Tag Archives: Philosophy

Music Shapes the World

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As he grew older, Thomas Edison (1847-1931) became increasingly fascinated with the alleged mystical powers of sound and music. Inspired by the spiritualism and paranormal craze of the decades surrounding the turn of last century, Edison announced in 1920 that he was developing a machine that could communicate with the dead. He reasoned that if a spirit world actually existed, an extremely sensitive device was needed to converse with it. A little closer to reality, Edison conducted a series of Mood Change Parties, in which participants listened to recordings and filled out charts documenting their responses. The goal was to link mood changes—worried to carefree, nervous to composed, etc.—with corresponding musical stimuli.

One of these “parties” took place in a Yale University psychology class. As a newspaper described it, it aimed “toward alleviating neurotic conditions, with a view of discovering psychological antidotes for depressed conditions of mind whether due to fatigue or disappointment.” Similar experiments were conducted at other Ivy League schools, giving an air of legitimacy to the proceedings despite company documents showing little serious interest in the project’s scientific merits or lack thereof. Not surprisingly, both the séance device and the Mood Change Parties were, more than anything, elaborate marketing ploys.

Whatever the motives, the machine designed for the deceased and the parties intended for the living grew from Edison’s awareness that sound could manipulate the psychological atmosphere. Pseudoscientific claims aside, it is clear that certain tone patterns used in certain environments can cause us to feel as if something otherworldly is occurring (hence the effect of science fiction film scores). Likewise, a group of people with common cultural backgrounds (such as Yale students in the 1920s) usually have shared reactions to changes in tone sequences—the differences being only in degree.

In both cases, too, sound-triggered transformations are perceived not just in the internal realm of emotions, but also in the surrounding environment. The room itself is felt to shift from heavy to light, tense to relaxed, sterile to active, etc. But these are really psychological shifts. From a philosophical standpoint, this adds support to the notion that the mind shapes the world around us. Before we can begin to apply rational thought, subconscious processes organize data coming to us through our senses, and largely determine what it is we are experiencing. Musical sounds strike us on such an all-consuming and mind-altering level that the emotions stirred interiorly tend to influence how we perceive the exterior world.

In Edison’s experiments, this was demonstrated both in the presumed way that aural changes could create an ambience conducive to communicating with the dead, and the more realistic idea that the mood of a party—not just those in attendance—could change in accordance with listening selections. In this modest sense, music can be said to shape the world around us.

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

Musical Ideologies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a label, “ideology” usually assumes a pejorative tone. To have an ideology is to be distorted and stubborn in one’s thinking, intolerant of opposing points of view, forceful in asserting beliefs, willfully ignorant of contrary evidence. These are the so-called “isms,” which are apparently outgrowths and concretizations of our brain’s tendency to seek out patterns, embrace simplified explanations, adopt unifying theories, and welcome worldviews that mask the complexities of reality. Such systems help us to cope with and (at least pretend) to understand the world around us.

In truth, most of us hold ideas that could be classified as ideological, and no amount of defensiveness or lack of self-awareness can change that fact. Even an aversion to ideologies, which I’ve been known to profess, is itself an ideology. As cultural theorist Terry Eagleton stated, “As with bad breath, ideology is always what the other person has.” Our relationship with the term might improve if we adopted the confession of economist Paul Krugman, who, in accepting charges of being an ideologue, reduced ideology to two simple parts: (a) having values; (b) having some opinion about how the world works.

The realm of music is no stranger to ideology. As an astonishingly diverse and remarkably evocative medium, music begs for simplifying classifications and generates pointed responses. These conditions lead to the drawing of (often-untenable) lines between “genres”—groups of pieces that share enough in common to make them a unit—and the construction of binaries, around which musical ideologies coalesce: authentic vs. inauthentic; hip vs. old-fashioned; pure vs. impure; ugly vs. beautiful; pristine vs. debased.

Whether or not we smell it on our own breath, our musical preferences tend to coagulate into musical ideologies, or allegiances to certain musical values and opinions about how the world of music should or should not work. The caricature of the classical music snob comes to mind. In his defense, and in our own, it is near impossible to uphold a completely non-judgmental stance on things musical. While we might concede philosophically that music criticism (sophisticated and garden variety alike) is planted in the soil of subjectivity, music’s raison d’être is to move us, making it difficult to stand stoically still.

