Tag Archives: Music and the Ineffable

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.

Real Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Atticus Finch, the noble defense attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, coined a useful courtroom adage: “Delete the adjectives and you have the facts.” The reality of a situation tends to be hidden behind layers of embellishment and prejudice. It suffocates under the weight of bias and interpretation, losing its neutrality and assuming a character dictated by the commentator. This is a natural function of human perception. We are not robots; our big brains are wired to assess rather than sterilely measure. The process is sometimes harmless and sometimes not. What Atticus strove for is the ability to isolate intrinsic essence from cluttering vocabulary.

Atticus’s maxim finds a musical parallel in the writings of philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985). In Music and the Ineffable,  Jankélévitch reminds us that music is made to be heard, not to be talked about. In the intangible way music can be said to exist, it inhabits an abstract and ephemeral realm. Each listener associates sounds with personal images and feelings, which can be discussed in ornate—yet ultimately equivocal—detail. Music is a self-contained phenomenon, occurring apart from our attempts to decipher or characterize it. For this reason, Jankélévitch considers the music-language relationship a one-way affair: music can elicit endless talk, but talk gives nothing back to the music.

Musical description is a type of linguistic performance, in which the reader (or auditor) is manipulated to hear music a certain way. Once exposed to suggestive language, the possibility of “pure” listening becomes a near impossibility. This is true whether the adjectives are unsophisticated (“good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly”) or flowery, as in Lazare Saminsky’s appraisal of Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service: “[It possesses] an awed gleam of cognizance of the Supreme force that clasps the universe into oneness.” More than simply allowing us to experience music through another’s sensibilities, figurative remarks irrevocably color our perception. To a certain extent, we end up processing the music as someone else wants us to.

Opinion and bias are inevitable outcomes of human cognition. A thinking brain is a judgmental brain. What the fictional Atticus and philosopher Jankélévitch stress is that objectivity demands resisting and overcoming: resisting the temptation to embroider the facts, and overcoming our susceptibility to such embroidery. The extramental thing—the thing-in-itself—is not language-dependent. It is what it is, as the tired saying goes.

Clearly, it is a fantasy to think that prejudicial adjectives will ever be expunged from the courtroom, or that music will ever be experienced in a non-verbal vacuum. One could even argue if it is desirable in all cases to dispense with a reasonable dose of colorful wordage. Nevertheless, we should pause to recognize that reality resides beneath the words.

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