08 July 2011

A Theory of Music: The Most Abstract of Arts

The great music theorists have written extensively on the mechanics of music--cadences, counterpoint, chord progressions, etc.  But I feel that there has been some negligence in regard to a more general theory of music.  So I'd like to start a series of essays that focus on the nature of music and provide a more philosophical approach than what has been traditionally granted this most ethereal and elusive of arts.  In this first essay, I will examine music's abstractness.
I submit that music is the most abstract of arts.  This does not make music superior or inferior to other arts; it simply marks one of its distinct qualities.  Pure abstractness is music's ultimately unique trait.  If we try to learn something of its nature by comparison to other arts, it stands to reason that the foundation of the examination should be in music's abstractness.

The other arts are largely representational.  Drama is the art of making an actor a passable ambassador of fiction.  His or her job is to make us believe, to some degree, that we are witnessing tangible reality.  If actors have not convinced us that what we are watching is a plausible reality, then they have, by definition, failed.  (By reality, I mean a performance that "holds water" within the realms of the drama's own universe.  A good performance of Peter Pan will convince us of Peter Pan's reality, even though he does not adhere to actual physics.)

And then the literary aspect of the play or film steps in.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, literature uses characters, settings and events that connect the audience to the portrayed reality.  And often the subject of drama or literature is actual events (Julius Caesar, Henry V).  Literature uses its own reality which must in some way be comparable to actual reality in order to convey a truth or message about actual life.

With the exception of Islamic art which intentionally depicts nothing but shapes and patterns, visual art is also highly representational.  Even "abstract art" signifies a signified in the actual world.  One could look at a purely abstract painting and perceive it to be a highly stylized image of a rose garden.  And still, the most abstract works still do not abandon shape and color.  A child may point to a deep yellow stroke and say, "That's the color of my school bus."  Visual art constantly reminds us and enriches our understanding of actuality.

These three arts (drama, literature and visual art) are all equalled in nature.  I doubt many artists would rush up to a vast sunset spilling across the sea, set their canvas in the sand and exclaim, "See!  Isn't mine better?"  And as the cliché goes, "truth is stranger than fiction."  The lives of real women and men are often just as inspiring as any epic and as complex as any Dickens novel.

But what is there in nature to rival music?  The first thought to come to mind is birdsong.  I invite those bird-lovers to listen to Bach's "Chaconne" in D minor and then walk outside to see if they can hear anything so magnificent.  The only equivalent to music I can think of is to hear the voice of a loved one, but while I cannot argue against the emotion that voice may bring, no one can argue that a lover's voice shares the technical and mathematical beauty of even the simplest folk song.  Not to offend any acousticians--the competing frequencies of a voice do have a kind of beauty.  But that sunset by the sea shares a beauty of composition and color theory that all great artists aspire to, whereas the acoustic structure of a voice is not even comparable to the linear development of a melody or the dramatic shifts in chords as they progress.  Music has no natural teacher--no one to emulate.

When I was discussing this idea with friends, someone argued that dance was as abstract as music.  I have two objections to that argument.  1) There are movements in nature which are just as thrilling as dance.  A group of running giraffes was one of the most elegant spectacles I have ever beheld.  2)  Dance is an attempt to make music more accessible and less abstract by giving it visual, tangible, human form.

Linguistic Testament to Music's Abstractness:
In English, as well as all the other languages with which I am acquainted, there is no one word to say that the sound of a piece of music is beautiful which isn't used metaphorically.  I will explain what I mean.  The word beautiful derives, obviously, from beauty, which is a primarily visual attribute.  Its application to music, then, is metaphorical.  The music sounds the way mountains look--beautiful, majestic, etc.  All the other senses have a positive and negative adjective to describe them: beautiful & ugly, fragant & foul, delicious & unsavory, comfortable/pleasurable & painful.  What can we say about music at a literal level besides "sounds good" or "sounds bad?"  We can talk of music being luscious, pleasant, striking or witty, but all of these adjectives are metaphorical, and they encode much more than just a positive or negative aspect.  It is as if music is so abstract that we cannot come up with a single word that describes it as being either positive or negative besides the genericgood and bad.

Representational Music:
Once, I substituted for an elementary school music teacher for several weeks.  One lesson/experiment I did was to play movements from Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals and have the children draw whatever animal they thought the music was depicting.  For every song, one or two students out of 25 would get it right, but more often than not, students (and home-room teachers) were dead wrong.  People guessed bluejays for "Elephants," and baboons for "Fossils."  Now, imagine if I had shown them pictures of those animals and asked them to draw what they thought it was.  Obviously, they would all be right without exception, unless by some odd chance a student had never seen a picture of an elephant before.

I feel confident that most educated people could spot Napoleon Bonaparte in a lineup, even though they have never seen him.  The portraits we have left of him give us a pretty good idea of what he looked like, even though they are not an exact likeness.  Were there any photographs of him, most people would be able to instantly identify him, because they had seen his other pictures.  But take Beethoven's EroicaSymphony.  It was written in reference to Napoleon, but without being told so in a program note, no one would be able to tell, even if they had personally known the emperor.  Similarly, if another piece were written about Napoleon, the subject matter wouldn't be transparent.  Even if the piece referenced Beethoven's third symphony, without being told the intent of the allusion, listeners wouldn't know if the reference were to Napoleon or Beethoven, or just heroism in general.


What separates music from the other arts is its overwhelming abstractness.  To the uninitiated, music seems like sheer chaos that somehow speaks directly to the core of the human soul.  In later essays, I will begin to examine what that abstractness means in terms of the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effects of music.



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