Personally, while I am convinced that aesthetics is not a science and that music is a receptacle for non-rational value judgments, I frequently catch myself turning the radio up in delight or off in disgust. Most of the time, musical ideology takes this harmless, visceral form. Other times, it gushes from influential pens and oozes into academic circles, as with Theodor Adorno’s Marxist critique of popular music. On thankfully rare occasions, musical ideology can have a damaging or even devastating effect, especially when it is part of a nationalist agenda, as with Hitler’s censorship of Jewish musicians and Stalin’s crusade against “formalism” (an amorphous concept that included modernist trends, like dissonance and atonality, and famously targeted Shostakovich and Prokofiev).

The issue, then, is not about whether we are ideological by nature or ideologues when it comes to music. As Eagleton and Krugman remind us, to be human is to be homo ideologicus—creatures driven by ideas, judgments, viewpoints and firm beliefs. The issue instead is one of degrees. To restate, ideology has accumulated negative connotations because of its potential for distasteful manifestations and harmful consequences. Ideology has led (and will continue to lead) to some terrible things. Plus, most of us fancy ourselves as open-minded, which is presumed to be the opposite of ideological. (This, even as we proudly identify as Democrats, Presbyterians, Capitalists, Mystics, Foodies, Deadheads, and countless other ideologies we prefer not to think of as ideologies.) All of this can be sorted out with a crude prescription: ideologies are unavoidable—just don’t be a jerk.

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

(Not) Defining Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A universally applicable definition of music will never be constructed. As an ever-present and ever-malleable aspect of human life, music, it seems, has taken as many forms, shades and variations as humanity itself. A truly objective view of what music is (or can be) would be so inclusive as to be almost useless. Every aspect of the musical entity is open to challenge and reconfiguration: devices used to produce sounds (instruments, found objects, electronic sampling, vocals, etc.); modes of transmission (oral tradition, written notation, live performance, recordings, etc.); means of reception (speakers, headphones, classroom, concert hall, etc.); the sounds themselves (tones, rhythms, consonances, dissonances, etc.).

Yet, at the same time, sources like the Encyclopædia Britannica remind us that, while no sounds can be described as inherently unmusical, “musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell likewise defers to the role of convention: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.” In both cases, monolithism is discarded in favor of relativism: an awareness that ideas about music depend more on one’s location and exposure than on sonic properties themselves. And now, with the aid of technology and global connectivity, it is possible to cultivate an ever-expanding musical vocabulary that reaches far beyond one’s own cultural milieu.

But, even if we embrace globally diverse musical offerings (or, at minimum, acknowledge that what one culture accepts as music is not the final word), it is still the case that music is a cultural product, and, as such, comes to us through a long and multi-actor process of experimenting, selecting, sculpting, modifying and normalizing. Indeed, while abstract considerations may lead us to abandon hard and fast rules about what constitutes a musical sound, whatever music can be said to be is the result of a cultural process. Music, in other words, is defined for us. (It bears noting that even “rule-breaking” systems like twelve-tone serialism and free jazz draw their raw materials from pre-established tools and conceptions.)

To perhaps state the obvious, we do not begin with the view that music is a loose and inclusive category. Rather, it is the existence of musical variants within and between cultures that forces us to recognize that music is a loose and inclusive category. What we are left with, then, is a formulation that is not entirely satisfactory, but is at least defensible: cultures organize sounds in such a way that they are heard as music.

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.

Funktionslust, Birdsong and Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD.

Ethology, the biological study of animal behavior, concerns itself primarily with uncovering survival advantages in animal activities. Balancing a desire to find purpose in animal behavior and avoid the sin of anthropomorphism, ethologists refrain from ascribing emotions or extraneous pleasures to non-human species. What appears to the untrained observer as a creative act or outpouring of feeling is reduced to a survival impulse or an instinctive behavior. It is, of course, wise to keep from seeing too much of ourselves in other animals. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us says less about reality than it does about ourselves. Yet strict adherence to the ethologist’s code can create undue distance. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson asks in his controversial bestseller, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals: “If humans are subject to evolution but have feelings that are inexplicable in survival terms, if they are prone to emotions that do not seem to confer any advantage, why should we suppose that animals act on genetic investment alone?”

