Category Archives: sound

Comfort Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Contact with the new and returning to the familiar are common occurrences among listeners of music. During the course of an average day and through the duration of an average life, a person is exposed to countless doses of music. Music is all around: on television, online, on the radio, on cellphones, in the grocery store, in children’s mouths, in our own heads. Previously unheard material is always within access, whether it comes to us through active consumption or passive reception. And, because music is such a longstanding and boundlessly varied form of expression, no pair of ears will ever hear it all.

There is some attraction in music’s apparent infiniteness. The appetite for the exotic, which exists in most people to a greater or lesser degree, can always feed upon new musical flavors. Yet, while much is gained from nibbling on diverse sounds, listeners eventually return to playlists of a much smaller size and scope. These individualized compilations are as distinct as the people who treasure them, and include selections of personal significance. The pleasure and assurance derived from such music is immediate, reliable and profound. It is audible comfort food.

Furthering the culinary analogy, the pull of familiar music has been likened to a hungry American traveling abroad. Native eateries have a certain appeal, offering unusual recipes and a doorway into local folkways. But for many tourists, restaurants serving familiar dishes are even more alluring. When navigating strange surroundings, the taste of home can simulate a sense of stability. A McDonald’s hamburger helps to “normalize” cities as disparate and anxiety inducing as Paris and Hong Kong.

The same occurs each time a person hears well-liked music. Recognizable sound patterns mitigate the complexities and uncertainties of existence. Of course, personal preference is the determining factor regulating which sounds bring this relief. But the effect is rooted much deeper than taste.

Researchers observe that when foreign noises are introduced into a wild biome, animals exhibit restlessness and other signs of distress. Once natural sounds are restored to purity, the reactions fade away. In a similar and similarly basic way, the music we cherish provides an antidote to unwelcome noises, both literal and metaphorical. Having a special attachment to certain sounds is less about stubbornness or a fear of change, and more about seeking refuge from the clutter and stress that confront us daily. Our curiosity appreciates the exotic, but our nerves rely on the familiar.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Audible Analogies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Emotional responses to music have a measure of objectivity. Though the type and intensity of emotions felt are response-dependent, they are not subjective in the sense of being mere projections. Expressiveness is contained in the music itself. As philosopher Stephen Davies has argued, music seems sad or happy because it has the appearance of sadness or happiness—that is, we identify characteristics in music analogous to our own experience of those feelings.

Davies calls this “appearance emotionalism,” or the resemblance between temporally unfolding music and human behaviors associated with emotional expression. Musical movement is discerned from various motions: high to low pitches, fast to slow tempo, loud to soft volume, harmonic tension and resolution, etc. Like human action, the momentum of music seems purposeful and goal-directed. This perception is part of our broader tendency to personify the things we experience. We are, for example, more likely to notice how weeping willows look like  sad people than how they resemble frozen waterfalls. Similarly, we detect in music a dynamic character relating to our own expressive behavior. This is true of all music, be it concrete or abstract, tonal or atonal, formal or informal.

Sounds are instantly anthropomorphized upon reaching our ears. To use a generic illustration, Western music expresses graveness through patterns of unresolved tension, minor tonalities, bass timbre, downward sloping lines and so on. Of course, our responses to music are largely learned: cultural insiders and outsiders are not likely to have identical reactions (nor can we expect all members of a music-culture to react in precisely uniform ways). But once we are trained to associate certain sounds with certain feelings—a process that begins in the womb—our perceptions are more or less set for life.

Appearance emotionalism can also take on a visual dimension. In such cases, not only is music felt as a sensual phenomenon, it is also likened to imagery expressive of that phenomenon. For instance, a song might be heard as a racing antelope, meaning that it exudes excitement. If it is heard as a gathering storm, it inspires trepidation. If it sounds like a rainbow, it stirs a sense of awe. In this respect, stating that music resembles something visible is basically the same as acknowledging that it feels a particular way. And the reason both music and images are so readily compared to emotions is because they exhibit emotive qualities we perceive in ourselves.

