With Music — we are never quite sure

In a recent comment by Gerald Ens, I was asked what role music has in the formation of character. This is a question that has a long history. This isn’t the place to do a thorough genealogy of the question. However, to make a broad generalization, I would say that opinions about character and music have not changed so much throughout history.

Certain genres of music are still associated with certain groups of people and time periods. It seems that when people partake in a certain genre of music, they immediately take on the cultural connotations of a that genre and a character attribute is thrown onto the subject: one cannot like rock and roll without having some inclination towards being a rock god, a groupie, sex, drugs, etc. One cannot like classical music unless they have a pretentious side of them.

Furthermore, one can be accused for not actually liking the music at all; they like the culture that goes with it. For example, if I am a rich aristocrat in the middle of the 19th century, I go to concerts whether I like the music or not because that is where politics happen, that is where I retain my status in society. To take a more recent example, if I am an avant garde type, a hipster maybe, I like strange and atonal music, or even terrible bands because if I say that I like something on the fringes, I gain the respect of those who are also on the fringes. Those who enjoy more mainstream music cannot accept how someone can actually “enjoy” listening to music so strange. To both types of people, the accusation can be leveled: you don’t like the music, you’re doing it for social reasons.

The obverse of this argument is equally absurd: how can one be attracted to music with no cultural associations? Can one be attracted to the rap music or the protest songs of the 1960s without the “Fuck the system”? Probably. But perhaps they are attracted to other aspects of the music, e.g., be care free, be yourself, love everyone. The various elements of music that compete for our attention are far ranging. Usually this is named by answering the question “Why do you like this music?” Even music that you have never heard before becomes quickly associated with meaning from your experience. In order to be meaningful it must have meaning and meaning.

Another argument that had great success throughout a good deal of music history goes something like this: when we listen to holy music, we become holy whether we like it or not. This took the form of an argument that goes (very brutally) like this: The universe has been ordered according to divine proportions, unity being the purest; it is the most like God. Those intervals that are most unified are those intervals that resonate with the most divine presence. For example, the unison, the simplest of intervals, is the most like God since there is only one God and one universe and one Truth. The octave, the next closest interval to the unison exemplifies a similar relation, though not quite as pure. In the Baroque, exemplified by the music of Bach, the unison represented God, the octave the Holy Spirit, the fifth Jesus, and the third, man. The third also plays a special role because one has to flatten the third in order to achieve a tuning system that enables one to play in more than a few keys. This also serves to symbolize that man has fallen.

This tradition enjoyed its heyday during the renaissance. The people didn’t have to understand what was going on, nor did they have to like it – it was good for them because the music was in itself good and the soul would recognize it as such.

During the Baroque, the Lutherans developed this idea into saying that music moved a person’s disposition to be in a place where they could be better able to receive the words that were said in the music, e.g., the gospel. The composer had at their disposal a set of compositional devices that could be used in such a way that one could easily predict the audience’s reaction to the music. Compose the music in a minor key with a slow tempo and the audience becomes melancholic.

Closely connected to this use of rhetorical devices in music, we have composers who write for film. Tense scenes are often accentuated with deep bass and slow high notes, always in the minor. Joyous, triumphant scenes are in a major key with full orchestra with an easily identifiable theme. Basically, and it is obvious, the music accentuates the mood of each scene.

There is another theme by Zizek that should mentioned. He writes in various places that Beethoven’s Ode to joy has been played by many dictators with opposing politics. For some reason, there seems to be a unifying, sublime element in Beethoven’s ninth that many people seem to easily grasp. This, he claims, is often claimed to be the redemption of music: the same music that served evil can now serve good; it is an empty signifier. And he claims, in a Perverts Guide to Ideology, that this situation should be read in a much more ambiguous way that “with music, we are never quite sure.” Zizek also claims that this sublime element is nothing other than a void: it is too ambiguous to make sense of; it serves too many purposes; it is merely a deep feeling of connectivity to whatever one is already connected with.

Now, after these long winded remarks, what do I think? Well, in my platonic days I fancied the idea that when you listened to the music of Arvo Pärt your soul and character were slowly worked upon in a good and ordered way because the profound simplicity that his music exemplifies can do nothing but correct those straying from the straight and narrow.

