The first movement is here.
sound fx: generalised rustling of papers and fidgeting audience, occasional cough, orchestra tuning up
sound of conductor tapping the rostrum rapidly followed by sudden expectant hush
A few days ago I was reading an article on the BBC website about how philosophy can help people in these trying times of pandemic – the stoics inevitably popped up, and also inevitably so did a professor of philosophy. Only one thing stuck in my mind about the article, though – for some reason, the Professor thought it important to warn people that philosophical systems of thought can become incredibly complex and demanding when you look into them more deeply.
Well duh, we’d expect that sort of thing from philosophers really – but why the warning? Beware, normal people, of the intensity and difficulty of proper philosophy – that’s best left to the experts. Unmentioned philosophical things might have a bad effect, perhaps like getting overanalytical and intense, or wearing a beret and smoking curtain-browning French cigarettes, or developing a huge walrus mustache and going mad like poor Fred Nietzsche.
We turn now to birthday drinks at a pub near Brighton station on a very pleasant summer night in 2017. Somebody I was in my local youth orchestra with decades ago was having a birthday, and had invited a hugely diverse selection of friends – always a good sign, that. It was a really nice place to meet and there was already a good turnout by the time I got there early in the evening. But a bit later on, when more drink had been had, somebody else from the orchestra who I hadn’t seen since the 80s turned up, a violinist who’d done a philosophy degree. I happened to mention that I was quite interested in philosophy, especially as it relates to consciousness. Whereupon he told me that his favourite theory was Daniel Dennett’s eliminativist idea that it’s all an illusion – consciousness doesn’t actually exist.
I can’t think of a worse theory of anything ever, and I was a bit put out that the Eliminitavist Violinist (a) despite having done an actual, real-life philosophy degree nonetheless enthusiastically raved for a bit about how great this utterly crap idea is, and (b) that somebody involved in a creative pursuit like music could possibly be so interested in such a totally dead-minded take on such a great mystery. Point (b) is a real ‘thing’ of mine – how people in the arts let themselves be unjustifiably wowed by the most enormously inappropriate people to be wowed by if you’re in any way artistic, namely scientists. Too often when artists engage with science the results set my teeth on edge, usually due to an entirely unwarranted starry-eyed amazement at ‘science’ on the part of the artist concerned.
Unfortunately I then mentioned Wittgenstein for some reason, probably due to being somewhat ‘lubricated’, whereupon the Eliminativist Violinist mentioned his famous(ish) quote about ladders. From wiki:
“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”
And I don’t know where it came from but I found myself bursting into laughter and blurting out ‘yeah but you’re not meant to throw away the ladder before you’ve climbed up it’. Which resulted in a bit of an angry storming off – “Ho, ho, you’re soo funny”. Ah well. He said hello and waved to me later in the night (the Violinist, not Wittgenstein – I didn’t drink that much) so I suppose he wasn’t that upset in the end.
What’s this got to do with music, though? Well the guy sat next to me at the table, who I’d been chatting to for a while about random stuff, shook his head and said he strongly disagreed with the eliminativist take on consciousness (which boils down to ‘it’s an illusion’, which for most people then leads to the question “what’s the illusion occurring in?”, which is where the whole eliminativist thing does start looking a bit silly). The reason this guy disagreed so strongly, though, was because he just happened to have a masters in philosophy, and in fact lectured in it at the local university. What are the chances of that, eh? To my eyes he looked like he should still be at sixth form, but that’s all part of the fun of getting old. We got talking about music, and I casually mentioned that my hero (musical and otherwise) John Maus writes music that’s non-elitist, unlike that plinky-plonk modern classic stuff.
Be careful when casually mentioning un-thought-through things to professional philosophers. My not-previously-rigorously-analysed comment prompted the Philosophy Lecturer to ask ‘but if people want to study this sort of thing why shouldn’t they? After all, Hegel is notoriously difficult but some people do want to study his ideas.’ He even slowly moved his hand rightwards as he said it, as if sweeping a load of pistachio husks off the edge of the table into a bin, in proper academic philosopher style. It was clear he’d suddenly switched to philosophy lecturer mode, serious of face, gestural of hand.
