• Fred Guerin

What is the Experience of Music?

Music is the only religion that delivers the goods [Frank Zappa]

Music is probably the only real magic I have encountered in my life. There’s not some trick involved with it. It’s pure and it’s real. It moves, it heals, it communicated and does all these incredible things. [Tom Petty]

Without music, life would be an error. The German imagines that even God sings songs. [Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols]

Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. [Ludwig van Beethoven]

Music is the ultimate medium for expressions of love, and those expressions find a beautiful backdrop in the environment. Music is also a popular rallying point — at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts. [Gord Downie]

There is something primordial, universal and enigmatic about music. In a deep and meaningful way music is a shared human activity. It is communicative and dialogical: it creates an atmosphere or a mood that we can share in; it 'speaks' to us, we listen and we respond. It continuously creates new norms within established traditions, and in so doing challenges us to hear difference in sameness. It evokes memories, engages us emotionally, and takes us to new places.


Music makes us think, fills us with wonder, inspires us, witnesses our loneliness, deepens our sadness, gives us hope, and invites us to join in a continuously creative experiential and experimental human panoply of sound and rhythm. We play it, tap our foot to it, dance to it, sing along with it and live ‘in the moment’ of music. In the notes of the melody that came before and the ones we are now anticipating we experience diversity in unity—we discover the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. In music, silence sounds.

But can we really define music? Is it simply a sonorous event somewhere between noise and silence? What happens to us when we perform or listen to music? What is it about music that makes it ‘therapeutic’? Can truth or authenticity speak through music? What about ethics? What is going on when music functions as a ‘political’ statement or a tool of propaganda? Do words fail to capture the experience of the musical? Has technology changed the way we experience music? Is musical behavior an evolutionary adaptation? Does the music we grow up with and listen to form us as a certain kind of person? If an animal could play music, would we get what they played?


So why do I ask the question: What is the experience of music? I think, unlike a painting music does not actually represent anything out there in the world. It is not about anything . It is more like an activity, cerebral or emotional experience rather than a representation. This may be why music is not a subject that philosophers feel entirely competent talking about—with perhaps three or four important exceptions. The Frankfurt School German philosopher Theodor Adorno might be the most prominent here.


Adorno not only composed music, he wrote voluminously about it. He not only connected music with the social and cultural history, but he illuminated his own time by looking at its music. Adorno saw music as a social product—thus in the pre-modern world dominated by religious belief, a work of music was often thought to be divinely inspired—God spoke through the composer. As compositional technique develops in the modern period, the composers of the day achieve their aesthetic goals not by way of divine inspiration but by immersing themselves in the laws of established musical form and technique.


And yet, what to me is both fascinating and liberating about music is that the rules governing a musical tradition or era are invariably transgressed by some upstart or other! It is as if music itself says to us, “okay, that’s it! I’m tired of this shit, man…let’s move on to something new and more interesting”!


Paradoxically, music has both an emancipatory or liberating potential that enlarges our reality, and it can lull us into conformity. Think of the captivating musical soundscapes of Brian Eno--then think of anthems, military music or elevator music.


In this latter sense music does not creatively resist the status quo, but holds a mirror up to the world we find ourselves embedded in—and in some ways imprisoned by.

I am thinking here about the way in which music in our own consumerist and commercial culture reflects the superficial and often mind-numbing obsession with standardized forms, unvarying electronic rhythms and undemanding melodic structures. This is music not as actively and creatively composed or received, but music as mind-numbing background chatter that cannot stimulate, engage or ennoble because its purpose is to anesthetize the listener and commodify and infantilize music itself.


Perhaps the most insightful and original book on the experience of music as a way of life and being is David Byrne's 'How Music Works'. Byrne talks of how music changess the world and our place in it, of the notion of performance, of creativity, of technology and of everything beside and in between

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