Music, Truth, Profundity
One of my long-standing philosophical ‘worries’ is what I describe as a ‘cognitive dilemma’ in relation to musical communication. How can an art form which lacks a discursive element and addresses itself primarily and indeed immediately to the auditory sense, be discerned as conveying ‘truth’ or ‘profundity’? The power is amply attested — so much so that alone among the arts music occasionally figures as a ‘surrogate religion’. The pieces of this kaleidoscope — ideas culled from Schopenhauer, Langer, Jung and others — did not fall together until recently after reading Peter Kivy’s Music Alone, an account of his quest for musical profundity which ends (as he confessed) in failure, but from whose dissection of the presuppositions I gained a platform for a synthesis of my own.
In this essay the key concepts of an embryonal theory are presented as a quasi ‘abstract’ of the 19K draught which comprises its first formulation.
2. Sense and Mind
Kivy’s main point is that profundity must be understood as “treating a subject matter in a profound way”, i.e. discursively. Accordingly the principal means of achieving profundity are verbal, in art the tools of novelists, dramatists and poets. But musicians lack those resources; therefore, as Kivy’s analysis of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier shows, no further yield than superb craftsmanship results — but how is this distinguishable from the craft of a Fabergé?
These travails point to an underlying critical malaise, namely the comprehensive prejudice that reason and cognition are inherently discursive: to understand is plainly the ability to describe what one has understood. Therefore his failure to nail down musical profundity amounts to a tacit acknowledgement of the ‘ineffability’ of instrumental masterpieces — resulting in musical ‘truths’ being consigned to its sensory modality or else to a demand for marshalling verbal paraphrase for explicit decoding.
My proposition is that both of these are blind alleys. Firstly, verbal analogues foster the illegitimate notion of a ‘residual language component’ (of which more infra). Secondly, sensory cortices are merely the incidental conveyances of communicative values; they are not possible sites for the germination of humanly significant meanings. Consider that speech is necessarily sound before it can be interpreted as utterance and thus belongs to the same sensory modality as music; but from this it follows that discrimination between words-as-sounds and words-as-meanings cannot be the work of the auditory cortex, but only of a mind.
Acknowledging this (as I think we must) argues convincingly that the reach of cognition exceeds by far the mere conversion of lexical into meaning structures. The possibility of ‘understanding’ musical structures and textures points to an arsenal of cognitive modalities in which discursive concepts occupy a strategically important, but not an exclusive or commanding vantage point.
3. The philosophical wedge: idea and symbol
(a) Schopenhauer and the Will
Schopenhauer claimed as his greatest merit the identification of the kantian noumenon as the Will. But he feels little compunction to characterise it as the whiplash of an unreasoning, unsavoury animal drive, which by being associated with an intellect creates the unbalance of evil that rules the world in spite of our best efforts. Hence the most pressing demand is for curtailment of the will’s power; and in this context Schopenhauer reaches out to the arts as a palliative, with an analysis as surprising as it is ingenious.
In contemplating works of art, he says, we are not (as Plato mistakenly assumed) dealing with second-hand perceptions or copies of an already inferior reality. Works of art are not phenomena: far from imitating phenomenal objects, they represent idealised cognitions; their subject is not a specific object, but the idea of that object; not e.g. a man in concreto, but man in his essential qualities. Artistic contemplation offers an escape from the vicious circle of willing because immersion in its idea suspends the will, as indeed Plato taught. Moreover, he finds confirmation in Kant’s ‘disinterested contemplation’ [III, §34]. His disquisitions culminate in the claim that
In art, the ideas of pure contemplation recur . . . its genesis lies in the cognition of ideas, and its supreme goal is communication of the same. [§36].
The highest rung in his taxonomy of the arts is occupied by music on account of its completely abstract nature. He calls it a “replica of the Urwille” (‘Abbild’), apt to lead a listener back to the undifferentiated ground where individualised desires and strivings are painlessly surrendered [§52].
Let me single out one criterion for now — as it were my leitmotiv. For the aesthetic experience to be capable of consummation it is imperative for the Will to be asleep. Its power is over a conscious, temporally alert mind. Schopenhauer put his finger on it when he noted that in surrendering to the power of music, the personal will is not merely given up: it is absorbed, given over. The result, according to Schopenhauer, is an unexampled sense of oneness and a sort of ‘melt down’ of our fractious individuality; moreover it dissolves our enslavement to clock time and transforms the experience of time into the heartbeat of the music itself. Thus the experiencer becomes susceptible to pure experience and as close to a subconscious state of being as it is possible for a conscious individual to attain.
This last-mentioned facet is indeed the crucial element of the theory. It is not possible to have this experience while in possession of self-conscious temporal control.
