How can we understand music? What role should it play in our lives?

For many in postindustrial societies the enjoyment of music is a central element of a well-lived life. We speak of music in different ways. In one moment we see it as a release. In another, we see it as a pleasure. In another we see it as something to be understood. It is to the issue of understanding music that I wish to turn. Furthermore, I would like to examine music without lyrical content and ask if there is any meaningful sense in which such pieces of music can be grasped or understood. It may seem obvious that music can be understood, but on further thought understanding music gives rise to difficulties that do not arise in other forms of art such as painting or poetry. Music, on its own, is divorced from the medium of language, and because thought requires language it becomes difficult to think of how a sequence of melodies or harmonies can have any inherent linguistic meaning. Furthermore, unlike painting, music is divorced from visual representation, and while visual representation itself may not have any inherent relation to language, the visual representation of object seems to more easily align itself to linguistic meaning than sound. For example, if I see a picture of a person sitting in a chair with their dog, I automatically think that at least at a superficial level, the painting is about the pleasant relation of people to their pets, and perhaps this meaning relates to the human desire for domestic comfort. However, when I listen to “Claire de Lune” by Debussy I can only sense sadness, beauty, and fragility, but these terms themselves seem to conflict so what is the overall meaning of the piece? Is there an overall meaning of the piece? If the piece has no meaning, what does it mean to have an understanding of the piece? In this entry, I will try to reveal what it means to understand a piece of music.

When I listen to a piece of music in order to get an understanding of it, of any kind, I have to clear my mind of other thoughts. If I am occupied with thoughts, even thoughts about the music, I will hear the sound, but I will not be aware of it and how it fits into the whole. This means that to understand a piece of music I cannot analyse it as I am listening to it; I must fully engage myself with the music.

While I must fully engage myself with the music to get any understanding of its meaning, there is a danger in engaging in a way in which the self is utterly lost in the experience. This occurs when we listen to a piece of music and after the piece is over we have a very incomplete sense of all of the parts of the piece, but nonetheless we have found the piece enthralling or beautiful. This may be an extraordinarily pleasant experience, but it does not allow us to understand the music, as the subject is not fully consciously aware of the musical piece as a whole.

After listening to a piece of music and avoiding the dangers that were mentioned above we may get a vague sense of the meaning of the music. We might say that the piece is melancholic, dark and there is a sense of grief in the music, but it is difficult to see how we might be able to penetrate to a more articulate core of the meaning of the music. Consequently, it seems that the meaning of a piece of non-lyrical music at most can be disclosed to the listener in general terms that do not pertain to a particular problem or issue like the angst we experience regarding the inevitability of death. Further, while a musical piece may become associated with this particular meaning in a listener, there is nothing in the musical experience that renders this particular meaning as the only legitimate meaning of the piece. For another the piece may disclose the meaning of the grieving process.

As a result of the preceding the meaning of piece of music can only be articulated in general adjectives, rather than as something that discloses a particular issue, or a particular problem. We can understand the specific meaning the piece of music has to a particular subject, whether the subject is the composer or a listener, but if divorced from its relation to any particular subject, the meaning of the piece of music is only describable in terms of basic adjectives. In this sense, music does not disclose any particular thought, although it may bring to consciousness the particular concerns of the listener.

At this point, someone may be asking why this is an important topic at all? The reason this is an important topic is that many people see music as essential to their lives, and because of this we need to understand what these people are devoting their time to.

It seems to me there are three ways of listening to music. We can listen to understand the music. We can listen and lose ourselves in the music. Or we can listen to music while analysing it. The first option allows us to understand the meaning of a piece of music, and may encourage reflection upon our own lives as we relate the feelings that a piece of music evokes in us with particular experiences or issues. The second option provides us with a pleasant experience. The third option fails to disclose the meaning of music, but exercises our capacity for analysis.

When I reflect upon how I ordinarily listen to music I realize I tend to listen through the second method, or the first. I think most others will have similar tendencies, and if this is the case we have to question how much time we spend listening to music through the second method, because while pleasure has value, the pleasurable experience of losing oneself in a piece of music, does not create lasting fulfillment or enable us to live worthwhile lives. The visceral experience of the second method is like eating chocolate; it is an immediately pleasurable experience, but not one that would realize any substantial good in one’s life. So, we need to be sure not to build our lives upon listening to music through the second method.

The Love of Travel and the Relationship between Fortune and Happiness

Most people in post-industrial societies will espouse a love of travel; they desire to go to see faraway places and encounter unique authentic cultures. This love of travel in many cases expresses a genuine desire to understand what it means to be human, but in other cases it expresses a problematic dependency on circumstances outside of one’s control, for one’s happiness.

For many, travel is something that allows them to widen their perspective as they encounter artifacts of the past, and cultures distinct from their own. In these cases travel is surely an enriching force as it helps people to transcend their parochial perceptions of what the good is, and forces them to contemplate what is truly valuable. When directly encountered with a culture that does not value monetary success, the North American Yuppie is forced to question how important monetary success is in their life, and in some cases their current assumptions regarding what is valuable may further develop and grow because of their contact with the other culture.