I actually (usually) really like it when I’m asked a question that forces me to re-evaluate an idea, and this one proved very fruitful. (No more philosophy was discussed that evening, no doubt on the busman’s holiday principle that the last thing you’re going to want to do as a philosophy lecturer out for a birthday boozeup on Saturday night is sit there talking about philosophy. The rightwards-moving hand did not make any further appearances that night.)
But I’ve often found myself pondering the Philosophy Lecturer’s point since that night. And this is what it’s led to…
Firstly, composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart etc etc created quasi-impossible technical feats of transcendental composition that still had tunes the barmaid at the tavern could whistle. Despite the extraordinary technicalities of their music, it’s still so profoundly human. Listening to the Bach Cello Suites, you’re aware of a profound humanity even as astounding brilliance unfolds. JSB fathered a total of 20 children with his two (consecutive) wives Maria Barbara and Anna Magdalena (respect to both!), though sadly only 10 of them survived to adulthood. All of this, both the joy and the heartbreak, is very much of the human world. And JSB’s music is redolent with this humanity. Classical composers had lives, and communicated this human depth so well in their music.
The people that this music was written for were usually classically trained sophisticates themselves, capable of appreciating all the subtleties of that artistry. Yet this sort of music, written for elites, has somehow gained huge, lasting popularity outside such rarified spheres. Indeed it’s retained that popularity for centuries despite immense changes in society at every level during that time. You can enjoy the contrapuntal technicalities of, say, Thomas Tallis, with tunes running backwards and forwards, the ‘right way up’ and in inversion (‘upside down’) and all its intricate interplay, but if you don’t know about any of that, somehow you can still find the music profoundly beautiful, or just plain enjoyable. It’s why we have Classic FM and the like.
It has tunes. This is the mystery of melody – it’s somehow inherently part of all the old masters’ music, arising amidst and somehow growing from their profound understanding of music and their rare ability to create new compositions. So the sophisticates can really get into it, but so can anybody else. Somehow the melody in its simplicity is brought forth from, is innately part of, the complexity of the music. (See the User Illusion analogy.)
But by comparison, what use is academic philosophy? It’s notorious for its lack of consensus about anything ever. (Though I will admit to loving the way so many scientists in the fields of consciousness and/or AI are nonetheless being forced to address philosophical issues as part of their research, whether they like it or not, which in turn is forcing them to face the philosophical preconceptions found in science and stop denying that they’re there in the first place.) Regarding music, there is no such ‘consensus’ as it just isn’t needed. People have different tastes in music and will argue about that, but in a marvelous and curious way in the end it doesn’t matter. Music is there for us all.
When it comes to philosophy, however, something seems a bit amiss. We all have our own personal philosophy just as we all have our own personal taste in music, as a deep part of our lives. It’s always there in the way we are, giving us a certain tone, whether we’re aware of it or not. In that sense we have a ‘philosophy for all’ but not one most of us read up on. Yes, there are pop philosophy books, but they do tend to consist of bits and pieces from of old, and philosophy is scarcely as ubiquitous as music. There’s no Philosophy FM. You have postgraduate academic philosophy books that only graduates will understand – unlike music, where most classical music is technically advanced yet still accessible to the untrained.
Given all this, I find myself wondering why that academic in the online article felt the need to warn the plebs about how difficult philosophy can be? It seems a bit elitist.
We now return to the world of music. I refer to most classical music being accessible but not all because a problem with elitism has appeared there too. In the early 20th century a profound fracture appeared in the world of classical music. It was presaged in the compositions of Joseph Hauer, who began writing atonal music a couple of years before the more widely known Arnold Schönberg. But it was the latter, of course, who’s gone down in history as the progenitor of atonal music. Their two approaches were hugely different however, Hauer being a mystic profoundly interested in the I-Ching who eventually gave most of his possessions away, while Schönberg invented a rigorous compositional scheme to ensure the complete avoidance of tonality with all its baggage of harmonies, chord progressions and keys. If you’re not a musician and you don’t know what these things are, in fact you intuitively do. Which is all part of the magic of music. You’ll certainly recognise their absence – which is why atonal music is problematic in terms of elitism.
