A First Comment On Perceiving Music


This writing, like others recently, had been planned for quite a long time but was not deemed urgent, so that it was constantly kept on a list of pending concepts to elaborate upon.  Like those other writings, this discussion has been brought to the fore as a result of observing consistently deficient communication becoming ground for misunderstandings escalating beyond my own imagination.  I do not care for the opinions of the majority, but I take the removal of an obstacle in the way of sincere and well-meaning interaction with an honoured and respected counterpart as a personal necessity, because it stands in the way of my own growth.

In the past, my policy when writing and criticizing music has always been to write for those who understand and those who wish to learn, as I myself have striven to, and still do.  What is meant is that, in general, I will make little to no effort at all to go out of my way to convince anyone of the worth of my analyses, for those with the capacity for logical thinking and careful consideration will find valuable information and food for thought therein, though they will not necessarily agree with me.  This is not a position I take with the pretense of embodying supreme authority, but rather someone who has acquired a certain degree of insight that does not seem to be part of the common knowledge of even the average professional and trained musician himself.

“Music is not an abstraction.”

–A. E. H.

The assertion just made is not made lightly, nor is it caused by the silence of the musicians in question.  It comes from a couple of years worth of reading in books and listening to people, both with widely different opinions of what music is and how it is perceived.  I would not consider the topic an urgent matter were it not for the fact that there is an immense gulf between those who base their judgement of a work of music on purely theoretical and traditional bases from particular points of view, and those who attempt to do it from a purely intuitive point of view without attempting to receive more knowledge.  The first can be compared to those who judge works of literature on the basis of their dead functional components and a petrified theory of style.  The second to a person who is trying to gain deeper appreciation and understanding of literature but is unwilling to learn more vocabulary and idioms in order to relate them within a context to find the closest meaning in our own terms (for language, even spoken and written, is a complex thing and not at all precise).

Therefore, I shall proceed to provide a brief explanation on the basic ideas which I have arrived at after half a life of  meditative listening, followed by a few years music practice based on the study of theory and of actual music (including death and black metal), amateur performance, the exploration of the history of Western music.  Fruitful discussions with knowledgeable people that approach the issue from different angles and experiences have also greatly aided this personal effort.  The related subjects can and have filled entire volumes just on aspects and interpretations on the matter.  But I will aim at what I think are the important and practical aspects as per my limited knowledge.

I. Cultural Context

Culture is meant as the compilation of explicit and implicit traditions, the communication they contain beyond the verbal, and which arise naturally from an impersonal and unending process of clash and consensus within groups of people.  In any group, culture reflects deep ideological roots that may be influenced by the thought of potent individuals but that is ultimately the reflection of a complex evolved group sentiment containing embedded and obscure attitudes intertwined with genetics and environment.  These conditions give rise to language in its elusive glory, and to art, which is a form of communication as well, more given to subconscious processing and the stimulation of sensations than to rational discussion.

Thus, culture gives rise to art –to music, and it does not exist in a void.  A friend, Mr. A.E.H., neatly put it in a short phrase that has surely been uttered before: “music is not an abstraction”.  Music must be experienced in a particular setting, a certain mindset, for the non-verbal, aural message to be delivered successfully.  Whether this is achieved through conscious rationalization or unconscious reaction is not important, but the activation of an aural perception that leads intuition to the right places must happen.

Music theory is not a compendium of arbitrary formulas, but a collection of observations made from the study of patterns of organization in moving and emotionally stirring works of music art.

Now, one of the implications of this is that musical style cannot be invented or reformulated from one day to the next –not if it is to maintain its inner meaning.  This is the same way in which ancient symbols that survive to this day work: they have been shaped and reshaped by conscious and unconscious dispositions so that they speak to humans through their own very nature on the one hand, and through generations of cultural build up.  Another important implication is that art in general is closely related to an ideology, through its very aesthetic and not acquired by superimposition.  Hence, the tags National Socialist Black Metal or Pagan Metal are absolutely meaningless in musical terms insofar as they pertain lyrical content and not a naturally evolved aural language.  Black metal itself, however, is a separate musical genre, whose structures in function and usage of “musical idioms”, so to speak, can be identified.  Implying in the latter case that, on the level of differentiated musical expression itself, a music is or isn’t black metal independently of what the band “thinks” or “identifies with”.

Furthermore, the fact that structures of thought, verbal language and even music form naturally (without anyone trying to purposely change the rules of the game but rather by an invisible “divine” hand) and evolve through time across countless human generations in accordance with changing lifestyle and accumulated knowledge, makes it possible, though difficult, to trace this evolution when there are records.  In finding these patterns, a theory of its workings leading to heightened perception may be produced.

II. Music Theory

What we know today as music theory is often associated with a stratum of scholars and pompous performers who live off the glory of real artists dead several hundred years ago.  Taught in this petrified state to children, it is often turned, when packaged for the education of the masses, into formulae and guidelines to be followed to quickly assemble a working body that sounds consonant by copy pasting the broad strokes of intuitively designed masterpieces of the past.  Such vulgarization is what we see rehashed through the pandering of common rock music, and it is the go-to do-it-yourself easy table for pop “musicians”.

But this was not always so, and there was a time when that theory was a dynamic tradition that had slowly risen to rational perception.  Music theory was not a compendium of arbitrary formulas, but a collection of observations made from the study of patterns of organization in moving and emotionally stirring works of music art. It was fruitful when it was used in the service of holistic art, but it instantly killed something when used for completely subjecting spirit to form.

III.  The Bridge

The natural subconscious movements which keep giving rise to living non-static art, and the dead but useful abstractions found in music theory, can and should be united thoroughly.  It is only with the modern era that everything has become clinically separated, it is the first time in the story of mankind when what we today know as science and art are seen as separate and even mutually exclusive.  It was not always so, and in times of glory, they were understood as parts of a sacred whole.  It may be the first time in history that humans have developed such an elaborate theory of music and upon it a living tradition of towering masterpieces that finally crumbled in self-consumption towards the middle of the 19th century.

A significant theorist to propose a semi-systematic unification between experience and theoretical abstraction towards one holistic interpretation was Arnold Bernhard Marx.  He did not, like others, attempt to analyze frequencies and the extremes of physically detectable (at the time) sounds in order to reduce music to solid modern science like physics or chemistry.  Instead, he carried on the old empirical spirit that wished to discover in the relatively free and rebellious music (such as Beethoven’s) the patterns that elevated the spirit and stirred the soul.  This was an enterprise in complete alignment with the famous and overused, but seldom understood in its total implications, esoteric maxim As above, so below.

If a piece of music truly is great in the sense of inherently containing the power to move the mind far away, to provoke deep feelings, then a counterpart will be found in the concrete musical structures.  However, this becomes obfuscated with complicated humans that already contain within themselves complex ideas which they project towards the objects they perceive, including music.  To separate this superimposed perception from the inherent properties of the music is the task of building a constructive observation of traditions and patterns within the music itself in function of its emotional and aural reception by humans.

2 comments on “A First Comment On Perceiving Music”

  1. Pingback: Outliers (#24)

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