Sound Science

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The Book of Ezra chronicles the return from the Babylonian exile and restoration of Jerusalem. The sacrificial system is recommenced, the priesthood reinstated and the Temple reconstructed. During the course of the rebuilding, a special ceremony is conducted for the laying of the Temple’s foundation stones. High priests garbed in festive attire blow their trumpets. Levites assume musical formation and crash their cymbals. They sing “songs extolling and praising the Lord,” to which the people respond with a “great shout” (Ezra 3:11). Some who recall the glory of the First Temple weep loudly. Others burst forth in uncontainable joy. The music and the moment fuse to stir an eruption of emotions that can be “heard from afar” (3:13).

This ceremony did not have to occur. The construction site could have been a place of uninterrupted labor. But the significance of the location and building project pushed the people to a commemorative mood. Likewise, it was not essential that instruments be played or songs be sung. A subdued ritual could have sufficed. Yet musical effusion was the chosen modality. Organized tones and coordinated rhythms gave structure to the event and intensified the associated moods: hope, loss, exuberance, sorrow, gratitude, wonderment, awe. The music was confined in form, but boundless in effect.

This mixture of formal design and amorphous impact is why music is labeled a science and an art. Aspects of music can be distilled and analyzed: pitch, timbre, duration, frequency, volume, harmony, etc. Its sound waves can be electronically mapped and quantified. But its influence on human psychology and physiology cannot be mechanically predicted or empirically examined. In the compendious phrase of Søren Kierkegaard, “Music, like time, is measured but immeasurable, is composed but indivisible.”

The merging of science and art accrues an added dimension when we consider the relationship of music and imagination. A distinction is usually made between the kind of imagination that propels scientific pursuits and the imagination involved in artistic activities. As biologist and polymath Jacob Bronowski explained in The Identity of Man (1965), scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, while artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. The “single-valued action” of science contrasts with the “tense and happy indecision” of art. In Bronowski’s evaluation, the two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of consciousness. What makes music distinctive is that it travels both avenues simultaneously.

Returning to the scene in Ezra, we can detect practical applications of music’s double nature. The songs were presumably tonal, conventional and logically shaped. These scientific qualities supplied the event with a concrete sonic framework. At the same time, the artistic aspects of the music allowed for open-ended responses. The musical ceremony was a single, choreographed occurrence with space for many interpretations. To use Bronowski’s language, it satisfied both parts of human consciousness: the longing for certainty and the desire for limitlessness.

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

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