Schönberg felt that the tonality of western music had got all used up and thus needed to be left behind, gone beyond in some way. He found that just writing any old notes hither and thither was unsatisfactory and worse still, while composing in that way the now apparently used-up tonality had a way of accidentally sneaking back in, which was verboten. To keep music 100% free of tonality while also remaining musically complex, a radically new way of composing music had to be invented. Free atonality a-la Hauer was far too musically baggy and all over the shop. Schönberg’s new system had to be highly technical in order to let this pure new atonal musicality function fully at a high (or deep) level, to express profound new music. And it wasn’t a punk-style ‘smash it up’ reaction either – Schönberg was actually a big fan of Mahler with his enormous symphonies requiring enormous orchestras and enormous timespans to play out, it’s just that he thought conventional harmony and tonality had come to an end. To be fair, by this point we’d have a few decades of the likes of Wagner and Mahler writing what could be called the 19th century equivalent of prog rock – huge, long-winded, often bombastic, possibly involving elves at some point, so it perhaps wasn’t surprising that Schönberg felt this way.
(As an aside, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a big crisis back in the 19th century over the idea that (western) music was getting all used up, as there are only 12 notes in the scale and there couldn’t be many more combinations left, so it looks as if the idea may have been in the air for a while – amongst the very clever/well educated at least. Perhaps there was a vibe around, a post-Enlightenment mood that everything, not just music, was beginning to implode under its own tired weight. It’s certainly easy to see from a present-day viewpoint a somewhat hard-to-digest richness, a seriousness, a heavygoing stolidity in so much later 19th century culture – a stolid weightiness that would inevitably become wearisome and lead to reaction.)
But there’s an issue. Classical music composition is highly technical but as previously mentioned, until Schönberg came along it had tunes – and tunes democratise music. There was also the whole ‘tonal’ harmony and counterpoint thing – a common language of music that the untutored could still appreciate. Schönberg’s ‘atonal’ music, however, was explicitly written so that it could only be fully understandable by the tiny percentage of classically trained musicians with a first-rate inner ear. ‘Inner ear’ being the ability to read a musical score and hear it in your head. Not exactly an everyday skill even amongst classically-trained musicians. The idea was you could sit down with the score and understand how it all played out musically. Atonal music is in this way a bit like the ‘Hegel’ stuff in philosophy – for only a particular, very small subset of musicians. There’s nothing there for ‘ordinary’ people, whoever they are.
However. We all have a sense of the aesthetic, and music is included in that. The way music sounds is important to us, and it must be said that atonal music’s quite spindly and jagged – it hops and jumps about the place in order to keep away from that pesky tonality. In the world of tonal music, a ‘key’ part of the language (as it were) is bringing dissonance into resolution. But in atonal music it’s all dissonance, no resolution. Atonal music is the splintering that happens – that has to happen – when you avoid tonality on principle. It sounds splintered too – somehow it’s ‘pictured’ as such in our minds.
This is reminiscent of academic philosophy. As the Professor in the BBC article intimated, you’re apparently not going to really ‘get’ philosophy unless you train properly, just as is the case with atonal music. ‘Ordinary’ people simply can’t climb the mountain and rise into the philosophical cloud-capped heights of academia, and in atonal music there aren’t any tunes that the (wo)man in the street could whistle. Indeed Schönberg was quite contemptuous of people who ‘don’t know about music but know what they like’ – he said ‘To be musical means to have an ear in the musical sense, not in the natural sense. A musical ear must have assimilated the tempered scale. And a singer who produces natural pitches is unmusical, just as someone who acts “naturally” in the street may be immoral” (quoted in ‘Wittgenstein’s Vienna’ by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin).
Bit snobby that, I reckon. So now we have a big gap between all previous western music that could be enjoyed by plebs and posh alike, and this new music that’s strictly for not just those in the know, but those capable of knowing. Training can help with gaining this understanding to a degree, but it is nonetheless required in the first place for the vast majority of people in a way that’s not half as important with tonal music, and there are limits on how far you can go with it unless you’re naturally gifted with a clear inner ear.