This question is all the more penetrating given the impressive spectacles exhibited by many species. A gibbon swinging fervently from branch to branch, a dolphin thrusting itself out of the water, a cat hunting backyard critters for sport. The German language has a word for such behavior: funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in doing what one does best.” This, too, is thought to be adaptive. Pleasure derived from an activity increases an animal’s proneness to pursue it, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. A gibbon who spends extra time swinging in the trees is better fit to flee leopards and snakes when they attack.

But is that all there is to it? Masson points out that a loving animal (again, a controversial concept) may leave more offspring, making lovingness a survival trait. But the same animal may also provide excessive care to a disabled (and therefore doomed) offspring, exposing itself to hazards in the process.

The presumed practicality of funktionslust is further challenged by the performance of songbirds: the roughly 4,000 species of perching birds capable of producing varied and elaborate song patterns. To the standard scientist, the sounds these birds produce—no matter how inventive—serve the basic purposes of establishing territory and advertising fitness to potential mates. But some researchers argue that survival alone cannot account for the amount or variety of imitation, improvisation and near-composition evident in birdsong, nor the seemingly arbitrary times and circumstances in which the songs are often heard.

David Rothenberg and other birdsong experts see this music-making as approaching pure funktionslust, or pleasure derived from a native ability exceeding any evolutionary purpose. In his book Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, Rothenberg proposes that songbird patterns rival human music in terms of structure, aesthetics, expressiveness, interactiveness and extra-practical life enhancement. A philosopher and jazz clarinetist who “jams” with songbirds in the wild, Rothenberg has been accused of the double infractions of anthropomorphism and evaluating birdsong with the bias of a musician. In his defense, he concedes that birds, not people, are the arbiters of their own songs, and only they can know what their repertoires mean to other birds. But he calls it art nonetheless, quoting Wallace Craig: “Art is a fact and after all it would be rather ridiculous from our evolutionistic ideology to deny the possibility that something similar may occur in other species” (“The Song of the Wood Peewee,” 1943).

Following this argument, we might deduce that songbirds experience beauty in their songs. This proposition harmonizes with the work of Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art who posits an evolutionary basis for the human perception of artistic beauty (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution). Dutton identifies Acheulean hand axes as the earliest hominid artwork. Prevalent from 500,000 to 1.2 million years ago, these teardrop carvings have been located in the thousands throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This sheer number and the lack of wear on their delicate blades suggest they were not used for butchering, but for aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, they remain beautiful even to our modern eyes. The reason for this, explains Dutton, is that we find beauty in something done well. We are attracted to the meticulousness and skill evident in the axes. They satisfy our innate taste for virtuosic displays in the same way as well-executed concertos, paintings and ballets. Beauty is in the expertise.

If this attraction existed among our prehistoric ancestors, why not in songbirds? Taking funktionslust in a logical direction, might we assume that songbirds sing for the joy of it, and that their skilled displays feed aesthetic yearnings of other songbirds? These questions point to a possible compromise, in which animal behavior retains its evolutionary explanation and art finds evolutionary justification outside of the drive to survive.

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

The Chronologic Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music has been called the chronologic art. In contrast to the plastic arts, which are presented in space and with the impression of completeness, music involves a temporal succession of impulses converging toward an end. The character of a piece—its shape, purpose, temperament, quality, etc.— is divulged gradually through linear progression. Musical information is performed and perceived through the passage of time and the ordering of sound within it.

The idea of music unfolding in time is a staple observation in the philosophy of music. Schopenhauer viewed tempo as the essence of music. Hegel understood music as sound which retains its temporality, but is liberated from the spatial and material. Time, in other words, is as crucial to a musician as canvas to a painter, wood to a carver, stone to a sculptor, paper to a poet. It is the fundamental surface upon which the art is created and experienced.

Music’s relationship with time can be thought of in two distinct yet interconnected ways. The first is real or ontological time, which consists of organized elements such as duration, rhythm, meter and tempo. Duration is the length of a note. Rhythm is a regular and repeated pattern of sound. Meter refers to the number of beats and time value assigned to each note in a measure. Tempo involves the rate at which music is performed. These time-centered parts are the basic properties with which music is made.

