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The Experience of Music

This is a second blog post resulting from emails about music exchanged with my buddy Francis (the first one can be found here). I also felt compelled to write because of this recent fragment of conversation on Twitter with another collaborator and buddy, Dr. Laura-Jane Smith, concerning how one measures the efficacy or effect of an artistic encounter.

What follows are personal reflections. Please take them with a large pinch of salt. I'm merely creating a context in which you may think about music.

The video (by FinallyStudio) claims there are lots of ways to understand music because there are lots of aspects of music to consider (and you don't have to know about any of them to enjoy music). The evidence for this argument is all around us: people with no musical training enjoy music all the time. Be it listening to the radio, singing in the shower or picking out melodies on a self-taught instrument, music is somehow an innate part of the human experience, no matter your level of education.

Both Francis's emails and Laura-Jane's question about positivism struck me as overtly intellectual in outlook: there had to be some thing to be identified, processed and (in LJ's case) measured and interpreted. As Francis explained,

I think I'm *so bad* at this particular music, I'm just not noticing any patterns. My instinctive feeling is it is just a whiney, drifty noise.

In these two sentences Francis identifies the nub of the matter (and the title of this post): the experience of music.

How does music feel? What are the sensations that music arouses in you? What do you think when you encounter music?

When reading this post I want you to wonder about your raw, intuitive or instinctive reactions to music rather than any higher order thinking about music.


I believe there is a danger to over-think music.

As far as I can tell, there's no need to identify patterns to appreciate music that is otherwise unenjoyable. Perhaps the composer wanted to create whiney, drifty noise. Even if this is not the case, who's to say Francis's reaction is wrong? I find plenty of well loved music hard to enjoy (or even to listen to).

In the context of health, MRI scanners can't measure qualia to provide evidence of music's efficacy or influence. Surely, enjoyment of the sensation is evidence enough? (After all, from a utilitarian perspective, the net sum of "happiness" in the world grows because of music.) Nevertheless, I'm reminded of an episode of the BBC programme Imagine from 2008 where Alan Yentob subjected himself to an MRI scan while listening to music. Upon hearing Jessye Norman perform one of Strauss's Four Last Songs - music to which he acknowledged he had a special emotional attachment - his brain was suffused with blood. As one reviewer put it,

He listened to her and his mind blushed.

While the MRI scanner allowed viewers to watch Yentob's apparent physical reaction to Norman's performance it didn't give us a sense of Yentob's obvious emotional reaction (obvious because he talks about how the music makes him feel).

Furthermore, each of us has a different, very personal reaction to music. What may seem like a heavenly performance to one person is a turgid noise to another. The infant school recorder ensemble may bring tears to the eyes for very different reasons, depending on who is listening. Some people love to play certain pieces while others can't stand the thought of another damn performance.

Because of these reasons, attempting to pin down the experience of "music" feels like an impossible task.

Even generalisations don't work. For example, we may assert that music is just a particular sort of sound; but then we'd need to explain Beethoven's composition technique. His deafness forced him to compose his later works solely in his head - no actual sound was involved in the process despite it being fundamentally musical.

In fact, some musicians disagree with the sentiment that music is in some way a sub-set of sound. Take the renegade American composer Charles Ives who famously asked,

What has sound got to do with music!?

Ives believed that music is in some way the underlying "spirit" of the composer and (especially) the performer expressed through sound rather than the sound itself. An alternative way to answer his question is to claim that music is the feeling you get from sounds rather than the sounds themselves.

In some sense, it is rewarding to "understand" music and know what's going on. Discovering, interpreting and describing the conceptual world of music is an interesting, enhancing and intensifying experience. But there is a danger that we become distracted by such intellectual diversions in a similar way that one might become fixated by the form of a Sonnet while missing its meaning:

Silent Noon Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, -- The finger-points look through like rosy blooms: Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms 'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass. All round our nest, far as the eye can pass, Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge. 'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass. Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: -- So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above. Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower, This close-companioned inarticulate hour When twofold silence was the song of love.                            ~ Christina Rossetti

Rosetti's poem was beautifully set to music by Ralph Vaughan-Williams (my wife and I enjoy playing it together ~ me on piano, Mary on 'cello). Listen to the recording below; sit back, let the music and words wash over you.

I challenge you to be unmoved.