But surely can’t regular, common people get into atonal stuff without formal training if they want to? OK, so they won’t have all the training to understand it ‘properly’ but can’t they still ‘get’ it in their own way? As mentioned above, the untutored can still intuit to some extent the toings and froings of the music, the way it’s orchestrated, its internal dynamics – everything apart from the actual music in fact.
This is where it gets interesting. (To me, anyway.) (And if you’re not sure, keep going.)
In the 60s the psychologist Robert Zajonc discovered that repetition makes people like things more when they encounter them repeatedly – his term was ‘the mere exposure effect’. It can apply to anything from music to shapes to pictures, and it consists of a ‘misattribution’ of perceptual fluency (i.e. the improved ability to ‘get’ whatever it is) to the object itself – people will say ‘oh that’s a nice triangle’ when in fact they’re actually finding it extra-nice because they’ve seen that triangle before. Nothing’s actually different about the triangle, but the perceiver’s mind thinks it’s better somehow due to the repetition.
We now put atonal music in context. You can imagine me moving my hand rightwards at this point if you like, like the Philosophy Lecturer at the birthday bash. (It’s my right hand because I’ve got a putative marker pen in my left hand and I’m stood in front of an imaginary whiteboard. In front of a large, eager-to-learn audience, natch – let me have my fantasies! Anyway.) Researchers such as the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl have found that repetition is one of the few musical universals, found in music throughout the world, but repetition will start to trigger tonality in the mind. More on this in a bit.
Another universal feature of music is some kind of tonality. Scales may have different numbers of notes but they always have an octave that’s divided up into those notes. When you double the frequency of a sound, it will go up an octave, becoming paradoxically the same note yet higher. Halve the frequency and it’s the same note but lower. There is no escape from this. You can divide the octave in various different ways, from the pentatonic scale with 5 notes (as found in Auld Lang Syne, the black notes on a piano, or a lot of Chinese music) through to various Arabic scales with 24 notes, but the octave is always the same note but higher or lower. It’s outside any particular culture.
It’s also a mathematical fact. This is part of the deepest mystery of music – it’s allied with maths. And maths has a strange effectiveness in nature despite being somehow independent of it. 2+2=4 eternally, but if you have 2 of any object and add another 2 of those objects, you will have 4 of those objects right here in our timebound material world. How you label the objects, how you decide to group them, is up to you, but you can’t escape the mathematical truth. You can’t say 2 goats and 2 chickens is 4, but 2 goats and 2 llamas is 5 – that would stop you from being able to use numbers at all.
It can be more complex than this, as a quick look at imaginary numbers will show. These were first mentioned by Hero of Alexandria back in the 1st century CE, then seem to have escaped notice until 16th century Italy, when certain adumbrations that they might be a thing began appearing amongst mathematicians. Of course, it was humans beginning to notice them, so there was a kickback – they were regarded as weird and/or useless, and the very term ‘imaginary’ was coined by Descartes as an insult. They became mathematically respectable in the 18th century thanks to the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, but still remained in the world of maths. Yet over 100 years later when radio was invented imaginary numbers turned out to be essential for modelling the behaviour of oscillating circuits. Here they now were, amongst us on earth in the most practical way. And after that, they turned out to be a key feature of the wave function equations of quantum mechanics, which is notorious for working incredibly accurately in practice even if nobody’s quite sure what it’s all about. Here are imaginary numbers again, now part of a realm of science of huge practical use but also with a tinge of the mystical that nobody can quite get to properly go away. Not bad at all for the concept of a square root of a negative number.
Imaginary numbers are also involved, in a roundabout way (so to speak), with Fourier transformations (which also have their place in the wave function equations too). If you check the wiki page here you’ll see the very first sentence refers to music. (And that’s all you need to check for the purposes of this essay, you might be relieved to hear.) Maths and music are intimately entwined, and thus is infinity brought through to our finite lives. And for some reason we love this rather a lot – it’s not trivial. Which is in itself highly suggestive.
Atonal music does of course have octaves – and it still has 12 notes, just like tonal music. (Hence its confusing alternative description as 12-tone music.) So what’s the problem? Here we are with your 12 tones, just like all the rest of our western classical music, that ‘tempered scale’ that Schönberg said was so essential to familiarise yourself with. OK, so no harmony or chord progressions or anything but it’s still mathematical isn’t it?