(b) Unconsummated Symbols
A central concern of aesthetics is: what are we to make of the emotional impact of artworks? Specifically: where is it located — in the work or in the mind of author and/or beholder?
In facing this issue, Langer retrieved the concept of ‘significant form’ from a somewhat inept early 20th century aesthetic and struck some brilliant sparks from it. Aestheticians like Clive Bell and Roger Fry had begun the debunking of typically romantic ‘story lines’ and substituted that concept as the bearer of meaning — e.g. in a Cezanne, any similitude of breasts and apples to their living counterparts is incidental, whereas circles bisected by perpendiculars are constitutive of significant form. But significant of what? No satisfactory answer to this obvious question came forth until Langer made the important distinction between created and arranged work: in the latter, elements serve for decoration and embellishment, whereas in the former a new context is imposed on them — form-giving ensures an hermetic closure, so that the whole affective dimension is constrained within boundaries set by the ‘frame’ of the work. Accordingly [LF27], art does not contain nor project mood or emotion, but displays “congruence of logical structure” with it — in other words, ‘enclosure’ facilitates the embedding of clues and triggers to the perceptual faculties to engender beholder-specific affective responses. The significant form brings these clues to attention that would escape us in a live setting — the very point on which Bell in his once-famous book on Art cracked his teeth. The significance of the form is therefore that it constrains, even alienates the semantics of the elements, which thereby become constitutive of both form and meaning.
Of the greatest importance is the spectator’s participation in this effort, for it is up to him/her to consummate the symbol by recognition and absorption of its greater meaning. This, however, is where music differs again. For in music there is nothing for a beholder to complete: there is no discursive element; instead musical form is sensuous, rhythmical and gestural and above all in continuous ‘motion’. Since music has no explicit content and carries no assigned denotations, its symbol structure lacks a fixed import — it functions as an unconsummated symbol. [LK211]
Accordingly we arrive at the general formulation that meaning in musical symbolic activity must be extracted from the relations established within the formal dipositions to experiences whose patterns are rooted in the concrete reality in which the recipient organism functions; and consequently there is reciprocation between the symbol-content and the percipient’s affective state based on the ulterior cognateness of discursive and affective mind states.
Langer’s theory strikes me as a wholly satisfactory explanation of the ‘aesthetic effect’. Where I now go one step further is in the specific application of her philosophy of symbols to the issue of profundity in music, which requires another concept to be brought in.
4. Archetype & Experience percept
(a) Mediating root experiences
Phyletic memory is a storehouse of authentic perceptions and root experiences that are the common coin of the human estate and laid down as underlying and unconscious psychic material. Though not accessible consciously, these psychic materials are not half-forgotten remnants of primitive states of being, but rather the preserved psychic imagery of our ascent to humanness. In Jung’s words:
This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious . . . because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal . . . It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us . . . The contents of the collective unconscious are known as ‘archetypes’ . . . The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its colour from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear. [JBW287; emphasis added]
When an archetype enters consciousness, it does so as the projection of a symbolical image. But again, the essence of the whole process is its largely unconscious functioning. [JMC107].
The artist is capable of potentiating archetypal images for us, for it he who delves into the unconscious where he becomes (as it were) the sounding board or mirror for their reflection. The artist is our proxy of the inner man, who is
of necessity partly unconscious, because consciousness is only part of a man and cannot comprehend the whole. But the whole man is always present, for the fragmentation of the phenomenon ‘Man’ is nothing but an effect of consciousness, which consists only of supraliminal ideas. [JMC128; italics added].
Entering into the spirit of art means letting go of one’s consciousness, surrendering it to the imagery and the aura of the performance. We do the same, involuntarily, when we dream; and in that sense art gives us direction and focus where dreams do not.
One of the fundamental laws pertaining to archetypes is their resistance to ‘real-time’ conscious apprehension, i.e. the domain of the Will. It is here that music is empowered to sink its deepest roots and uncover those numinous images which convey to so many of its aficionadoes a quasi-religious experience. This is because music does not depict the primordial images, but invites the listener through evocation to potentiate his own unconscious store of archetypal ideas. This is possible because (as Jung describes them)
archetypes are not determined in regard to their content, but only in regard to their form, and then only to a very limited degree. A primordial image is determined as to its contents only when it has become conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience . . . The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited, only the forms. [JBW332].
(b) Word and image imprints
At this juncture it is appropriate to confront the aforementioned ‘residual language’. An exhaustive study of musical ‘vocabulary’ is Deryck Cooke’s analysis of a thousand-fold staple of brief melodic sequences, which he classified and asserted to depict ascertainable emotional meanings; and this, he surmised, is the path leading eventually to the formulation of a ‘pandect’ of musical denotations.
