Tag Archives: Aristotle

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 that 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 or 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, which affords exploration and reflection, but obstructs the purity of experience. His desire was to reenact the clean exposure we unconsciously sweep 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.

Reflecting on Experience

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Experience alone does not teach. Our lives are comprised of a constant succession of experiences, some dull, some profound and most somewhere in between. If ridden through without reflection, these occurrences might leave a subconscious imprint, but they do not necessarily make us wiser or more informed. In the 1970s, educational theorists David Kolb and Ron Fry proposed a model outlining the stages by which experience becomes learning. Referred to as Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning (or the Kolb cycle), it is a repeatable spiral consisting of four elements: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. The experience itself—whether it is a day at the office or a stroll through the park—is only the beginning. Personal growth occurs through examination, abstraction and future application.

For most people some of the time (and some people most of the time), this is a natural process. There is a sense in which we are all born philosophers, or homo philosophicus. On occasion, we find ourselves asking deep questions, contemplating our purpose and pondering the things we have observed. Aristotle addressed this inclination in the opening line of Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Yet knowing from experience is not as simple as experiencing an experience. It requires a few additional steps, not to mention a motivating sense of curiosity.

Of course, some things in life are riper for exploration than others. For instance, we might readily progress through the Kolb cycle when the concrete experience is mowing a lawn, but are less inclined to do so when the activity is listening to music. This is partly because of the relative abstractness of the musical experience. Being moved by a piece or selecting a track for a playlist are processes more impulsive than cognitive, and thus hard to penetrate with intellectual methods. It is also the case that musical affinities are a matter of taste: a sensitive part of the human makeup, and one particularly resistant to critique.

When it comes to music, most of us adhere to the unreflective phrase, “I know what I like and I like what I know.” This principle of subjective preference helps to protect our musical opinions. We need not justify (or even understand) our like or dislike for a particular selection. We simply know our position. This has its advantages, as musical penchants do not usually hold up well under analysis. Critical evaluation and experimentation have little regard for those individualistic factors that shape our musical beliefs: exposure, upbringing, peer influence, cultural biases, inherited assumptions, generational trends, etc. None of this leads to an objective conclusion. The further and more honestly we pursue the steps of observation, conceptualization and experimentation, the shakier our convictions become.

In the end, there may be no scientific or otherwise satisfactory rationale for musical taste. However, the philosopher in us should not view this as an impediment, but as an invitation. The questions that arise from musical self-inventory are themselves invaluable teachers. Bertrand Russell made this point in The Problems of Philosophy. His eloquent words are applicable to all areas of thought—whether musical or existential: “Philosophy is to be studied not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation . . .”

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

The Rise and Fall of Melody

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music exhibits the human propensity to imitate nature and the delight we take in that imitation. Rhythm is a stylization of natural motion. Beating hearts, falling rain, rustling leaves, prancing animals and other organic patterns inspire rhythmic mimesis. Birdsong has influenced musicians throughout history, from indigenous folk singers to classical composers like Mahler and Messiaen. Harmonic dissonances and consonances are unconsciously sensed as simulations of human passions. Since the beginning, natural forces have molded and been woven into music’s very essence.

The bond between music and nature did not escape Italian Renaissance composer and music theorist Franchinus Gaffurius. A noted humanist and personal friend of Leonardo da Vinci, Gaffurius was keenly interested in how people derive musical sounds from their environment and utilize those sounds to achieve specific aims. Among his contributions to the naturalistic conception of music is the notion of “musical gravity,” which he introduced in his major treatise Practica musicae (1496): “A descent from high to low causes a greater sense of repose.” With this simple statement, Gaffurius encapsulated the instinct of tonal music to resolve in a cadence to the tonic, or first scale degree.

This movement is imitative in two important ways. First, the downward movement of the musical line resembles forces that regulate motion in the natural world. The descending pull reinforces our orientation toward the tonic and causes us to feel as though we have arrived at the ground level. Second, it simulates a sense of emotional resolution or closure. By bringing us back to the home or tonic note, melody gives a sensation of gratifying release.

Acknowledging the tendency of musical phrases to descend and rest at the tonic, composers of tonal music employ various methods to protract the time leading to the inevitable conclusion. What often results is a series of ascensions, which generate tension and energy, followed by the much-anticipated resolution, which bestows satisfaction proportional to the duration the listener has waited for it.

Music theorists since Aristotle have recognized tension as one of music’s fundamental properties. Like a coiled spring that is pushed and pulled, musical passages portray a cyclic dance, passing through increases and decreases in intensity on their way to a resting position. Human beings seem hardwired to perceive this musical interplay. We feel musical tension on a primal level, as if it were a visceral or kinesthetic experience. When musical suspense reaches its height, our muscles tighten, and with musical resolution, our muscles relax. Of course, no tone, interval, or harmony is intrinsically tense. The impression of tension stems from culturally derived expectations, which may differ from place to place. But, regardless of cultural variation, musical gravity almost universally wields its power on melodic structure, alleviating tension through downward movement.

The mutually reinforcing elements of musical gravity and tension and release go a long way toward explaining our affinity for melody. These forces are an imitation of nature, both in terms of mimicking the rise and fall of objects and in terms of replicating emotional life. Moreover, the usual melodic path toward repose appeases our longing for closure. Through a succession of notes, melody creates and resolves drama in a clean and logical manner that is a human ideal.

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