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Sonic Illuminations: Music, Time, and Eternity (Part I of III)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Nov 20, 2015 8:56:00 PM

One day, years ago, I was driving back to my mother’s home in Connecticut while listening to the radio dial set to our local public radio station. I was no more than 17 or 18 years old at the time. While driving, I noticed at one point what amounted to ‘dead air’ or an inadvertent interruption in the transmission. Suddenly, I heard fading into the foreground of my auditory field the sound of a single tone guided gently by violins. Years later I would read the composer Rob Kapilow describe that sound as “so pure, it’s as if that note somehow was there forever.”[1] This single pitch was eventually enveloped by a two-fold harmonic progression that absorbed the note into a profound expression of human sadness. The harmonies gently whispered the solemn pitch to unfold into a melodic journey of three ascending tones at a time, step by step, onwards and upwards. The melody was eventually taken up by the violas and then the cellos, with all the strings moving ever so gradually on a journey, upward, until the ascending melodies converged together into a climatic chord reaching the highest pitch of the entire piece.

It was if we had entered into a sonic bath of sunlight, indeed heaven itself.

The sounds were so overwhelming, that I found myself circling around my neighborhood so as not to interrupt the sonorous serenity. I eventually pulled the car over to the side of the road, lest any distractions encumber this auricular experience. For these several minutes, where mundane time had for all practical purposes ceded, the music elicited dimensions of emotions within myself that I never knew existed. And yet, paradoxically, surrounded by and absorbed in these gliding and interlocking melodies, it was if I could not possibly be more myself.

The Essence of Emotion

It was the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who had an insight on music that I find to be a compelling interpretation of my experience in the car. He wrote:

(Music) never expresses the phenomenon, but only the inner nature, the in-itself, of every phenomenon, the will itself. Therefore music does not express this or that particular and definite pleasure, this or that affliction, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, or peace of mind, but joy, pain, sorrow, horror, gaiety, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without any accessories, and so also without the motives for them.[2]

What Schopenhauer is saying here is that unlike the other arts, music is able to communicate human emotion irrespective of discrete persons, places, or events. If I want to communicate the emotion of sadness through, say, a painting or poem, the only way I can do so is to paint or write about an instantiation of sadness, portraying a specific circumstance of the particular emotion that I am seeking to express. However, music resists specificity and transcends instantiation; rather, music is the emotion that it is expressing. Sad music does not depict a sad event; rather, sad music depicts the essence of sadness.

Music and Time

What Schopenhauer did not appreciate, however, was the incessant directionality of music. This aural beauty, this essence of emotion that I encountered on the radio was drawing me somewhere. Musician and theologian Jeremie Begbie has written extensively on what he calls the “teleological principles” of music, that is, the musical tones and harmonies rhythmically relate to each other in such a way that we have a sense that the music is going somewhere, it has a destination, leading us to some kind of goal or “gathering together” of the whole temporal process.[3] This teleological dynamic is generated primarily through a temporal structure that might best be described as “equilibrium-tension-resolution.” A song begins at a tonal home, what we call the key, and then, the music departs, it goes on a journey, and that journey is marked by a kind of tension, a tension that arises from the dissonance of sensing that we are far away from home. But, tonal music will always resolve that tension by bringing us back home, back to where we belong.

So where is it that we belong? To where is music ultimately taking us? That will be the topic of our next post.

Until then, can you think of time when you were overwhelmed by music?


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[1] http://www.npr.org/2010/03/09/124459453/barbers-adagio-naked-expression-of-emotion.

[2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Vol. I (Translated by E.F.J. Payne; Indian Hills, CO: Falcon’s Wing Press, 1958), 261.

[3] Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music and Time (Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 38.

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