The sceptical reception accorded to the book indicates a general sentiment of unease with its presuppositions. Yet it offers clues towards the understanding I wish to promote of music as an active agent in the projection of archetypes. Unexpectedly the study acquires value in this wholly transformed setting. So far from having provided an analysis of affective/emotive denotations, it pinpoints how the human auditory system responds to, apprehends and analyses such constituents down to the extraction of a precisely comprehended symbolical content.
But the question is: what is the source of this type of understanding?
It may plausibly be surmised that among archaic hominids, crisp monosyllabic utterances (especially during group activities like hunting) would be especially conducive to imprinting on the memory of the participants and settle into stable verbal associations. Their significance as identifications of object, intention and performance eventuates into the form of referents which link the primary percept with its verbal representation. Once sedimented by some such process, verbal resources become available for ‘mediated’ experience, notably through narrative-mimetic memory-tokens.
What has been telescoped here into one paragraph must be understood as a cascade of teachable associations carried forward and expanded through many generations. Important for us is the dual role likely to have been played by gesture and vocalisation, their communicative interconnectedness as experience percepts. It is readily comprehensible that a creature deficient in lexical resource would rely conjointly on verbal and mimetic enactments in the recreation of such scenes around the campfires (don’t we still do it now?).
In speaking of an imprint (or cognitive linking), non-verbal associations would have been incomparably more dominant in the pre-speech era. A concrete example: how would such a hunter depict fear on a moonless night full of menace, uncertainty, the terror of the unseen and unknown? Plainly we are no longer in the presence of an object, and therefore object language and mimetic techniques fail us. Instead we would rely on aural evocation with its subtle intimations of mood, inner tension, alertness etc., and it is not difficult to recognise in this the beginning of our sensitivity to the aural specificity of certain states whose representation cannot be delivered either verbally or somatically.
But where does the experience percept put in its appearance in music? I suggest that they are precisely Cooke’s short-range intervallic phrases. They are directly comparable to word percepts, but with the obviously significant distinction of being impregnated with gestural, volitional, affective etc. meanings with their expressive compass of significances derived from their archetypal evocativeness. A percept such as this, presented in music as a mimetic symbol therefore has the power to convey instantaneously and without analysis an extensive range of connotations from which the mind retrieves associations of both individual and collective experience.
(c) Perceptual present
One last piece needs to be fitted into the panel, which is that our inner sense of time does not rely on an objective standard, but on the measure of intelligible uptake, whether it be a heartbeat or a unit appropriate to a stimulus being evaluated. Accordingly nervous systems, lacking time sensors, live in a perceptual present of varying incremental length. It follows that our sensation of subjective time (compare enduring a toothache against running for a bus) must constantly be at variance with clock time.
In respect to music, criteria of ‘perceptual present’ are all-important. The internal modelling of time induced by the self-referential nature of music generally imparts a sense of a single temporal sweep without a measurable time component. The degree to which this experience is autonomous may be explained by the fact that the nervous system in collusion with the mind establishes succession by a self-generated kinaesthetic partitioning which we call ‘rhythm’. But rhythms change many times in the same piece of music, as they do in life — perceptually these changes are not equalled or averaged out, but they have the effect of accelerating or retarding the inner time experience, independently of clock time.
5. From ecstasy to profundity
In accounting for the reliably established ‘ecstatic’ dimension of music, I begin with the modulation of affective responses by the percipient organism. In the course of stimulus absorption it accumulates tensions demanding to be resolved; and I am now positing that conditions may arise where the capacity to transform auditory clues into intelligible structure meets its limits and must go beyond. For example, stimulus-driven music (Tchaikovsky, Mahler) courts the danger of a surfeit of ‘emotional charge’ and revulsion on repeated hearing, whereas the ‘plain fare’ of a Beethoven or Bach has the virtue of seemingly inexhaustible flexibility in peeling off one after another layer of meaning.
Now human truth and profundity are, through cognitive linking, latent in experience percepts and capable of being instantiated. I may be meditating with a Beethoven quartet: my will is no longer active, my curiosity wholly focused on the unfolding of an incredibly rich and complex tapestry of meaning facets, my temporal awareness is that imposed by the music, its relational modelling sculpting the affective landscape of my soul/mind/psyche with my unresisting connivance.
In such a state, so akin to dreaming, yet conscious of the experience and with the resources of my imagination at full stretch, I am intrinsically receptive to the potentiation, or upwelling, of archetypal imagery; but unlike a dream state, this inchoate template does not now vainly offer itself for fusion with quasi-hallucinatory dream visions or splinters of the will flitting about like dismembered ghosts of desire. Rather the musical structure, as a succession of guided experience percepts compounding to form a single imaginative holon, are fully commensurate with the psychic dimension of the phyletic/archetypal template and congruent, moreover, with its affective-volitional resonances. In other words, in such a mental state, the musical form impregnates the archetype; fills it with its own contents and thus brings up from the subject’s deepest inner resources and through the fusion of sensory with psychic impressions a flood of perceptions which are not, however, merely auditory, merely affective, mere stimuli or mere inner reminiscences, but a fusion of all these in their totality via the archetypal template and by agency of the mind’s suddenly released reserves of cognitive power. The unconsummated symbol is consummated.