Well. In 1995 the musical psychology researcher Diana Deutsch discovered something called the speech to song illusion. To experience it is quite something, so please do spare yourself a minute to check it:
It’s 54 seconds long. If you’re finding yourself unable to wait that long you need to have a word with yourself. Remember you’re up and about for 16 hours a day and that’s 57,600 seconds – so why are you chomping at the bit and desperate to ‘get on with it’ over a 54 second recording? Especially bearing in mind that if you can be bothered to listen to it you’ll be rewarded with something quite weird and brilliant.
Apart from the immediately striking effect of the illusion, it has another odd aspect. Once you’ve heard the selected phrase as music, there’s no going back – if you go back and listen to the spoken words in their original context, when the speaker reaches the selected phrase she suddenly seems to break into song. If you hit replay on the video, you’ll find Diana apparently starting so sing ‘sometimes behave so strangely’ even though you know she’s actually just saying it – but now it’s been repeated, you will never hear it as anything other than a tune again. (And since researching this article I’ve found myself a few times singing/humming the ‘sometimes behave so strangely’ tune as I potter about the house.)
The wiki page is here, and if you briefly look further down the page you’ll see that the composers mentioned all write tonal music that is high art yet still accessible. But it’s not just classical composers, though – in the world of popular dance music known as ‘tech house’, back in 2005 a producer called Da Sunlounge released a track called ‘Whore House’ featuring dialogue from a ‘low budget independent adult-themed art film’, as it were, which uses the speech to song illusion to quite amusing effect, looping the phrase ‘I don’t know what to do I love you so much’, whereupon it turns into a melody. (It’s on YouTube.) (And it’s a ‘banging tune’ as I believe the current modern vernacular parlance would have it.) (And yes, back in my DJ-ing days it went down really well the one time I played it out.)
Repetition works like this for non-speech sounds, too. When I was little I found the garden gate made a squeaking noise that turned into a sad song if I kept opening and closing the gate. I found it fascinating, and would get lost in moving the gate backwards and forwards, listening to the short repeated melody. (One day my Mum found me doing that and I was all embarrassed – something she still remembered 40 years later when I happened to mention it in conversation.)
Crucially, the speech to song illusion is experienced by both trained and non-trained people – it’s innate, a part of nature, just as we are, just as the octave and tonality are, just as maths is.
It gets better. Researchers at the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas played participants in a study excerpts of atonal music by various composers such as Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter some of which had been doctored by having random bits taken out of context and repeated. If the music had been tonal that would be a pretty awful thing to do, making a nonsense of the whole structure, the development of the composition, cutting off melodies mid-flow and generally messing it all up. What actually happened, however, was that the listeners in the study consistently found the altered excerpts more enjoyable, more interesting, and more likely to have been written by a human rather than a computer. The participants were standard undergraduates with no musical training, so showing no bias due to that training.
So we know that repetition changes our response to music, and in addition to that there is that inescapable way that we have scales based on octaves.
We can now see more clearly what’s really going on when people outside the gifted musical elite listen to atonal music. Anybody who’s heard a particular atonal composition before will almost certainly be hearing it in a different way due to its repetition – and repetition tends to make things tonal and more enjoyable to listen to due to the mere exposure effect. If non-elite listeners are hearing atonal music they haven’t heard before, they’re just kidding themselves. That sort of listening will be instead through the usual aesthetic assessment of loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low, the timbre of the instrumentation etc, but devoid of any real musical appreciation – it’ll be all the stuff apart from the actual notes.
But how come there are all these concerts and stuff with jabby pointy music without any tunes even though hardly anybody can understand the music in the way its composers intended? The research mentioned above strongly suggests it’s emperor’s new clothes. But of course some people like to be seen being cultured and going to ‘high culture’ concerts. Going to concerts of ‘difficult’ music is a good way to show your proper bien pensant credentials. None of that Classic FM stuff for me – I like it without tunes! And I want that to be a matter of public record! This is one curious side-effect of this new, music for the elite – a public side-effect.
Maybe I’m being a bit of a meanie here. Humans are inherently tonal, and they’re inherently social. Music has always had a strongly social aspect, and there will always be musical gatherings of some sort, including ones where people get to be visibly ‘cultured’. And gatherings where people go to take bucketloads of ecstasy and get to be visibly very sweaty indeed.
