Childlike Ears

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Childlike wonder is for many an idealized virtue. Aristotle’s inquiries often begin with innocent amazement. Poet and scholar Kathleen Raine advised, “rather than understanding nature better by learning more, we have to unlearn, to un-know, if we hope to recapture a glimpse of the paradisal vision.” J. Krishnamurti, the self-styled twentieth-century sage, was moved to tears at the sight of withering branches. These approaches simulate a pre-jaded, pre-cluttered stage of life, when openness and sensitivity are natural conditions. The shiny new brain is neither capable of boredom nor stress. It is receptive to all shades of experience, unconcerned with the illusion of self, and attentive to the world as it is.

Intellectual maturation and social conditioning quickly do away with this pristine state. The schoolchild is taught to label and conform. A grown man weeping at a tree is abnormal. But, say the romantics, by retrieving (or reconstructing) childlike innocence, we can salvage a life-enhancing sense of awe.

The distance between the child’s perception and our own can be demonstrated musically. Unlike adults, young children do not typically describe or define music. They derive benefits from the music they make and listen to—joy, solace, safety—but to them, music just is. Infants instinctively move to the beat and respond wide-eyed to lullabies and infant-directed song-speech. However, as children mature, their ears become more discerning, and the external influence of family, peers, and consumer culture narrow tastes and heighten judgments. By middle childhood (ages 6 to 12), spontaneous engagement is typically replaced with self-consciousness. Words begin interfering with experience.

Vladimir Jankélévitch romanticizes infant ears in his 1961 classic, La Musique et l’Ineffable (Music and the Ineffable). An exceedingly perceptive and prolific contributor to the philosophy of music, Jankélévitch nevertheless admits the uneasy application of words to the musical experience: “Directly, in itself, music signifies nothing, unless by convention and association. Music means nothing and yet means everything.” He espouses “a great nostalgia for innocence,” promotes “a return to the spirit of childhood,” and reminds us that “music was not invented to be talked about.” This is not a contradictory position. Musical subtleties were of great interest to Jankélévitch; he was captivated by the slightest gradations of sound. Yet, his responses were more testimonial than analytical or explanatory. Study led him to a profound gratitude best expressed in silence. He encouraged readers to enter the “mystery” for themselves.

Like Aristotle, Raine, and Krishnamurti, Jankélévitch was a deep thinker aware of both the merits and demerits of the thinking brain. It affords exploration and reflection, but obstructs the purity of experience. His desire was to reenact the clean exposure that is unconsciously swept aside with accumulating years. From such a state, fresh and novel insights are possible.

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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