It is accepted wisdom that even in depiction of tragic or despairing states, music does not make us morose or suicidal, but on the contrary seems somehow consolitary in its effect, communicating peace and harmony and, I suspect, an innately metaphysical sense of having participated in a greater-than-individual experience — in short, of having taken part in a profound approach to human truth.
I think it is fair to characterise a state such as this as an anomalous psychosomatic condition. In seeking to explain it, certain analogues to extreme muscular pressure suggest themselves. As the body tides over stress with brief ‘shots’ of adrenalin, so the brain similarly facilitates extraordinary neuronal sensitisation by a supply of endorphin, whose function it is to sustain this inordinate inflation of ‘signalling load’ — the term not understood quantitatively electrochemical, but qualitatively psychic. There is a twofold effect: firstly, the inducement of an euphoric state (‘ecstasy’) and secondly, a momentary prodigal sensitisation, frequently reported by subjects (but also confirmed by plenteous anecdotal evidence) as a sense of epiphany, benediction etc. and an unsuspected capaciousness of their intuitive horizons, beyond their normal conscious capabilities.
Yet although the ecstasy passes, the sensitisation enacted by such experiences effects a permanent change in the structure of perception; the experience itself becomes sedimented as a percept, a benefit to the subject in the form of acquisition of an individual resource of‘understanding’— in other words, it confers on the subject a permanent enhancement of intuitive power.
Jung surmised from the prevalence of archetypes in psychiatric pathology that an elementary psychic dimension has been squashed out of existence by high civilised living and that it manifests itself in varying degrees by sociopsychological maladjustments. Most of these, and their cures, belong to the field of psychiatry; but the ultimate goal of this essay is to propose that the power of music, its profundity and truth-dimension, are attributable to such factors as described above and constitute an inherently natural human resource, but also (and perhaps essentially) a cognitive resource much underestimated amid the discourse-driven predilections of modern Homo sapiens.
It invites a concluding reflection on Pater’s once well-known principle of the ‘Anders-streben’, i.e. the drift in all arts towards bursting their specific boundaries and ‘leaning-into’ a neighbouring art, so that pictures try to tell stories and poems invoke visual imagery. To Pater the common denominator is that “All arts aspire to the condition of music.” This is evidently at the opposite pole from the abovementioned ‘residual language component’, and I would suggest on the basis of the foregoing that we do not have to make a choice between alternatives here, but to eliminate a mistake from our aesthetic philosophies.
A further implication ensues, based on what I refer to as the ‘object mentality’, namely our inveterate habit of thinking of works of art as objects, fit to be costed and traded. Such malappropriation of values is surely inimical to the cultivation of art in a society; and reflects another fundamentally dubious aesthetic viewpoint, i.e. the failure to recognise that works of art are not primarily objects, but performances, whose embodiments serve as forms by which to retrieve the originating performance. In a word, works of art are primarily emanations of a human mind and convey their meaning to another mind: this is their raison d’être, and none does it so directly, profoundly and truthfully as music.
A speculation to end. I suspect that the initial presupposition from which this essay began has been shown up as ‘grabbing the bull by the tail’. Profundity is a long way from being revealed in its pristine condition by discursive reason. Indeed I suggest that discursive reason is a laborious, error-prone and unstable communicator of ‘profound’ truths, as well as being highly vulnerable to misinterpretation, manipulation and cultural vagaries. My hope is to have intimated reasonably cogently that profundity is, on the contrary, a conditio sine qua non in music.
Cooke, Deryck: The Language of Music. Oxford 1959.
Dahlhaus, Carl: Die Idee der absoluten Musik. Kassel 1978.
Donald, Merlin: Origins of the Modern Mind. Harvard 1991.
Jourdain, Robert: Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. New York 1997.
Jung: ‘Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious.’ Basic Writings. New York 1959 (JBW).
—: Mysterium Coniunctionis. Princeton 1970 (JMC)
Kant: Kritik der praktischen Vernunft. Frankfurt 1956.
Kivy, Peter: Music Alone. Cornell 1990.
Langer, Susanne: Philosophy in a New Key. New York 1948 (LK).
Langer, Susanne: Feeling and Form. New York 1953 (LF).
Pater, Walter: The Renaissance. Cleveland 1961.
Schopenhauer: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Wiesbaden 1972 (My translations).