“In Western societies, the arts tend to occupy a special niche of their own, as if they might be a luxury rather than a vital part of human life. This has made it possible for the unenlightened to argue that music and the other arts are some kind of substitute for, or escape from, ‘real’ life. It is a conclusion with which I profoundly disagree.” StorrI have read Anthony Storr’s book “Music and the Mind.” Storr loves music and can draw on extensive knowledge and experience, not only as a listener but also as an amateur singer and musician. Apart from that, he is an erudite and a conscientious writer.
You talk about music?
I like listening to music at leisure, without distractions. Before I started working on this blog I have put some familiar music on to drown out the sounds of the street and the neighbours. Storr doubts whether music played in the background can aid concentration, but I find it works for me. If you are interested in matters of music, mind and philosophy you are advised to read his book. Regrettably, not all the music Storr mentions to illustrate his points was immediately familiar to me; it would have been nice if book came with a disk or an mp3-file.
From a philosophical viewpoint the problem with language and music lies very deep:
“…it is impossible for language to exhaust the meaning of music’s world-symbolism, because music refers symbolically to the original contradiction and original pain at the heart of the primordial unity, and thus symbolises a sphere which lies above and beyond all appearance. In relation to that primal being every phenomenon is merely a likeness, which is why language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never, under any circumstances, externalise the innermost depths of music; whenever language attempts to imitate music it only touches the outer surface of music, whereas the deepest meaning of music, for all the eloquence of lyric poetry, can never be brought even one step closer to us.” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy §6 (I have used the Cambridge Text by Geuss instead of Storr’s quotation)
Do I have to be an experienced listener?
It is not a useless endeavour to talk about music, but there are limits to what we can describe in words. One question that hovers over this book is whether you need experience to listen to music. There is a broad range of listeners: from outstanding composers to people who could only relate classical music to fragments of television commercials. Also, listening to a piece of music that one knows intimately is a completely different experience from hearing it for the first time. Still, all listeners have something in common.
“Music can order our muscular system. I believe that it is also able to order our mental contents.” Storr
It is interesting to see that both Plato and Arisotle looked at music as a powerful instrument of education which could alter the characters of those who studied it, inclining them toward inner order and harmony. For that reason, Plato was in favour of strict censorship to ensure that people would not come into contact with music that would have undesired effects.Music and emotional responses
Everyone would probably agree that music can lead to a state of arousal. Please don’t confuse this with sexual arousal: Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. Some people argue that what you hear when you listen to music is what the composer has skilfully put in. There is of course a method to a piece of music and there is the composer’s technical skill, but:
” … a word does not mean the same thing to one person as to another; only the tune says the same thing, awakens the same feeling, in both – though that feeling may not be expressed in the same words.” Mendelssohn, in a letter
It is interesting how Mendelssohn hints at something underlying words, maybe underlying feelings. Storr says we need to remember that emotional arousal is partly non-specific; emotions overlap and can change from one feeling to another quite easily. Critics don’t agree when it comes to the feelings they experience when listening to the same music. But there might be something much bigger going on.
“Music activates tendencies, inhibits them, and provides meaningful and relevant resolutions.” Leonard Meyer
Schopenhauer and music
Musicians sometimes experience feelings of being ‘taken over’ or ‘possessed’ during a performance. Composer Alexander Goehr describes how:
“There is no longer a composer who pushes the material about, but only its servant, carrying out what the notes themselves imply. This is the exact experience I seek and which justifies all else.”
Schopenhauer writes how music is an independent art (…) the most powerful of all the arts, and therefore attains its ends entirely from its own resources.
As Storr describes it, both Kant and Schopenhauer believed that there is an underlying reality that is inaccessible to us. Schopenhauer says there is a specific kind of experience that can bring us closer to this reality; when we look at our hand, we can see it as a hand that is the same as anybody else’s, but at the same time, we have a private, subjective knowledge of it. This inside knowledge gives us our only glimpse of the true nature of reality. It brings us closer to the driving force behind everything in the universe: the Will.
According to Schopenhauer, the action of the body is nothing but the act of will objectified.
When we look at Schopenhauer and music, it is important to realise that he was a pessimist. Art was a means to be taken out of oneself, to forget oneself as an individual.
“There always lies so near to us a realm in which we have escaped entirely from all our affliction; but who has the strength to remain in it for long?”
In Schopenhauer’s view music is different from all the other arts because it speaks to us direct. It is a copy of the Will itself. Schopenhauer wished to abolish willing and striving, to avoid arousal, to purge oneself of desire. Storr describes this as life-denying rather than life-enhancing.Storr mentions how Schopenhauer finds music has a more direct, profound and immediate effect on us than the other arts, but is not completely satisfied with his explanation of the phenomena.
“Schopenhauer failed to make explicit the relation of music with physical movement, although he perceived both as more directly connected with the Will than other human activities.” Storr
In doing so, Schopenhauer might have missed out on an opportunity to experience music as life-enhancing rather than escapist.
Nietzsche’s more positive attitude to life was reflected in his treatment of music, says Storr.
“Art and nothing but art! It is the great means of making life possible, the great seduction to life, the great stimulant of life.” Nietzsche
For Nietzsche, music was not a transient pleasure. He attributed such significance to music that he was closer to the ancient Greeks than to most modern thinkers.
Storr concludes that: “both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were profoundly aware of the horrors of existence. But, where Schopenhauer conceived art as being a refuge, a realm into which a man could temporarily escape from the dissatisfactions of life into a state of contemplation, Nietzsche viewed it as something which could reconcile us with life rather than detach us from it. Because of art, we need not negate the will. Nietzsche believed it was the weak who followed Schopenhauer by denying life: the strong affirm it by creating beauty.”
There is much more to be said about music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I am not going to do it, right now. I would like to thank [blog since deleted; sorry] for suggesting I read “Music and the Mind”. Readers interested in Nietzsche might look up [blog since deleted; sorry].