On the other hand, for some, travel becomes so central to their lives, that they begin to live for travel, and are unhappy if they are not able to travel for an extended period of time. This is deeply problematic as it signifies that one’s happiness is dependent on one’s ability to travel. There are two particularly troubling aspects of this dependency on travel for happiness. Firstly, it reveals an excessive valuation of travel. While traveling is certainly a pleasant experience in the grand scheme of things we can live incredibly rich, fulfilling lives without traveling. Modern technology allows us to easily learn about other cultures and the past without travelling. Furthermore, if travel is valued by a person because it allows us to recharge, than we should be able to find other practises that allow us to recharge, and gather the energy necessary to take on the responsibilities of ordinary life. Travel does not provide us with anything that is fundamental to a well-lived life that we cannot get from other sources, and thus it makes little sense to be upset that we are unable to travel.

The second reason why a person’s dependency on travel is problematic is related to the first, although it is distinct. This second reason is that dependency on travel for happiness reveals an excessive dependency on factors outside of one’s control for one’s happiness. In Letters from a Stoic, the Roman Philosopher Seneca says we show the disorder of our souls when we perceive our happiness as dependent on circumstances outside of our control. For Seneca, a person with a well-ordered soul realizes there is no point in getting upset over circumstances that are out of their control and thus their happiness is unaffected by fortune. I certainly would not go as far as Seneca in saying that a slave can live as happy of a life as modern member of a post-industrial society, but Seneca is surely right to point out that making one’s happiness entirely dependent on factors outside of one’s control signifies a defect of character. A person with a well-ordered intellectual and emotional constitution will be able to be happy even when circumstances do not go in their favour. Consequently, making one’s happiness dependent on the ability to travel is deeply problematic as this makes one happiness dependent on something outside of one’s control, as the ability to travel is conditioned by one’s income and expenses, which despite the myths of rugged individualism, are substantially outside of the control of the agent. Therefore, the person whose happiness is dependent on being able to travel is displaying a vice that prevents them from being able to be happy when circumstances do not go in their favour.

I do not mean to denigrate those who love to travel. I love traveling myself, but when we make our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control we expose ourselves to being destroyed by the world. There certainly may be a danger of making our happiness dependent on sources that are not threatened by fortune, as certain important goods like friendship and love depend on making our happiness dependent on circumstances outside of our control, as loving someone, or developing a friendship, always risks the possibility of betrayal or rejection. But nonetheless I see more of a problem with making our happiness dependent on factors outside of our control in post-industrial societies, as we tend to connect our happiness with anything and everything that is outside of our control (technology, entertainment, income). Consequently many of us need to learn to make our happiness less dependent on such factors, when the goods in question are not particularly pertinent. Making our happiness dependent on eating particular kinds of food, watching a sitcom, or having the new IPhone, reveals not only that one has superficial priorities, but that one can be deeply damaged by a simple change in fortune.

The Fetishization of Quantification

The widespread use of programs like “Microsoft Project” indicates the degree to which the culture of advanced industrialized nations fetishizes quantification. In such nations as soon as something is quantified it becomes more reliable as a guide to judgment even if the process of quantification is absurd or arbitrary. For example, to return the example of “Microsoft Project,” it seems highly implausible to say that one can give an accurate percentage estimate of how far one has completed a particular task, or the percentage of Project A that are covered by Tasks X and Y. The use of these tools for planning is completely understandable as they provide a structure that enables people to more easily organize tasks, but the fact that these tools  are taken so seriously, and no one seems to question whether the quantification that is required by “Microsoft Project” can be performed in a non-arbitrary way reveals the fetishization of quantification. It begins to seem that as long as we quantify something, it is more reliable and less arbitrary than something that has not been quantified, no matter how absurd or arbitrary the process of quantification is.  

The question then arises as to why we have this attitude? One plausible explanation is that numbers taken in abstraction to how they have been gathered seem much more reliable than personal judgment. For example two bags of flour may seem equally heavy to me after I have lifted each one, but when I weigh them I realize that one is indeed far heavier than the other.  The problem with this attitude is that while there are certainly places where quantification is beneficial, quantification in and of itself does not separate us from personal judgment. Rather quantification throws personal judgment one step back into the background.  For example, when judging whether one can quantify something we always have to ask if we can reliably and non-arbitrarily translate this thing into a numeric value without missing something important about what is trying to be measured.  So even when quantification is prudent and sensible, quantification requires judgment, just as all human activities require personal judgment. So by quantifying something we do not necessarily increase our objectivity, or the reliability of the information that is being conveyed. 

It may be obvious to say that a quantified measurement involves as much judgment as a non-quantified judgment, but most people will react much more positively to something that is quantified, than something that is apparently a personal judgment of an individual, despite the fact that all quantification involves judgment, while being one step removed from that judgment. This indicates that many have a bias towards the quantified,   because it seems somehow more reliable than what is not quantified.  Consequently we seem to fetishize quantification as we seem to think that quantifying something somehow makes it more reliable while being unable to explain how it make something more reliable or non-arbitrary. Therefore, the problem with the fetishization of quantification is that it blinds us to the importance of the centrality of judgment to human life and if we are blinded to this facet of human life we will never understand ourselves or others, we will merely know facts. Of course we will be making judgments, but we will be doing so without a reflective consciousness of the fact that we are making such judgments.