Surprising Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Jean Paul Sartre did not write much about music. Though music meant a great deal to him personally, he thought it almost foolish to spill ink on the subject. This is because music, in his evaluation, is too abstract to be considered real. Language can express non-linguistic reality; letters and syllables combine to describe things that exist in the world of experience. But music cannot, according to Sartre, express non-musical reality. Everything music says (or does not say) is confined to the music itself. We can, perhaps, make assertions about the physics or aesthetics of musical production, but it remains an indefinite, indefinable and substance-less phenomenon. Sartre even contended that we do not actually perceive music, but only imagine it.

The case for this claim is made in Sartre’s 1940 book, L’Imaginaire. In a brief and penetrating exposition on Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, he posits that the work does not exist in a material sense. Its essence is not in the silent symbolism of bar lines, notes, key signatures, dynamics or articulations. It is not found in any one performance, since all renditions are fundamentally new creations. In contrast to something empirically real—defined by Sartre as existing in the past, future and present—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Whatever lingering impact it may have in terms of thoughts, images, feelings or earworms, occurs solely in the mind.

Though probably overstated, Sartre’s position does rightfully address the immediacy of music. There is no permanence in musical performance. It is an ambiguous and subjective process involving musicians who translate sounds and listeners who interpret them. Whatever can be said to take place is momentary, passing and borderline metaphysical. We might hesitate to conclude that this means that music is a figment of our imagination. What is certain is that its evanescence contains an element of surprise.

Music tends to strike us suddenly and without forewarning. It does not change the physical condition of things, but reorients our mental-emotional state. For lack of a better term, it is like an auditory hit and run, catching us off guard without us catching it. This combination of immateriality and instantaneousness makes music an apt metaphor for surprise. “Being struck as if by a song” conveys a sudden sense of stupefaction. To cite one literary example, the Book of Joel uses a musical metaphor to evoke astonishment of a terrifying kind.

The biblical prophet Joel envisions a not-too-distant future when a plague of locusts is sent against humanity to administer God’s wrath. The locusts are unleashed specifically against the people of Judah, whose misbehavior has sent them to the brink of annihilation. Following the standard plotline of biblical prophecy, Judah can only be redeemed if it heeds Joel’s call, returns to righteousness, fasts and repents. This turbulent futurescape is presented without context. It is not set in any particular period and does not allude to any historical event or figure. Rather, it forecasts an impending yet indeterminate “day of the Lord,” in which the natural order will disintegrate and darkness will engulf the world.

Joel is clear that this horrible event is brewing, but is careful to withhold its date of arrival. This enhances the fear he seeks to instill. Fittingly, he uses military-musical imagery to illustrate the unexpectedness: “Blow the horn of Zion, sound an alarm on My holy mount! Let all dwellers on earth tremble, for the day of the Lord has come!” (2:1). Like the approaching blast of a trumpet of war, the dreadful day will come as an abrupt shock to the senses.

Sartre would likely endorse Joel’s reference to the horn of Zion. Both men were cognizant of how musical tones assault the ear, consume the imagination and alter our frame of mind. Sartre saw this as evidence of music’s unreality. Precisely because it is unseen, intangible, transient and outside the corporal plain of existence, music is uniquely capable of a swift and sneaky attack. As Joel’s imagery suggests, this elusiveness can lend itself to a kind of psychological warfare. Read more broadly, the passages from Sartre and Joel remind us that the entirety of music’s effect takes place in the mysterious territory of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

2 thoughts on “Surprising Sounds

  1. Michael Isaacson

    While I believe conceptually that pure music expresses its own reality, what Sartre and Dr. Friedmann fail to discuss is the ‘amalgam factor’. That is, once music is associated with a text or an image or a dramatic moment, your recall of those experiences combines the pure music with its companion stimulants to create a multi-levelled “amalgam” that does recall and make meanings from other former amalgamated experiences. So, when we hear drums we recall other moments when those drums were allied with words, pictures, or dramatic actions. in this regard, I seriously doubt, in the cognitive sense, if pure music ever existed.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      You are certainly correct, Michael, and I don’t think Sartre would disagree. The question is whether the “amalgam factor” is real or imagined. Associations are, after all, the work of the mind. As you know, this is an ongoing topic of debate.


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