This is not to say that we simply project our humanness onto the music. Its emotionalism exists independent of our listening to it. Rather, we are the receivers of music’s expressive content. Exactly how this information is interpreted varies from person to person and culture to culture; but it is universally felt as analogous to human emotions.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Boundaries of Freedom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music exists within parameters. To be recognized as this or that type of music, it must exhibit identifying markers related to rhythm, harmony, voicing, instrumentation, chord progressions, melodic design and the like. The boundaries that define a genre serve as both constraints and catalysts. As the musician bumps up against the borders, he/she is forced to pursue novel approaches and devise novel solutions. The same occurs when one works in a genre-fusing medium, like folktronica, or in a genre purportedly free of boundaries, like free jazz, which, in rejecting the strictures of bebop, arrived at its own structures of composition. To borrow an analogy from educational theorists Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, music materializes inside a petri dish, where the context and raw ingredients are fixed, but the end result is organically grown.

New music emerges from a tension between rules and the freedom to act within those rules. Controls and regulations provide the impetus for exploring creative options and devising innovations. This is a dynamic familiar to any game, be it football, Monopoly or musical improvisation. With basic guidelines and basic tools, the imagination is equipped to soar.

Composer Frederick Jacobi (1891-1952) embraced this view. In his day, Jacobi was among the most popular and respected figures in American classical music. He was especially noted for incorporating ethnic influences into his works, first drawing from Native American sources and later from his own Judaic roots. In both cases, he aimed to preserve characteristics of the folk material while upholding essential conventions of classical substance and form. With these dual restraints, Jacobi wrote numerous groundbreaking works, including Indian Dances (1927-28) and Shemesh (1940).

In 1948 Jacobi was invited to address the first convention of the United Synagogue of America and Cantors Assembly of America (both of Judaism’s Conservative movement). His topic was nationalism in the arts. He described challenges a composer faces when striving to balance individual creativity, ethnic ties and universal outlook. He warned against relying too heavily on folk material, yet stressed the importance of fusing one’s artistic voice with that material. Specific to Jewish music, he emphasized conserving age-old synagogue customs, such as cantillation, motivic patterns and prayer modes. The most intriguing part of his presentation was this comment: “The surest way to kill whatever originality one possesses within himself is to try to be original.”

What Jacobi meant by this is that originality requires limits. Unbounded expression is not only an impossible goal, but also an unmotivating concept. Musical avenues are not discovered or invented so much as they cultivated (as in the petri dish). New works are formed from existing materials and within existing confines, and new genres are really divergent genres: they consist of sounds derived from established sounds. As with a schoolyard game or ethnically informed classical piece, the rules are not to be broken. They are the stuff upon which creativity thrives.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Imitation of Voice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musical treatises of late antiquity regularly gave preference to wind instruments over strings. The order was based on the belief that winds imitate the human voice. Since the time of Plato, singing has been placed above instrumental music in both philosophical treatises and popular imagination. This is partly because the vocal instrument is thought to be God-given (instrumenta naturalis) rather than human-made (instrumenta artificialis), and partly because the voice produces speech as well as song. For writers like Cassiodorus (c. 485 – c. 585) and Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636), winds were the closest representation of vocal music, as both operate by sending a column of air through an apparatus controlling vibration and resonation.

From a mechanical standpoint, the similarity between voice and winds is fairly obvious. Blowing and breathing involve the same anatomical tools and physiological processes. But when sound is added to the discussion, comparisons are not always so neat. For instance, the bassoon—a wind instrument—has been likened to a “burping bedpost,” whereas the cello—a string instrument—is widely equated with the male singing voice. Similarly, violins are heard to “sing” like a female soprano.

The latter statement was recently put to scientific test. According to Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist and violin expert, great violinmakers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century designed their instruments to mimic the human voice. In an article comparing Guarneri violins and operatic singing, Nagyvary contends that the instruments “produce notes that gravitate toward certain types of vowels, implying that old masters could have used vowel identification as a means of quality assurance.” It is therefore possible that, echoing views from antiquity, the superiority of certain violins derived from their closeness to the vocal instrument. The more humanlike, the more coveted.

For the study, entitled “A Comparative Study of Power Spectra and Vowels in Guarneri Violins and Operatic Singing,” Nagyvary compared a series of vowels sung by Metropolitan opera soprano Emily Pulley with a recording of Itzhak Perlman playing a scale on a Guarneri violin. Using high-tech phonetic mapping and analysis, he found that the violin created a number of English and French vowel sounds, along with the Italian “i” and “e.”

