Saturday, November 14, 2009

On the Musicalization of Thought: Do You Hear What I Hear?

I want to focus on the question of what music signifies. As Zuckerkandl reminds us, musical meaning is unlike any other kind of meaning, since it doesn't refer to anything else but the music to which it refers. Think about that one for a moment. The meaning of meaning is that one thing can refer to another. If it only refers to itself, that usually means that it is meaningless -- a tautology.

But the existence of music suggests that some types of meaning are intrinsic. They do not have to point to anything beyond themselves in order to be meaningful. Still, this is very weird, and needs to be reflected upon in order to be fully appreciated.

Zuckerkandl writes that "the word and its meaning are independent things. Here is the word -- a complex of sounds or signs; there is what it means. The two are separable; each exists by itself, the word without the thing, the thing without the word." This no doubt contributes to our common sense, default dualistic view of the world -- of thoughts and of things. What could be more obvious than the existence of these two very different worlds?

But again, the existence of music is a direct challenge, both to dualism and to any attempt to collapse one side of the dualism into the other -- to either reduce information to matter, on the one hand, or matter to idea, on the other. In other words, music doesn't fit into either a materialistic or an idealistic metaphysic, for "when meaning sounds in a musical tone, a nonphysical force intangibly radiates from its physical conveyor."

Clearly, "the musical significance in the tone is of a nonmaterial nature." However, unlike the word -- which points to something else -- the significance of the tone cannot be separated from itself: "The acoustical event and its musical meaning are in no sense two independent phenomena, existing by themselves. They cannot be imagined separate." Oddly, "tones must themselves create what they mean" by "pointing into themselves." It seems to me that this "inward pointing" is the key.

Zuckerkandl only touches on the potential religious significance of this mystery. For example, he writes that "we find a similar kind of 'being in' in the religious symbol. The symbol is the representation of a supernatural -- that is, physically indemonstrable -- force in a material form."

One immediately thinks of icons, which are a kind of transparent membrane through which divine energies flow back and forth -- or in and out, down and up. We can look "in" toward the divine, while the divine radiates out toward us. Transfered to the plane of music, you could say that the icon is simultaneously speaker and microphone, a two-way vibrating membrane, depending upon which way you look at it.

You could even say that the icon -- or host, for that matter -- is not a symbol, but an unsymbol, that is, an existential reality that nevertheless isn't merely what it is. It points, but like music, it points further into itself. Zuckerkandl seems to understand this connection: "The religious symbol is not a sign that merely indicates the divine being to the believer" -- again, in the manner that a word refers to a thing.

Rather, "the deity is directly present in the symbol, is one with it, and is also directly beheld in the symbol by the believer." The symbol doesn't cause one to have a "thought" of God; rather, it provokes a kind of merger with him, in the same way one merges with music. When we listen to music, we become one with it. If we can't "get into" the music, then we haven't really heard it at all. Rather, we have only bounced off its exterior -- or vice versa.

Thus, just as music reveals immaterial forces, so too does the religious symbol manifest transcendent forces in a material medium. And just as the tune deaf individual hears the notes but not the melody, the spiritually autistic soul sees the religious symbol, but not the forces it embodies and radiates. Zuckerkandl: "Do normal eyes suffice to see the god in the symbol? The believer sees him; the unbeliever sees nothing -- who is right? The believer himself says that the unbeliever can see nothing there. What does disbelief prove against belief?"

Note that in order to get deeply into a musical performance, it is not a matter of "belief." It is, however, a matter of faith, especially for challenging music that doesn't condescend to meet us where we are. For example, it took me many years of "practice" to (literally) "get into" modern jazz, and to hear what it was all about. In this regard, faith was an absolute prerequisite, in that I had to have faith that people with better ears than mine weren't lying, and that there really was a there there, even if it sounded like chaos to the uninitiated.

But through patient faith, I eventually found my way "in" to the music. Thus, I do not say that I "believe" in modern jazz. Rather, I would say that I now have access to the immaterial existential reality it conveys. If some musical philistine tells me that there really isn't anything there, what can I say to him? It's not as if you could use any kind of scientific instrument to prove to him that the musical reality actually exists.

That this reality is "not physically in the tones, that no instrument would register [its] presence, is no argument against [its] existence." Rather, "to him who opens himself without reservations to symbols, their meaning will gradually become clear of itself."

Bottom line -- or cadenza: "Because music exists, the tangible and visible cannot be the whole of the given world. The intangible and invisible is itself part of the world, something we encounter, something to which we respond."

27 Comments:

Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

I am so digging the jive that you're laying down on this refrain.

