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

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