This suggests that esteemed makers, like Guarneri and Stradivari, strove to replicate the human voice in their violins, and that their success in doing so provided an objective standard for determining the quality and value of the instruments. They may have been inspired by the theological concept of voice as divine instrument, the philosophical assertion of the perfection of nature, or the basic human affinity for things resembling ourselves.

Though philosophers and theologians have long extolled wind instruments for approaching the mechanism of the human voice, the sound of those instruments can fall short of the lofty theories. Alternately, our response to a masterful violin does seem to resemble the pull of a virtuosic soprano. If the value of an instrument can truly be measured by its proximity to the human voice, then the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century violins certainly deserve the millions they sell for. In a manner more than just metaphorical, they speak mellifluously to our ears.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Live Musically

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the catalogue of values deemed essential for a virtuous life, gratitude is among the most universal. Rarely (if ever) does one find a system of thought that does not hold appreciativeness as a core ideal. The positive impact of being thankful is recognized in religions East and West, sciences hard and soft, political philosophies right and left. As a statement of principle, most would agree with Ben Zoma’s maxim: “Who is happy? One who is content with one’s portion.”

This sentiment, whether intuited from life experience or encountered in a written variation, is much easier to agree with than to enact. The “attitude of gratitude,” as it is popularly espoused, is regularly confined to the realm of aspirations. Multitudinous worries, complaints and regrets divert our attention from the beauty and wonder surrounding us, and from the many gifts of which we are the recipients.

Enumerating the plethora of potential sources of gratitude would be as cumbersome as it is unnecessary. The issue is not that we fail to recognize that many things deserve our humble thanks. Rather, our sense of appreciation is dulled by the burdens of everyday life. Our problems—big and small, real and imagined—are a perpetual and negative distraction. To modify a phrase, “I think, therefore I worry.”

Vincent Van Gogh, a man who was no stranger to distress, devised a way of transcending nagging concerns and cultivating gratitude. He was deeply attracted to what he considered the vital relationship of music, art, spirituality and the harmony of nature. He included this keen remark in a letter to his brother Theo: “In the end we shall have enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.”

Van Gogh penned this comment in response to common forecasts of his time, which painted a bleak future filled with anxiety, unrest, war and cultural bankruptcy. In his assessment, this still-familiar prediction could be ameliorated or even erased by grasping and being attentive to the interlocking harmony of all things in nature.

This “natural spirituality” derived from Van Gogh’s impression of a Japanese painter fixated on a single blade of grass. The blade “leads him to draw every plant, and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. . . . Come now, isn’t it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?”

Van Gogh was convinced that adopting this perspective could effortlessly switch thoughts from worry to appreciation. Harmony, not dissonance, would become the dominant musical metaphor. Of course, an understanding of the world as congruous sound is not arrived at without effort, and it is doubtful if Van Gogh reached it himself. But, if pursued with diligence, it can potentially alter our mode of thinking for the better. Living musically is a frame of mind from which gratitude naturally and abundantly pours forth. Though not easy to obtain or simple to sustain, it is a healthy outlook worthy of pursuit.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Lessons from the Ear

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In many circles and in much of contemporary discourse, dogmatism is held up as a paramount virtue. Consistency of belief, firmness of position and unwavering opinions, whether of a religious, political or other kind, are viewed as treasured and noble traits. Conversely, those who exhibit intellectual flexibility and openness to revision are thought untrustworthy or insincere. This attitude persists despite our being the inheritors of millennia of ideas, our knowledge of the swiftly changing world, and our awareness of the historical tragedies ideologies have wrought. It seems that no matter how antiquated or simplistic the mindset—and regardless of the quality or amount of contrary evidence—steadfastness and cocksureness are judged intrinsically virtuous.

Allegiance to narrow principles and provincial notions does have its benefits, not the least of which are a (false) reduction of life’s complexities, a sense of stability in an unstable world, a solid foundation for self-identity and a basis for group cohesion—unrealistic and un-nuanced though some of this may be. But the truly critical mind is never satisfied with this type of thinking, since it necessarily involves surrendering to inherited assumptions and accepting conclusions arrived at by a person or persons other than oneself. More importantly, the supposed nobility of ideological stubbornness conflicts with another, more compelling, virtue: learning from experience.

