Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The study of music is usually approached with a narrow goal or point of view. An instrument is learned, a compositional technique is analyzed, a movement is surveyed, a vocal style is practiced, and so on. These different paths intersect from time to time, such that knowledge of a composer’s chronological and geographical setting informs the interpretation of a piece. Yet, by and large, “specialized studies of this type cut music off from its natural connection with the spiritual and material world, and leave out of consideration the fact that [music] is only one part of general culture.” This reminder, from Hugo Leichtentritt’s introduction to his book of Harvard University lectures, Music, History, and Ideas (1938), urges a recognition of music’s interaction with things and forces outside of it.
Not only does a piece of music reflect a cultural backdrop—which itself is informed by physical setting, political climate, social position, local language(s), etc.—but it also encompasses wide-ranging disciplines: physics, mathematics, acoustics, psychology, anatomy, physiology, literature, poetry, dancing, acting, philosophy, metaphysics—just to name a handful. This is the essence of Leichtentritt’s title Music, History, and Ideas: the three broad categories cannot be separated. Viewing music through a microscope—as isolated techniques, pieces, or genres—we neglect the many threads that stitch sound into a complex cultural and scientific fabric.
Of course, interconnectivity is not limited to music. Naturalist John Muir expanded the notion in his reflective tome, My First Summer in the Sierras (1911), about his experiences in Yosemite in 1869. In that all-encompassing environment, surrounded by intricately vibrant meadows and mountain ranges, Muir realized: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” (An earlier version, from his journal dated July 27, 1869, records: “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.”)
Muir’s takeaway from that first summer applies equally to music: “the lessons of unity and inter-relation.” Every rock, tree, insect, bird, stream, lake, and flower is at the same time distinct yet inextricable. None of these elements can exist independent from the others, and each invites us “to come and learn something of its history and relationship.” As a generative art form, constantly modified by interactions between musicians and musical ideas, music has a history and genealogy extending far beyond any single note, phrase, pattern, or tune. As a product of human activity and an element of human culture, music is “hitched” to everything that constitutes life itself—physically, intellectually, and spiritually.
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