Music’s second temporal component is psychological time, or the listener’s perception of music as it is played in real time. How we experience time is not always in accordance with the clock. Engagement in time is shaped by a slew of factors, including but not limited to physical surroundings, inner disposition and momentary circumstances. Feelings such as boredom, excitement, anxiety, anguish, expectation and pleasure set life at different paces. Similarly, moods and sensations derived from music convey temporal movement that seems to exist apart from meter and tempo. The seconds that pass slowly during a dreary piece are the same as those that fly quickly during a scherzo. Their psychological effects create the illusion of independent clocks.

Musical time, then, exists both within and outside of measurable temporal units. The music itself can be divided according to ordered parameters, and is subject to mathematical dissection and scientific analysis. Yet the movement of time becomes less mechanical and more impressionistic as the sounds travel from their source, through the auditory system and into consciousness. Ontological time makes possible and gives way to psychological time.

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

Essence and Non-Essence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The absence of essentialism is a recurring motif in postmodern philosophy. In that line of thinking, there are no foundational or inherent characteristics that distinguish one entity, object or idea from another. Whatever essence or defining substance there appears to be is an illusion shaped in the mind of the perceiver. Even the concept of human nature comes into question. Without confidence in our suppositions or in data derived from reason and observation, there cannot be a stable or set core of human characteristics. Our personalities become a malleable matrix of personal and socially constructed thoughts, perceptions and experiences.

The notion that we are the product of dispositions and circumstances can be overstated. Physical and elemental properties, scientific laws, genetic encoding and other measurable aspects of the material world inform who we are and what we know. Still, the practice of critical self-reflection—the “post-modern pause”—does help us confront tendencies, proclivities and prejudices we unknowingly possess, and realize the degree to which the beliefs we hold are grounded in subjective consciousness. Whatever the limits of the postmodern position, it does force us to examine and re-examine our assumptions.

This is particularly valuable for subjects rooted in aesthetics, such as music. For the strict postmodernist, music has no essence defining its fundamental nature. Rather, it exists in boundless varieties, each with culturally based particularities and expectations.

It is hardly novel to suggest that musical reactions and assessments are dependent upon the listener’s prior conditioning and exposure. Musical conventions, like a modulation or turn of phrase, arouse generalized emotions for listeners familiar with those devices. Music tied to a holiday or special event brings entire communities into shared sentiments connected with that day. Melodies are often linked to one’s past, stirring feelings and memories of a particular time, place or relationship.

But these observations can be taken too far. Even without the questioning voice of postmodernism, it is clear that how we think and feel about music is largely the product of our composite identities. Yet postmodern claims are softened by the fact that musical signatures and strains are felt in similar ways across wide audiences (within a cultural setting). If we concede that musical appraisal is essentially subjective, then consensus response is a valuable rubric. Musical conventions, figurations, parameters, conclusions and expectations were not forced upon us or dictated from on high. They developed over time through an organic and collective process of experimentation, consolidation and familiarization. As such, standard reactions and attitudes toward musical stimuli are firmer than postmodernists would contend.

No experience, musical or otherwise, is entirely pure or unadulterated. However, this does not mean that qualities attributed to music are simply imaginary. Music appreciation occupies a middle ground, in which sounds are inextricably combined with multi-dimensional experiences. The music’s essence is both intrinsic and entangled with the listener’s personal history. The two cannot be separated.

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

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.

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

Taste Matters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Value in music is of two kinds. The first is formal, or value in the technical sense of the term. Within a musical system, there are agreed upon and objectively verifiable measurements for calculating elements such as tonality, texture, dynamics, temporal properties and structure. For example, theoretical analysis of Western concert repertoire includes specific names for chord types, normative concepts of articulation, parameters for simple and complex compositions, qualifications for themes and variations, and numerous other mechanical and quasi-mechanical computations.

The second kind of value is not so absolute. It is value in the humanistic sense, or the judgment of aesthetic qualities based on sensuous response. This is qualitative worth, in which subjective ideas like beauty, purpose, pleasantness, truth and goodness are applied to music. Such value exists on a continuum. An audience’s impression of a piece can range from strong affinity to staunch dislike, with shades of nuance in between. These varied reactions are common despite attempts to standardize conceptions of excellence. Mozart is supposed to be received as beauty nearing perfection, even if a person does not resonate with it, while elevator music is supposed to be repugnant, even if one aimlessly rides up and down the shaft  just to hear it.