Situations, circumstances, observations, readings, reflections, interactions, trial and error, cause and effect and other processes offer the open mind ample opportunities for reevaluation. The challenge is to keep a portion of our slate blank enough to accept, adopt and adapt new information, and to be willing to dismiss cherished views when they are proven faulty or insufficient. To quote nineteenth-century ethicist Thomas Fowler, “intellectual honesty requires that, if need be, we should sacrifice our consistency and our favorite dogmas on the altar of truth.”

In spite of its current unpopularity, this approach is more practical than radical, and far more ancient than it might appear. Its roots are planted in Greece and Rome, where minds as celebrated as Posidonius, Cicero and Seneca conceded that no single system of thought was adequate for understanding reality. Instead, these philosophical eclectics drew upon multiple theories and methods to gain insights into a certain subject or decipher a certain scenario. They favored reason over elegance, constructing sometimes-messy worldviews from existing beliefs and their own ideas.

Their apparent inconstancy was as pragmatic as it is opposed to conventions of modern discourse. Yet even the current-day dogmatist tends to be eclectic in some ways. A case in point is musical listening. If we were to take an inventory of the music we enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past), we would likely be astonished by the variety and lack of unifying characteristics. Most of us draw musical selections from abundant sources and styles. Others have a disciplined relationship with music, limiting themselves to a certain period or genre of recordings. But even when the range is relatively small, there is still diversification enough to dispute dogmatism.

Added to this, the way we listen to a piece at any given time tends to vary. Our hearing is usually directed toward one or more specific dimensions, be it melody, orchestration, rhythmic pattern, tonal density, timbre, coloration, phrasing or something else. Whether this variation of perception is conscious or unconscious, the result is that we are always processing musical sounds differently. The heterogeneity of our listening habits rivals that of our musical choices.

Like the philosophical eclectic who un-rigidly searches for ideas best suited to address an inquiry, the listener seeks out music that best matches personal leanings and the situation at hand. And like the adherent of eclecticism, whose outlook and theoretical tools are receptive to reassessment and modification, our musical preferences are subject to change. If at any time we were presented with a thousand recordings representing far-flung styles, we would find some of them bearable, others unlistenable and select a few as favorites. The determining factor would be this: whether or not the music “works.”

Of course, there are ideological purists in every area of life, including music. They fancy themselves honorable conservationists, but are just as often stubborn fossilizers artificially removed from the evolving experience that is life. Musical purists are unable and unwilling to budge, even if there are practical reasons for doing so. Clinging is construed as righteousness.

But such purists, while adamant and often vociferous, are the musical minority. Most of us have eclectic ears: we are open to and excited about adding to our constantly adjusting playlists. We approach music not as dogmatists, but as experimenters whose views derive from exposure and analysis. Honest engagement in all aspects of life requires a similar level of open-mindedness. If only we would listen to our ears.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Less is More

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old opera joke that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. The humor of this quip lies in the absurdity of judging music—the audible art—apart from how it sounds. It lampoons the elitist’s assertion that accessible music is almost definitionally inferior to more esoteric works, regardless of what our ears tell us. Whatever truth there may be in this musicological system of merits and demerits—and whatever influence such assessments may have—it nevertheless highlights distinctions between listening and evaluating, and between scholars and ordinary folk. It is the difference between experiential knowledge—“I know what I like when I hear it”—and analytical discernment—“I discern its value when I measure it.” These divergent modes of apprehension help explain the often-wide chasm separating popular musical opinions and the rarified views of music critics, theorists, historians and other professionals. “The expert knows best,” so says the expert.

None of this is meant to negate the worth or even accuracy of musical criticism. When a musicologist or respected composer extols or disparages this or that opus, we should probably pay attention. But even the specialist will admit that too much information tends to tarnish the musical experience. What is primarily a medium of emotional expression becomes the subject of cognitive probing.

There is a standard line of thinking in the philosophy of aesthetics that visceral reactions to art are most intense in an art form other than one’s own. For example, a painter will have a primitive rush of emotions when standing in a Gothic cathedral, while the architect next to her closely examines the stonework of the clerestory, the dimensions of the fan vault and so on. The painter excitedly declares, “This place is awesome!” The architect replies, “Did you notice the design flaw in that section of the ceiling?” Similarly, an architect seated in a concert hall will surrender himself to the mass of sound, while the musician sitting beside him busily scrutinizes melodic contours, harmonic density, tonal color and so forth. The architect blurts out, “This is marvelous!” The musician responds, “Trivial rubbish.” The first is wrapped in sensual pleasure; the second is absorbed in adjudication.

