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Music is Sound with Thought

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

This is why music in the end is so powerful, because it speaks to all parts of the human being, all sides – the animal, the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. How often in life we think that personal, social and political issues are independent, without influencing each other. From music we see that this cannot occur, it is an objective impossibility, because in music there are no independent elements. Logical thought and intuitive emotions are permanently united. Music teaches us that everything is connected.   – From: Daniel Barenboim, On the Nature and Power of Music  

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  1. James

    As a rejoinder to the above, is it not also possible to add that music is perhaps a force just, if not more, powerful then that of human love (how inadequate the English rendering of this word is). Can anything transform us so deeply, so importantly, so essentially. Who can ever really be the same person as they were before, after they’ve experienced, say Mahler’s music as “an amplitude of a hearing encompassing the far distance, to which the most remote analogies and consequences are virtually present” (Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy) or Schoenberg’s, Verklarte Nacht “as like music written in a completely different sphere, like music conceived on some very remote planet” (Adorno, Essays on Modern Music). Only a dullard or a corpse would remain the exact same person afterwards and, pivotally perhaps it’s in this
    capacity that it not merely approximates “thought”, but is “though directly”, in the sense of that which is “played out” in space by time, yet not been determined nor made by it. This I suspect is the reason why ancient philosophers often tutored their students in the art of “listening” which they perceived to a truer guide to understanding, the world and Cosmos and God, than the mudus imagnalis of the eyes.

    Who can doubt their wisdom?

  2. Isn’t music and all arts images of a living person? If yes, how could we put first the image and the prototype second!? Maybe one has to be disappointed from one’s relationships (maybe from oneself, first of all) in order to make this reversal.


    Beyond this, in the purely aesthetic level, of course we like different music in different ages/periods of our life. As I listen to Mahler now, I tend to agree with Wittgenstein, that much of his music reveals bad taste. It sounds like a conformity, but yes, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are at the top of classical music. Schoenberg is worth our admiration for transcending his own invention (the 12notes system) and arriving at such masterpieces as the Verklaerte Nacht.

  3. James



    “Isn’t music and all arts images of a living person?” No, I don’t agree that all the arts, especially music, are necessarily about producing the images of some living being, for example, what exact image, or images of some person does Mozart’s 18th piano concerto produce, or a Hayden sonata?. Surely it can’t be said that a sonata is simply the inner reflection of the composer’s so-called “inwardness”, or that it’s objectively constructed with a self conscious message for the listeners, if either of these were simply the case then music wouldn’t have the deep power for us that it evidently does.


    Perhaps it’s because music doesn’t evoke a definite image or the exact same image every time when we hear it, which makes it freer, if not more elusive to understand then the worlds inhabited by other art-forms. A musical piece can and, often does evolve into something quite different during the course of a life times listening. It’s never quite the same piece again and again and it’s this lack of a definitive shape that isn’t draw upon any particular “image” of man, that gives music that power which can be described as that which is non-human, and it’s this non-human element which has historically conceived classical music to be something “intellect” too. This in no small measure, explains why music, at least in western consciousness, is often described as being the most spiritual art form, as both in ancient Greek philosophy (since the time of Pythagoras) and in Judaism, there’s been a denigration of the merely ephemeral, image bound, humanly sensuous world, as phenomena that are incapable of producing something of lasting spiritual worth. This is our cultural, social and scientific inheritance in the west. And it’s still music, the strangest of all human creations, that in a largely secular world still manages to resonate with something, some might call God.


    “ Maybe one has to be disappointed from one’s relationship” Indeed, for is not hope given to those for which there’s simply none left?


    “As I listen to Mahler now, I tend to agree with Wittgenstein, that much of his music reveals bad taste” Yes, I do agree in part, I think Wagner had exhausted nearly all the energies and “color” which gave music form in Mahler’s time. Yet, I’m not sure it was bad taste, just frustration and repeated sufferings perhaps.


    “Schoenberg is worth our admiration for transcending his own invention” Yes, his music was the breath of fresh air made to witness the horrors and strangeness of the 20th century.



  4. Stephen Andersen

    I have been studying music theory and composition for several years now. Music does affect one in various ways however after much reflection I find music to be mostly imitative. Even birds can instinctively create a mating call and how interesting that the same call is used to identify the various species. I think the volitional aspect of the composer or creator of a piece of music largely controls the influential aspect of that music. Aesthetics are influenced by human tastes which are more similiar than different cross culturally speaking. We all have five senses that operate in the same manner unless one is handicapped. I personally find music to be a wonderful escape from the prison cell of one’s mind and evocative of thought and reflection. I know I am not a flat liner yet.

  5. James

    Hi Stephen

    I don’t know if I share your idea about music been largely imitative. If we accept this idea, we must surely ask what music is imitative of, what does it actually imitate. Such imitation implies as it does in Philosophical terms, for example in Kant’s perceptive distinction between the phenomenal qualities of the everyday, empirical world and, the layer of hidden imitated “Things-in-Themselves” that are eternal, permanent and unknowable. In Kant there’s a strict and absolute division between these two realms. However Kant’s philosophical premise is built upon the reciprocal notion that these invisible forms and the actual raw chaotic materials of the empirical world are linked by the process of duplication, that gives the everyday world it’s relative conformity and order to what he called “laws”.

    Yet, perhaps, artistic creations, and music creations in particular, could be conceived as a type of inferior duplication of those perfect things or ideas that lay behind the often murky and dull, but sometimes beautiful phenomenal world of everyday existence. I don’t know if such a theory equates to what you mean by imitation, as the mating calls of birds are really a type of natural language rather than a form of disinterested thought like the music composed or “thought-up” by the composer himself. The natural languages of animals mean something equivalent to a computational code that’s tied into the biological “Hardware” of the organism in question.

    Unlike even everyday human language, there’s simply no room for ambiguity, for disinterested second thoughts about what’s been perceived, as a result there’s neither thought nor any degree of freedom either in the language or thoughts of animals, no matter how wonder and beautiful they are. I think that unlike Kant, we could perhaps attempt to understand the nature of music as being that perception that can be grasped inwardly, and be transformed into what Leibniz called the state of apperception (which is unique to human beings alone) in which one finally becomes consciousness of being something other than a mere animal, with the corresponding limited thoughts and language of such creatures; and what you say about music being an escape from the prison of one’s own mind is absolutely correct in this context, as it’s also an escape or movement towards more freedom.


  6. Stephen Andersen

    Thank you, James for your thoughts! Let me elaborate on what I was referring to as “music being largely imitative” . When one first studies an instrument of music or composition, one learns scales, intervals, rhythmic values, chordal formations and voice leading as well as harmonic and counterpoint rules of movement. These are the vary basic components of music. From these rudimentary concepts melodies and songs are formed, sonatas, cantatas and symphonic movements are created. However, initially one is inspired to play or create by listening to other’s music be it a grand symphony or an individual drum rhythm. As far as music representing a Platonic ideal in some other realm I don’t know with certainty that this is so. I would like it to be so. I would like to create music worthy of these other planes of existence and to garner interest from their inhabitants. An interesting audience indeed! My senses are finite however and limited to this plane of existence and mercifully so I think.
    So I will choose to imitate Bach and Palestrina and Mozart and Terry Riley and William Ackerman to name a few of my mentors. I am studying music history as well and find the various scale and chord progressions that were popular in ancient cultures to be very useful in creating music in imitation of those cultures. Some musical notation has been recorded from the early Medieval time and from the Byzantine and Roman cultures. Trying to interpret the notation is challenging though and can sometimes only be guessed at as the manuscripts available are incomplete and the musical shorthand as varied as the music.

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