up listening to it in my mother’s car. The music was actually not bad and I think I was a better guitarist then, at 15. But the lyrics were spectacularly awful. We had a good laugh. There was a pretty neat version of Led Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” though.

        Here’s some stuff I posted recently. I recorded on my iPod with no equipment and the sound is atrocious (so is my singing, but I wasn’t about to spend much time on perfecting that). So let’s call it karaoke except I’m playing the guitar. This will certainly make you feel more confident about posting your music:

      • I really enjoyed your covers. You play the guitar quite well, and you have a very good voice. I hate my singing voice. I can sing fairly on key, but the sound of my voice really annoys me.

        In my mind I would say I am a better composer than a guitarist. My biggest issue with finding musicians is that I struggle with finding other musicians is that my chemistry with the people in Gone Savage was excellent, and in jamming with others I have never reached that level.

        I never managed to write lyrics that I was proud of. I helped write some of the lyrics in “Gone Savage” but when I hear them now I find them pretty awful. So I think it is common to be very critical of the lyrics that you write, especially as a teenager.

      • Thanks. I don’t mind my voice, but when I hear a recording, all I hear are the mistakes and it all sounds horribly pitchy. I thought about taking voice lessons, but there are just too many other things going on. Besides, if anything I’d probably take piano or guitar lessons and finally learn how to read music.

        I like the idea of playing with others, but I haven’t really tried. In my writing group, sometimes we’ll do a karaoke theme which inevitably turns into a sort of hootenanny with three guitars, a washboard, and a tambourine. We all butcher the hell out of popular songs, but it’s fun. That’s about the extent of my playing with others. I’d really like a male vocalist to do duets with. I love singing backup, actually.

        Is there no way you can get back together with your Gone Savage group? Maybe a little reunion? There’s nothing like that chemistry. I never found it really, so I always ended up playing coffee shops by myself. In fact, this was the main reason I started singing—my guitar skills are not really interesting alone, and if I was gonna go my own way, I needed to sing.

        Sounds like we both need someone else to write our lyrics for us. I would love that, actually. I have no problem coming up with the music.

        It’s a rare thing to find that magic group. I hope you find it again!

      • Singing backup is a lot of fun indeed.

        I might be able to track down the former members of Gone Savage to jam at some point, and I certainly think that is an option worth pursuing. 🙂

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