True, one can never fully escape the musical pre-judgments that pervade a culture. Through cultural membership, we are involuntarily exposed to a set of consensus-driven artistic rules and expectations. Yet, on an individual level, there can be varying degrees of agreement and disagreement. This is because aesthetics are not inherent in the piece or in the mind of the listener. They arise from a transaction between the two.

Aesthetic valuation occurs in three successive stages: perception, statement of position, and reason for judgment. In a typical scenario, a listener hears a song, pronounces that it is boring, and explains that it lacks motion and variation. Another person might hear the same song and find it soothing for the same reasons. As a general rule, any piece is capable of attracting fans, no matter how vehement or widespread the opposition. The opposite goes for pieces widely regarded as good or pleasing: they still have their detractors.

Thus, the question follows: Is there any right or wrong way to feel about music? Critics and aestheticians would argue that there is. They point to the role of convention in determining things like attractiveness, balance and symmetry. By these guidelines, a selection can be certified as great, good, mediocre, bad, etc. An exception is made for works outside of one’s purview, namely music of a foreign culture or subculture. For instance, the average American cannot accurately assess a gamelan performance, nor can a Baroque enthusiast give definitive appraisals of gansta rap. But critics object when similar leeway is given for music produced in one’s own cultural setting.

Conclusions drawn by critics and aestheticians are often well reasoned and sometimes thought provoking. But they can also be overly academic and remote from the actual musical encounter. As much as they strive to distance music from arbitrary evaluations, the act of listening is by nature arbitrary. While music has absolute value in terms of its measurable components, the sensuous value we ascribe to it is the result of intimate contact. Norms and inherited assumptions can and do inform our decision-making, but the final judgment remains our own. Music is a matter of taste, and taste matters.

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


Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I think therefore I am.” This phrase has been repeated in countless writings, courses, discourses and ruminations since they first appeared in René Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637). Much of Western philosophy sides with this Cartesian principle, which argues that the act of thinking is the only certain proof that a thinker exists. While specific thoughts can (and should) be doubted if there is reason to do so, the fact that someone is thinking those thoughts cannot be challenged. It is the only thing one can be certain of.

Whether or not one agrees completely with this reductionist approach or accepts the mind-body dualism it rests upon, it does give due consideration to the connection between thought and identity. Ideas about the external world are born from the internal processes of perception, pondering and projection, which are necessarily subjective and usually malleable. One’s notions about the world create the world for that person. The same goes for how one perceives oneself in the world, both in terms of self-image and the role that one plays. Thus, we might extend the aphorism “I think therefore I am” to include “What I think is who I am” (acknowledging that the first statement is objective and the second is subjective).

It is possible, then, to understand all works of the mind as autobiographical. Essays, equations, illustrations, engravings, enquiries and inscriptions need not tell an oral history or communicate a narrative to divulge details of the author’s experience. The particular thoughts one thinks and the way those thoughts are expressed are, in a basic sense, who that person is. The creation defines the creator.

To be sure, each person who encounters the final product will interpret (or recreate) it all over again. Even the maker him or herself will appreciate it differently with each exposure. But regardless if the work is artistic, utilitarian or somewhere in between, it reveals the person’s mind, and is thus the most that can be known of who that person is.

Music provides an illustration. Traces of influence, flashes of inspiration, flights of ingenuity, records of experience, translations of feelings, indications of aptitudes, attestations of predilections are all stored in the sounds and silences, rhythms and phrasings, harmonies and dynamics, articulations and voicings of a piece. It is the activity of the mind made audible. It is the self made audible.

Music is also autobiographical in that it captures a moment in time. It is a snapshot of a creative and reflective instance in one’s always-changing existence. The sounds capture the nuances of the moment. They stem from a mind in constant shift. Music written at any other time would be different. Each piece is like a page in a diary.

Granted, the language of music can be abstract. It may contain the essence of the composer, but that essence is not always clear or universally understood (or understood the same way each time it is heard). This, too, is representative of the mind-located identity. Like all thoughts, musical thoughts are elusive and temporary. Yet they do not have to be definite or straightforward to be evidence of the thinker’s realness or constitutive of the thinker’s identity. To think up music is to exist; the music that is thought up is who the composer is.

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