Around the world repetitive/tonal music has a communal aspect whether part of ritual, rave, celebration, or a coming together involving all these things. Over here in the west, raves are particularly notable for the repetitive aspect of the music – the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 refers to such rave music as ‘sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. (Which solemn legalese inevitably led to a fair bit of humorous piss-taking on the rave scene.) The repetition in dance music is particularly turbocharged (including in terms of sheer volume) and the direct effect on your mind is quite something. Why was music like this created? It might drive a lot of people round the bend, but it was clearly fulfilling a need to some extent.
The foundations of all music throughout the world are based on laws of nature, maths, the strange link between maths and nature, and our connected innate tendency to create tunes out of repetition. There’s no escaping the whole double the frequency and you get an octave up thing. But if you want to truly understand atonal music on its own terms, you have to make a determined effort to leave all that behind. The octave has to be allowed, but it has a kind of open emptiness to it, and the lack of tonal harmony in atonal music stops it from speaking directly.
But music and philosophy are part of all of our lives. They exist in that context. We now appreciate more than ever before that ‘ordinary’ people are profound. Snobbery has been brought out into the open in a way that it never was before. So by all means do the training, but bear this in mind: that somebody with no formal musical training can write an amazing, and entirely original, 3 minute song that nobody else has ever written before – a unique take on music and life that becomes enormously popular – but no academic philosopher or ‘plinky plonk’ composer can do this.
In the old days music was for everybody, before a new music solely capable of appreciation by elites was invented behind closed doors. Philosophy was more for those with an education, but of course there used to be a lot of churchgoing, which is where certain non-shallow ideas of ethics and morality, of how to live your life, would be promoted, both in scripture and sermon. So-called ‘ordinary’ people could find depth in that. They could find depth in political ideas, too – it didn’t have to be religious stuff. Philosophy was thus still found amongst the plebs, and music was still around amongst them too, all part of their inbuilt human appreciation of tonality.
Pop philosophy’s around now, of course, but a lot of it’s so bland – the equivalent of AOR. It’s part of this dull granola-with-non-dairy-milk-for-breakfast humanism that for some reason seems to be popular these days. Comfort philosophy for frazzled, overworked, overstressed victims of the bastardry inherent in the neoliberal machine. Understandable, but ultimately not enough.
Of course, as the Philosophy Lecturer intimated in the pub that night, there’s a place for the long-winded, difficult stuff – I’m not arguing with him on that one. But the difficult stuff is so remote. Postmodern philosophers in particular seem to waffle on (even as they talk about pop culture) in a way that is curiously reminiscent of the fiddliness for fiddliness’ sake, the inability to accept that there might be a point to reach, the pretention, shown by the prog rock titans of the 70s. And unlike the prog rockers they don’t even have elves in their books. Some people do like it like that, naturally – there’s a big market for noodly jazz and the like – and like the people who dig Hegel or postmodern philosophy, it’s what they’re into. And of course it’s possible to like both tune-free improv that goes on and on and on, and 90 second long speedcore punk, er, ‘songs’ (or maybe ‘intensely focused outbursts’ is a better word).
But while music had the whole punk reaction thing, this never happened in the world of philosophy. It seems long overdue. Philosophy, like music, is part of who we are, and I can’t help but think that philosophy could do with its punk moment. We need something with that wild energy and pure originality that isn’t only understandable by a gifted elite but also by others without training with whom it resonates powerfully, with depth but a unified, coherent intensity that sparks passion. The ultimate punk philosophy would be understandable by that elite as well as everybody else, in various ways, on different ‘levels’ if you like.
And it would have a communal aspect, like music. How could this be, though? Pop philosopher Alain de Botton put forward the idea for an atheist temple in the City of London precisely because the fading out of organised (western) religion has created a dearth of places for people to come together and ponder humanity’s deeper aspects. (Interesting article by John Gray here complete with inevitable angry, shouty, and to be fair occasionally insightful comments.) Of course the temple was bollocks. But where is that vibey, accumulated-weight-of-history public arena for philosophy? Can we even have one? And what could contemporary philosophy learn from today’s music that might give it the necessary jolt to start reconnecting with more people?
