Tag Archives: Ethics

The Sound of Zero

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The effect of a musical composition is notoriously fleeting. In the moment of listening, the sounds are ear filling, mood shifting, mind absorbing, memory stirring, body infecting. Yet almost as soon as they cease, the impact dissipates. We are possessed and exorcised all within a few minutes. True, a lyric or melodic phrase can repeat in our heads and go on affecting us in a comparatively minor way. But as an ephemeral art form that emerges and vanishes in real-time, music’s influence tends to be measured by its duration. It fosters an immediate experience that transitions quickly from profoundness to nothingness.

Philosopher Susanne K. Langer made this observation in her 1942 study, Philosophy in a New Key. She acknowledged the well-attested interaction of music and heart rate, respiration, concentration and mental state, but noted that none of this outlasts the stimulus itself. There is no real expectation that the music will shape or inform our behavior. Whatever its effect, it tends to be internal rather than manifestational. “On the whole,” Langer wrote, “the behavior of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.” Again, this does not necessarily apply to songs, which have a greater potential to motivate due to the sway of words and the pathos of the human voice.

The predictability with which music dissolves has a cosmic analogy. In the zero-energy hypothesis, the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero. All positive energy, which exists in matter, is canceled out by negative energy, which resides in gravity. The energy exerted as matter separates from other matter is balanced by the gravitational pull  that attracts them together. Thus, the universe is comprised of positive and negative parts that add up to nothing.

If we convert this into a musical metaphor, music can be viewed as matter and its aftermath as gravity. A great deal of energy is expended during a musical performance. Physical maneuvers cause air molecules to vibrate, which make brain waves oscillate, causing thoughts, feelings and physical surges to proliferate. This is the substance of musical matter. But all of this is canceled out in the absence of music that follows. The gravitational pull of silence (or non-musical sounds) nullifies the effect before it transforms into conduct. The experience amounts to nothing.

This is illustrated in a story told of the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Following the symphony’s rousing conclusion, the awestruck audience burst forth into applause. As their cheers reluctantly dwindled away, a child turned to his mother and asked, “What must we do now?” He was compelled to respond to the beauty and force of the music, but was unsure what the appropriate action might be. His mother offered no reply. There was zero to be done.

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