Never Heard Twice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535-475 BCE) coined one of the most well-known aphorisms of Western philosophy: “You can never put your foot in the same river twice.”  Nothing in the universe remains the same; everything is in perpetual motion. This principle is equally applicable to physical phenomena and our recollections of them. Not only does each moment differ from those that precede and follow it, but memories of things past and thoughts of the future are also in constant flux. History changes, technology changes, fashion changes, etiquette changes. Relationships change, religions change, demographics change, social mores change. To list everything that changes is to list everything. And once the list is finished, it too must change.

Critics of Heraclitus argue that, while appearances certainly alter, the underlying reality is steady. Our minds and senses are faulty, but the things we perceive are rooted in something eternal. However, any “underlying reality” is, in the end, a theoretical property, and thus subject to revision, interpretation, elaboration, imagination and other unstable processes of the intellect. Even things that are ostensibly unwavering, like recorded music and motion pictures, are subtly transformed with each experience, both perceptually and materially (physical and chemical deterioration occurs in discs, reels, tapes and other storage formats).

Philosopher-composer Leonard B. Meyer made this point in Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956). He wrote that repetition in music never “exists psychologically,” since our mindset and store of experiences are different each time we listen to a piece. Thus, while the musical substance may be fixed (or as fixed as anything can be said to be), it is never received through identical ears. Consistency is demonstrated in sound specifications, but the thoughts and feelings conjured differ depending on when the music is heard. Meyer explained it this way: “The fact that as we listen to music we are constantly revising our opinions of what has happened in the past in the light of present events is important because it means that we are constantly altering our expectations.”

This truism applies to repetition within a musical selection as well. Repeated patterns of rhythm, melody and harmony are prominent in all sorts of music. According to Meyer, this internal repetition—which is relentless in minimalist compositions, Sufi qawwali and other genres—generates changes in meaning as the music pushes forward. Take the example of the classical sonata form, with its exposition, development and recapitulation. When the listener hears the recapitulation of the opening section, the meaning is very different from that communicated in the original statement. The same occurs with the verse-chorus form of popular music and other such musical structures.

Like everything known and unknown, observed and learned, music is ever changing. It is always experienced in the non-replicable present tense. To adapt Heraclitus’ famous maxim, “The same music is never heard twice.”

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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