Maybe philosophy needs to discover, or rediscover, a kind of ‘repetition’. And maybe that repetition should engage with a philosophical ‘system of chords and harmony and counterpoint’, whatever that could be.
Because of this intense engagement with tonality, and the whole system of harmony and counterpoint built on those foundations, music has this remarkable widespread power that’s rarely there in academic philosophy. The power of tonality that most music uses would appear to be an inherent part of what it is to be human. The research into this (as for example mentioned above) tends to view it all in neurological terms but I think it’s much deeper than that. Still, could there be a way nonetheless of doing neurological research with regard to philosophy?
Maybe there’s a way through this, though, without having to resort to brain scans and the like (which neuroscientist/philosopher Raymond Tallis, who I do rather admire, regards as modern-day phrenology). Three short words sum it up:
Less is More.
That’s it. This principle is particularly powerful when applied to music. Depth may be found in simple music. (Again I refer to the User Illusion analogy).
On top of all that, the complexity that music speaks to can be within the listener as much as the music.
‘Less is More’ intimates a way in which complexity and simplicity play off each other, with the artistry somehow combining the best of both. An earlier version was ‘ars est artem celare’ – the art is to conceal the art. Between the simple and complex, partaking of both while being ultimately neither, art has a liminal quality, a quality of moving between the higher and lower – which was also a key aspect in ancient Greek philosophy. The liminal is often depicted as having a certain twilit, dusky mysteriousness to it (see for example A Liminal Tale). But the liminality of the complexity/simplicity interplay in music is of a different sort – it brings forth a radiant light that reaches deep into our psyche and which does amazing things there. It would be great if philosophy could find its way back to being like this again.
It’s not as if the world of classical music took to atonality in a huge way, anyway. Debussy was the initiator here, writing uniquely evocative music in the late 19th century entirely apart from the ‘official’ ways of classical music that nonetheless really communicated with audiences. (And it does sound rather nice too.) Neoclassicists such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Ravel etc also stayed with tonality and wrote music often more like new wave – smart, dry, ironic, preppy and attitudinous – or sometimes like post-punk – moody, sensuous, atmospheric.
There was a distinct tang of ‘less is more’ to the neoclassicists. But starting in the early 60s a new, substantially more full-on Less Is More began appearing. We now saw the rise of the minimalists, starting with the original drone master La Monte Young then burgeoning with his pupil Terry Riley, then Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine and so on. As non-classical music is generally thought of as being ‘simpler’ than classical, a quick look at minimalism is in order as it’s both ‘simple’ and classical.
Minimal music seems to come in two basic flavours. With drone, you start to become aware of the most tiny details in the music and they become hugely significant. Here, the deep information is more somehow between the music and the listener, triggered by the composition and the way the listener’s mind behaves, but it is still there nonetheless. Compare this with all the different forms of popular music which come from certain ways of being in society and then resonate with listeners who are psychologically primed to find it speaks to them – not all the complexity is necessarily in the music, and neither need it be all in the listener, but a certain level of complexity has to somehow be there in the artist-listener relationship, and there has to be a certain (concealed) artistry in the music. Again, consider how this might relate to philosophy.
Meanwhile, the other type of minimalism features enormous amounts of… repetition. Repetition again.
When I was a kid we had a Dansette record player, and every now and again a record would get stuck when it was playing. I found it first hilarious then fascinating when one of, say, my dad’s country and western songs would start looping, transforming suddenly into something fabulous and exotic, a bright new music limned with light from an unworldly realm. I felt the change from ‘standard’ music to a mantra was really important somehow, and incredibly satisfying to hear.
Repetition is perhaps in a way the timebound version of the octave – it’s the same thing again, but because it’s again it’s another instance of the same thing. The same but different. With sound, the effect is powerful. And of course Eastern philosophies use mantra specifically to get the mind out of its usual, timebound way of being. There’s a connection here between philosophy and (innately musical, innately tonal) repetition.