Razzamatazz Raccoon Riot would be a good name for the eventual musical band we'll be tempted to create here.

wv: prefixi; before music was, I AM

11/14/2009 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Mizz E said...

That this reality is "not physically in the tones, that no instrument would register [its] presence, is no argument against [its] existence." Rather, "to him who opens himself without reservations to symbols, their meaning will gradually become clear of itself."

Clear as Music Mountain Spring Water.

Love the reveal, Joan!

11/14/2009 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger robinstarfish said...

Bottom line -- or cadenza: "Because music exists, the tangible and visible cannot be the whole of the given world. The intangible and invisible is itself part of the world, something we encounter, something to which we respond."

Also grooving on the metamusical riffing, inspiring me to attempt a camera translation - World On A String.

I like the new pace. I can keep up.

11/14/2009 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...

Amazing how Bob took a break, then comes roaring back with some of the most riveting, challenging and refreshing posts yet. Bravo!

Re the religious implications of music, what does this say about fundamentalist Islam which has essentially banned music wholesale?

I would note that by no means do all Muslims agree with this.

11/14/2009 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger debass said...

It's not the notes that make jazz, but the rests (silence between the notes).

11/14/2009 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Link

11/14/2009 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger Mizz E said...

The river and its waves are one surf: where is the difference between the river and its waves?

When the wave rises, it is the water;
and when it falls, it is the same water again.


Tell me, Sir, where is the distinction?
Because it has been named as wave, shall it no longer be
considered as water?


Within the Supreme Brahma, the worlds are being told like beads:

Look upon that rosary with the eyes of wisdom.



-Kabir, Songs Of Kabir, XIV, translated by Rabindranath Tagore

11/14/2009 04:06:00 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

On Monday you ask, “HOW IS MUSIC EVEN POSSIBLE?!
Quite frankly, I’m still blown away that we can even reproduce music. Or rather, sound. As in a recording. I mean, why should we be able to do that?

RR

11/14/2009 06:55:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

It's even more difficult than you can imagine. Just today I was reviewing one of the best books I've read on the topic, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. Bottom line: music is impossible.

11/14/2009 07:01:00 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

I think it was the first time I saw a record album as a kid. And then looked at the grooves real close. And then the needle. And though, this can’t be this easy.

I think I understand the science of it well enough. In fact I think it’s more like, why is the science of it so simple. There are almost too many ways to reproduce sound.

11/14/2009 07:08:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Ever heard of the guy who can look at the grooves of a record and recognize the music?

11/14/2009 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Is this some kind of joke?!
:-)

11/14/2009 07:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Alice Cooper said...

Absolutely not.

11/14/2009 07:25:00 PM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

Now I know it’s possible to laugh while you’re crying.

11/14/2009 07:27:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

I'm reminded of the first time I listened to Athos (if it's in the store, I couldn't find it). I hadn't bothered looking at the song titles, the story simply revealed and reveiled itself, wordlessly as the word.

11/14/2009 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

Or rather, there are words, but since they're all Greek (?) to me they don't quite register...

11/14/2009 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...

The part about religious icons having properties like musical notes -- the meaning contained within the entity -- was a wholly new idea to me. Do you have any idea how unusual it is for a reasonably literate person to come across new ideas on the internet? Of course in wilting of my youth I was incapable of even apprehending the existence of such ideas. Just so.

11/15/2009 05:37:00 AM  
Blogger ge said...

MUSIC
=
MAGIC

especially when creating it

11/15/2009 06:05:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

NB--

They say the only new thing is the history one doesn't know. The theology of icons was worked out in parallel with reflections on the Incarnation itself, which is why icons transcend the law against graven images. To paraphrase one of the early Fathers, the honor paid to the image passes through and beyond to its living archetype, so it is indeed a kind of membrane between time and eternity, not a mere object.

11/15/2009 07:10:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"But the existence of music suggests that some types of meaning are intrinsic."

Is it music meaning... or object?

Not arguing with the post, but reading it popped up an ADD moment thought... let me try this from a different angle.

Rather than try to associate the tone as word/object meaning entwined, we could also say that while music doesn't fully escape the word/thing apparent dualism, it is almost uniquely able to 'stand' separate from it's label, both mentally, and 'physically'.

When I say 'Car', I think of a car, and when I look at the object that is my car, it's nearly impossible to not think of the word 'Car'.

For those of us who are not fully pitch perfect, I can look at sheet music and see the note "Middle C", and press the piano key for "C" and hear it... but someone else could press that same piano key, or any other, and I am able to hear that note, without the auto-association of the word "Middle C", or any other... at the risk of sounding kantian (makes quick hand gesture to ward off evil), with music, I am able to experience the thing in itself.

