Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
German Romantic authors introduced the concept of “pure” music, or music without extra-musical meaning. They conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm—a language transcending anything that could be said about it and any link that could be made between it and the things of this world. Richard Wagner was an early critic of their proposition. To him, music without signification was as impossible to create as it was worthless to consume (he coined the term “absolute” music to mock the very idea). Even when devoid of words, subject matter and programmatic purpose, music is intertwined with the environment in which it is heard and the images and feelings it induces. Its message might be abstract and open to interpretation, but it is not absent.
Life occurs in context. Being alive means being engaged in a perpetual and usually unconscious process of amassing observational input, experiential data and sensory information. Nothing that we taste, touch, smell, hear, see or think can be divorced from prior experiences, and all of it is present when we encounter new stimuli. We cannot help but make connections between incidents current and past, and the lens through which we perceive reality is modified with each passing moment. We are swimming in a stream of constant accumulation.
Our relationship with music exists in this perceptual complex. Aesthetic tastes and artistic meanings are influenced by factors like culture, environment, schooling, philosophy and politics, not to mention the settings and situations in which listening takes place. It is possible in a lab or study hall to reduce music to an organized composite of pitches, intervals, alignments and values. But music is not received in this mathematical manner. It comes to us as a container brimming with associations, the contents of which are the by-product of our unique life experiences. It triggers a varied assortment of memories, visuals, sensations and sentiments. In short, we derive meaning from it whether we intend to or not.
The same is true for the music’s creator. Composers tend to work within inherited rules and conventions, or actively reject those norms. Either way, they situate themselves in relation to other styles and composers, and cannot escape the connotations they carry. As much as they might desire to write music for its own sake, it will always be about something. Absolute music—or, better, music that pretends to be absolute—may be vague in purpose; but neither the composer nor audience hears it as purposeless.
This discussion is summed up in the words of musicologist Nicholas Cook: “Pure music, it seems, is the aesthetician’s (and music theorist’s) fiction.” Music is never just sound. It is everything the sound evokes.
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