It is sometimes said of the music theorist that he has a refined appreciation of the analytical and abstract, but a cultivated disregard for the affective and aesthetic. This “spiritless” perspective was articulated by seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne, who believed music to be “nothing more than the movement of air, and thus amenable to mechanical and mathematic treatment.” Of course, expertise in the science of music does not in itself preclude musical enjoyment. It is, after all, the musical expert who is most interested in and enthusiastic about musical history, variety and subtlety. But, as the aesthetician readily acknowledges, interest and experience are not the same thing. To paraphrase Aaron Copland, the “gifted listener”—i.e., the musically educated—may hear more in a performance, but as the listener’s knowledge expands so does her distance from the “primal and almost brutish level” of musical emotions. Again, this is not necessarily good or bad; but it does account for the disconnect between the novice’s professed love for this or that conventional fare and the critic’s supercilious remark that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Goethe’s famous saying has relevance here: “Doubt grows with knowledge.” If we replace “doubt” with “critical analysis”—which is the essence of Goethe’s phrase—we begin to recognize how difficult it is for the knowledgeable musician to replicate the relative simplicity and abandonment of the average person’s musical encounter. Proficiency in the art tends to impede purity of experience.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Universal Non-Universal Language

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A basic premise of ethnomusicological investigation is that music, as a worldwide phenomenon, cannot be subjected to an overarching set of values, standards or expectations. No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles fails when applied to a non–Western society. Thus, it is argued, each cultural and subcultural manifestation of music should be studied individually and on its own terms. To paraphrase George Herzog, music is a non-universal language that exists in many dialects.

As obvious as this may seem, there was a time, not too long ago, when scholars presumed that music in its varied forms communicated basic emotional information that could be discerned by insiders and outsiders in essentially the same way. But the more they examined the diverse offerings of local music-cultures, the more they came to appreciate the multifariousness of musical expression and the role of social conditioning in shaping musical perception. Like spoken languages, musical languages require a level of fluency to be understood.

Still, a version of the old assumption of universality can be upheld. Our reactions to music may not be uniform, but the types of reactions that music stirs are consistent throughout our species. In other words, while it is unlikely that a song indigenous to one group will evoke the same feelings when played for another, outsiders can at least appreciate the kinds of responses it produces in its native setting. The emotions of a sad or happy song may not resonate beyond a fluency group, but every group has its sad and happy songs.

In this sense, we are all empathetic when it comes to music (except, perhaps, for the roughly four percent who have some form of amusia, which hinders or prevents musical processing). We know emotionally what another experiences in music; we can place ourselves in their musical shoes. Of course, the degree to which music moves us varies from person to person, and shades of response tend to be more sophisticated among musicians. But regardless of how prone we are to emotional outpourings or how developed our musical skills, neurologically intact individuals are born musically sensitive and are predisposed to feeling music as emotion.

We can, then, empathize with another’s musical experience irrespective if we feel the music in the same way or with the same level of interest or intensity. Mark Twain, in his characteristically perceptive autobiography, explained why this is so: “The last quarter century of my life has been pretty constantly and faithfully devoted to the study of the human race—that is to say, the study of myself, for in my individual person I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way. When it is small, as compared with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it for all the purposes of examination. In my contacts with the species I find no one who possesses a quality which I do not myself possess.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

A Higher Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann. Ph.D.

In the non-theistic mysticism of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), God is not a power hovering over us, instructing us or judging our behavior. God is a concept: a symbol of our higher self and a metaphor for what we can become. Fromm articulated this view, among other places, in The Art of Loving: “[God] stands for the highest value, the most desirable good.” He considered this conception of the deity harmonious with the Jewish faith of his birth, since the essence of Jewish monotheism is “imitation of God,” not some rarified theological formulation. This is a principle affirmed in the Torah—“To walk in all His ways” (Deut. 11:22)—and reiterated in rabbinic literature: “Just as God is merciful, you too must be merciful . . . just as God is compassionate, you too must be compassionate” (Sifre, Ekev 49).

