Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The raw materials of music include pitch, rhythm, durations, dynamics, texture and timbre. The deliberate ordering of these building blocks of sound and silence produces what we instantly recognize as a musical creation. To be sure, definitions of music vary from rigid to loose, and postmodern requirements are not always as stable or confined as conventional views. But, however far the envelope is stretched and however ambiguous music is made out to be, most of us can agree with seventeenth-century English churchman Thomas Fuller: “Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune.”
Understandably, comments on the nature of music usually address its audibility: it is an art form directed at the ears. Our sense of hearing distinguishes between music and the other sounds that constantly bombard us. The very concept of music derives from and depends upon our faculty of perceiving sound. Yet it can be argued that the ears are merely the necessary entry point. As soon as we are made aware of music, it is translated into mood, memory and movement. As poet Wallace Stevens eloquently wrote: “Music is feeling, then, not sound.”
The listener’s response to specific music will vary in type and intensity. She might feel very hopeful, a little bit sad, extremely calm, slightly anxious, and so on. These reactions may or may not be the intention of the composer or performer, and may change according to when and where the piece is heard. But in almost every instance, human perception converts music into feeling.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is how we typically portray music. We most often fixate on music’s experiential properties, or its “personality.” Anthropomorphic qualities are freely projected upon a piece: charming, aggressive, warm, tender, brutish, exuberant, consoling, frustrating, etc. This is partly because of the difficulty of identifying and discussing music’s formal properties. But it is mainly because the formal properties are but a means to an end. When we call a composition happy, we are basically saying that it makes us feel happy. The resulting emotion is so dominant that it becomes the character of the music. Priority is given to effect over sound.
In some sense, music can be thought of as a delivery system for emotional content. We do not experience music so much as we experience ourselves experiencing music. Our ears funnel the sound to a deeper layer of our being, a layer where sound is made significant. Of course, not all music is equally effective and not every listener is equally moved by musical stimuli. But even the most literate musicians and harshest critics will admit, readily or reluctantly, that music is predominantly about emotions. It only begins as sound.
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