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.

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Do External Incentives Degrade Intrinsically Worthwhile Activities?

There are many things that are worth doing on their own account, and not because of the consequences they produce. However, in a society in which there is a desire for meaningful work there is a temptation to try to take those intrinsically valuable pursuits and translate them into career opportunities. For example, someone who is drawn to the intrinsically valuable pursuit of journalism may want to try to turn journalism into a career. If this person could not cut it as a journalist they would still pursue the practise of journalistic writing on their own time, as this activity is its own reward and it does not need an external monetary, or non-monetary incentive, to draw people towards its practise. This temptation to turn intrinsically worthwhile activities, which we are willing to do without external incentives, into a career is problematic, because in many cases these external incentives will degrade the value of the activity itself. This is not to suggest that no one should try to turn such activities into a career, but rather that the value of the activity will be lessened once the activity has been translated into a career.

The danger in the transformation of an intrinsically valuable practise that one is drawn to into a career is that the external incentives, monetary or non-monetary, may crowd out the values that the practise realizes. Let us consider the person who pursues a journalistic career because of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of journalism. This person does not worry about deadlines, and is a perfectionist because she wants to ensure that her works fully realize all the excellences of journalistic practise. She may be extolling the virtues of the ideal journalist, but as a careerist she fails because she is not attentive to the fact that in a job you are being paid not to fully realize the excellence of a practise, but meet particular deadlines and produce particular “deliverables.” Consequently, it seems, that at least in some cases, pursuing an intrinsically worthwhile activity as a career will require one to compromise the integrity of the practise in favour of imperatives that bear little connection to the excellences of the practise itself.

This example helps to clarify why the careerization of activities degrades their value. Once an activity has been made into a career the person engaging in the activity cannot focus on fully developing the excellences of the practise but must produce particular outputs at particular time. This is precisely why the demand that academics produce a particular amount of research over every year is so antithetical to the excellences of the activities of the life of the mind and research. If one is worried about having to produce so many academic articles every year, one will likely not be able to fully devote oneself to ensuring that the articles are of excellent quality. Often producing articles will merely be a process of meeting deadlines rather than ensuring that one’s research fully realizes the excellences inherent in research.

In this way those who have an opportunity to pursue an intrinsically valuable activity that they are drawn to as a career are faced with a daunting choice. On one hand, they are given an opportunity to earn an income pursuing something that is valuable and that they would engage in without external incentives. Surely, this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, they may have the sense that once this activity becomes a career they will not be able to fully devote themselves to realizing the excellence inherent in that activity. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether it is better to pursue a compromised version of an intrinsically worthwhile activity that is not attentive to the excellence inherent in that activity, or to pursue a career that may not involve an intrinsically valuable activity, but that does not involve the degradation of an intrinsically valuable activity.