Fromm agreed with the believer that the divine (or at least the divine concept) can and should be experienced. He regarded himself a mystic—not in the sense of striving for an external entity, but in the sense of seeking one’s highest potential, symbolically represented as God. In this framework, which he called humanistic religion, “transcendence within” can be achieved in three ways: cultivation of knowledge, ethical development and rising above the “prison” of daily routine. The first two uphold critical thinking and healthy relationships as aspirational ideals. The third endorses the value of transcendence.

Although Fromm did not state so explicitly, the third path is ably facilitated by music. Music is almost universally acknowledged as a language of transcendence. It pierces through the ordinary noises of sound and speech, and has an expressive capacity surpassing other forms of communication. This is the underlying reason why prayers are regularly sung in houses of worship: the “beyondness” implicit in musical tones is felt as contact with the deity. For Fromm, however, communion is not between humanity and a higher being, but between humanity and higher human essence.

When we hear or sing or play music, we are activating areas of our consciousness that are dormant under regular conditions. Absorption in the musical activity can deliver us into a world of emotions, memories, sensations, images and epiphanies rarely approachable in other pursuits. The experience is so distinct from the norm that the theistically minded rush to label it sacred or holy. But Fromm saw it otherwise. Stimulants like music unlock a deeper layer within us all. They do not tap into some cosmic energy; they lead us further within ourselves.

Fromm would recognize music as a spiritual encounter in that it is immaterial and essentially ineffable. Yet he would identify the object of the encounter as our interior potential. On an experiential level, this perspective does not automatically conflict with conventional theism, since both promote peak experiences as life-enhancing moments. And whether one’s religion is theistic, humanistic or none at all, it is hard to argue against Fromm’s assertion that knowledge, relationships and transcendence are key avenues toward self-realization.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Listening to Ourselves

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Linguist Dwight L. Bolinger (1907-1992) included this observation in his classic book, The Symbolism of Music: “Repetition, or return to the familiar, to the learned, is more striking in music than elsewhere—a very good book may be read twice, a masterpiece of literature three or four times, a poem a dozen times; but in no other art-form could we expect the literally hundreds of repetitions to go on pleasing us.” Three things are especially striking about this statement. First is that it came from a professor of Romance languages—a man whose passion for linguistic form, function and meaning far surpassed the norm. Despite his personal and professional proclivities, Bolinger acknowledged the superiority of music in the crucial area of pleasure-making. Second, the type of music he refers to is the “favorite”: a song or piece that a person elevates above others and has a special attachment to. Third, Bolinger alludes to the essential contribution of musical favorites to the human experience. Favorites are valuable to us precisely because they are a reliable and potentially endless source of satisfaction.

It seems a human instinct to isolate, accumulate and curate a personal pantheon of greatest hits. The content of these customized collections is informed by interwoven forces, such as cultural conditioning, personality type, life experience, peer group, social station, education, exposure and heritage. Virtually everyone gravitates toward and snatches up favorites that (almost) never grow dull and often become more fulfilling with the passage of time. Counter to rational expectation and contrary to our relationship with literary works, musical favorites are heard (or performed) on countless occasions without the decrease in interest normally associated with repetition.

What accounts for this persistent gratification? The answer boils down to a simple proposition: when we listen to our favorites we are listening to ourselves. To understand this, it is best to think of music extra-musically—that is, in terms of what it does and stands for. Although certain and varied musical qualities make a piece attractive to certain and varied people, it is mainly what the music connotes that will make it a favorite.

Familiar music is a storehouse of personal information. It brings us into instant and powerful contact with emotional memories, nostalgic feelings, significant events, past and present relationships, group affiliations, intellectual leanings and other vivid reminders of who we are. To use an analogy from the computer age, musical favorites are data storage devices. They are a repository of cognitive and sentimental associations that flash into consciousness each time we hear them. They are, in short, externalized portals to our inner selves. And since identity and meaning derive largely from the data housed in this music, its repetition is a kind of self-reinforcement.

Among other things, this discussion helps us understand the affinity for recurring prayer-songs in worship services. Few ritual changes stir as much controversy as the introduction of new melodies. Musical innovations in church and synagogue have long encountered fervent objections from the people in the pews. This is conventionally attributed to factors like the religious impulse for preservation, the comfort of routine and the perceived holiness of long-established tunes. These are certainly important forces. However, if we apply the above analysis to the worship setting, we begin to appreciate that replacing cherished melodies with unfamiliar settings is, for many people, tantamount to an identity crisis. For this reason in particular, it must be handled with care.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.