Listening to a melody, or a whole darn symphony, I know and experience the whole of it, and even while knowing that there is a musical 'language' guiding the symphony, and a name for that symphony, I am able in that experience to realize the existence of a separation between 'word' and 'object'.

And as discussed earlier in the week, I also extend my awareness to encompass the musical object across time, my experience is not only in the moment, or focused elsewhere, it is in the past, present and future, all at once, and I experience that - wordlessly.

Which has got to be something like a Bahama's Getaway vacation for the left brain! At what other time, except perhaps when dreaming, does it ever get left alone by us? I wonder how much of the experience we feel when listening to music, is the left brain functions experiencing complete relaxation?

11/15/2009 08:29:00 AM  
Blogger debass said...

Van,

Do you have perfect tempered pitch or can you also identify tones derived from just intonation ratios?

11/15/2009 08:40:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"The theology of icons was worked out in parallel with reflections on the Incarnation itself, which is why icons transcend the law against graven images. To paraphrase one of the early Fathers, the honor paid to the image passes through and beyond to its living archetype, so it is indeed a kind of membrane between time and eternity, not a mere object."

The entire structure which we learn to learn through words, meaning and hierarchies, relations which must be carefully, logically, tested and crafted, in order to allow the Words structural skyscraper of meaning to be expierenced by the person endeavoring to learn it. It can take a lifetime to fully Get any one particular idea.

The beauty of Poetry and Art, Iconic images, is that all the integrated associations conjured together through it, are transmitted to you, through contemplation of it... all are 'gotten' as One... but that can still take large expanses of time to learn and create those associations. The person off the street who see's such an Icon, doesn't even remotely see and experience the meanings which one familiar with it does.

With music, however, we experience all of the hierarchies, all of the relationships, all of the parts as being simultaneously of the whole, and the whole as One through it's parts - in an instant, an instant of extended time - and not as something out there, but as an out there, that has entered in here, and which erases the borders between subject and object, by virtue of its movement through us.

Another hyper-frontal lobe swirler of a post!

11/15/2009 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

Debass,

With a little repetition, I can get to the point of naming notes, octives, chords, etc, again. If I concentrate on it, I can identify what is being played by my mid-kid and his band.

There's a... feel... to the notes, and where they are, which I think is always there, rather than a normal word/object association - the feel is there (especially noticable when plucking a tune out of a guitar or piano... your fingers just don't want to touch that position (piano key, fret), but that One... which I can then remember to affix the letter/word for it to.

11/15/2009 08:58:00 AM  
Blogger xlbrl said...

I far prefer listening to a great song in a language I do not understand to listening in the one I do, because music is a great universal end and language is a device that is frequently its inferior.
It is curious that the most unmusical languages produce the greatest music, and the most tonaly dependent languages the least.

11/15/2009 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Djadja said...

Zuckerkandl writes that "the word and its meaning are independent things. Here is the word -- a complex of sounds or signs; there is what it means. The two are separable; each exists by itself, the word without the thing, the thing without the word."

But a word without an object is simply a series of compressions in the air — it is not a word. And an object without a word associated with it is a thing; it exists but without meaning. Without words to signify them, objects have no meaning, they simply are, and without objects, words are only sounds.

And like a melody, the meaning of words unfolds over time as they are strung together. It often amazes me that we have a built-in cache that gathers words as we hear or read them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to speak because we would be trying to gather meaning with each word. The function of grammar is to tell us how to hold the words and when enough of them have been strung together to create meaning.

Van’s comment about poetry, and some Beatle’s songs, shows an alternate way for meaning to be derived from words, “the integrated associations conjured together through it, are transmitted to you, through contemplation of it... all are 'gotten' as One...”

So while words normally unpack their meaning over time (in sentences), with poetry, they can unpack their meaning in a flash of insight, like a painting.

11/15/2009 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Anonymous said...

"word/object"

I think it may be worth noting that words do not only stand for things. When John uses the word Word I think it is more akin to a verb rather than a noun. Also, an expression using mere words can certainly mean more than one thing and with regard to Scripture, multiple things of perhaps infinite depth.

11/15/2009 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger debass said...

Van,

I was just curious. I have known musicians with perfect pitch. Some say it's a gift and some say it's a curse. I don't have it, but I have trained myself to have good relative pitch because of playing a non-fretted instrument, but I can't tell what pitch I'm hearing unless I have another pitch to relate it to.

11/15/2009 01:23:00 PM  

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