I don’t hold to this view so stringently any longer. I do tend towards the idea that music speaks culture and that music is always drenched with connotations that are difficult to divorce. I tend toward the idea that certain cultures of music produce a certain character attribute and vice versa. Perhaps Gregorian chant is attractive for those who yearn for a simple life of divine mystery. If I only want to sing Italian opera, if I want to be on stage, if I want to be adored for my voice of gold that soars above the orchestra, I might have a deep need to be publicly adored, to be noticed, to be admired.

Still, I am hesitant to think in these terms because it tends to pigeon-hole people into categories based on their musical choices. And yet, this is often what we do: “You listen to Bob Dylan? Okay, now you are legit.” “Oh, you listen to Radiohead? Okay, now my respect for you has grown immensely.” In most of these cases, we are congratulating people on being attracted to bodies of work that have historically (or culturally) been respected that we also align ourselves with. While I do tend towards a view of art that holds a certain kind of complexity as criteria for long lasting meaningful interaction, I do not want to say that it is universally true that complex music is always better than simpler music. This argument is also used in the defence of most kinds of art: Doestovesky writes polyphonic novels; therefore, the complexity of the characters continually draws readers into the bountiful resources of the text. But I do believe that well-constructed complexity lends itself to continual interpretations which the West tends to find historically meaningful (maybe it’s just a white dude thing?).

I would like to conclude these remarks by addressing the most difficult to address: Zizek’s claim. How should it be read that the same music can be used for both good and evil? In truth, I can’t say much. His claim is basically that music is tool that can be used by a person of any persuasion. And in this sense, the only thing that I can say is that music is a language. As a language that speaks a certain vocabulary, it doesn’t possess inherent meaning independent of culture. It can be used for good or evil and though certain genres of language are cultivated in certain spheres of our human world, the genre itself is almost always easily adaptable to be used for other purposes and political views.

And that, my dear readers, is what makes it so difficult to say whether some forms of music are better than others. Music doesn’t seem to be a tool like any other that has potential consequences like, say, the internet does (it influences the way you read, interact, etc.). The cultivation of certain styles do tend to lend themselves towards certain kinds of practices and techniques, but the musical technique in itself does not make a person more holy. Music is an ambiguous tool that seems to be able to serve basically any political movement. And this, my friends, is difficult to accept.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

4 thoughts on “With Music — we are never quite sure

  1. Thanks a lot for this Joel. These are exactly the kind of themes I was hoping you’d wrestle with.

    I’m a little confused by the paragraph on cultural associations. What is the absurd argument that you are describing? Are you basically saying that when we hear music it immediately becomes a part of our world and therefore is always a part of the meaning that gives our world meaning?

    I appreciate your reluctance to accept the reductionist position that this kind of music turns you into this kind of person. Do you still have some sympathy for this view or must we get rid of it entirely? Is there a way to have a more nuanced position that looks somewhat similar to this?

    Finally, I agree that thinking of music as a language is helpful. But I suspect there are reductions that can also take place in this view, such that “well, that’s just your opinion because of the language that you’ve learned best” becomes the only way that one can evaluate music in any way whatsoever. Do you have similar suspicions?


  2. @ the absurd argument. Yes, you describe exactly what I am saying. The next move is to say that one can listen to music objectively, i.e., it has an inherent meaning beyond our petty individual experiences (Kant? Are you there?). Said differently, how could one experience music without associating it with any other experience (musical or otherwise)? Even if it is difficult to understand, which some music is, we try and make sense of it by giving this confusion a name, even if it is just confusion.

    @ the trans-formative affect of music and the effects it can take on one’s life, again, cannot be entirely separated from the culture of that kind of music.

    Both of these themes are directly related to canon, or what can be considered a masterpiece. Some musicologists argue that masterpieces are only deemed as such by those in power. The set of values that the powerful are governed by are those which privilege one kind of work over another. For instance, works that innovate are deemed to be masterpieces since innovation is a key value. Agency is hard to locate: do we like innovative works because we innovate or the other way around? Another theme quickly comes into play here: what makes some difference better than others?

    I’ve had the suspicion that music should not be reduced to saying that it is a language. And yet, I have not come across a good example of why it doesn’t work like this. Can you explain “well, that’s just your opinion because of the language that you’ve learned best” a bit more?

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  3. Still, I probably would hold to the idea (following Heidegger) that a great work of music is a work of art that orients a people. It gives things their shine and radiance. Music does this so well. In any setting, change the music, and you change the mood. But, pace Heidegger, I hold that there are some forms of music that are given meaning merely by doing them, not for their performative aspects.

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