Both repetition and drone have the same effect – of changing time perception. If you do anything at all regularly for any reasonably long period of time, you will notice after a while that your time perception has markedly changed. The one that got me was when I used to post a lot on an online discussion forum every day for years. Searching through my posts or old discussion threads to check stuff, posts I thought I’d made recently turned out to be 10 years old, stuff I thought was old turned out to be quite recent. It was really weird to have my sense of time subverted like that.
For some reason we find certain repetition-based ways of escaping time an enormous relief. There’s a bad version, of course, where for example sufferers from PTSD ruminate repetitively on their trauma. But the most promising therapy for PTSD these days involves therapy using psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin – and psychedelics are notorious for rendering the everyday sense of time meaningless.
In the world of music both ‘less is more’ and repetition (which as outlined above both inherently involve tonality), give us glimpses of a perspective on ourselves from outside, releasing us from our timebound nature. In practice – and it is in practice, not just stuck in the conceptualising intellect – they help us to understand, sense or remember, even if just a little, who or what we really are. Through time-based activities that subvert time we’re given a bit of relief, a bit of escape, and usually this is so therapeutic it’s sought after. Hence raves, and rave music. Contemporary philosophy might do well to learn from these things, to remember them.
Repetition is of course a key aspect of ritual. Remember again the coming together in ritual involving repetitive music. The sheer ubiquity of doing this shows that’s a key part of being human. Which makes me wonder. In the world(s) of philosophy there’s a lot of searching for and arguing about human nature, whether it exists, if so what it’s like and so on. Maybe philosophers haven’t been looking in the right places? And maybe when philosophers are being all postmodern and engaging with pop culture they might perhaps serve us all better by easing off on the longwinded guff and/or at least giving their ponderings some kind of recognisable ‘tune’, a riff even, some kind of pop aspect to make them more accessible to a greater number of people? That strikingly ironic difference between the windiness of the pomo philosophers and the neatness of pomo arts really points up what’s gone wrong with philosophy, or at least what needs to happen to get philosophy up and running again as a richer, more inclusive way of being human. The voice can philosophically ramble on and on, or it can sing.
Bereft of help from modern philosophers, everyday people stuck in the vicissitudes of our postmodern condition seek relief in pop philosophy books based on the ancients, who of course are still relevant, but without reading a ton of abstruse books they’re excluded from anything newer. Classical training seems to go with heights for some reason, whether it’s music or philosophy. But with philosophy the heights are remote and hard to access – you go up the mountain and disappear into the clouds and stay there. With (tonal) classical music, the music appears amongst us on earth, trailing clouds of its almost uncanny glory – that curious way it’s both mathematical-analytic and super-sophisticatedly emotional.
The bodhisattvas of buddhism would vow to come back from the cloud-hidden peaks to help us in our vale of suffering. This is one reason why John Maus is my hero – he went up the mountain and came back down with a uniquely powerful music that somehow bridges the gap that opened up in classical music in the early 20th century. Replete with archaic musical stylings often from the late medieval/early renaissance period, his music is nonetheless totally of our time – and that juxtaposition of nowadaysness with the archaic is itself a powerful relief from the drudgeries of time. The way Maus effects this therapy combines intense intellectual firepower with a even more intense compassionate heartpower. (And it must be said some killer intense humour.) This is why JM came back down the mountain – life is hard, and compassion is urgently needed. Mausmusic is post-ironic.
Music is of human life, and exists in our human, social context, and can be such a powerful healer. Intellect is at its best when it’s in service of the heart – something too easily forgotten or even denied in present-day life. Indeed the heart is so often denigrated as being something sentimental, wayward, not to be trusted (see the first movement of this essay) but if the mind isn’t connected to the heart, to compassion, it can give birth to monsters.
From the subjective, phenomenological viewpoint amidst which we live our lives, atonal music and analytical philosophy both represent a kind of striving, also found in science, to delineate a ‘pure’ objectivity that can actually never be known directly precisely because subjectivity is primary. But the ‘misattribution’ of the object referred to by Zajonc is actually its completion in mind, the true reality, and this goes for music and philosophy and even science. (It’s a shame that crystal-bothering new agey types got in there early with quantum mechanics, as since the turn of the millennium ever more sophisticated experiments have shown that actually there isn’t an objective reality after all. Scientists suggest ever more desperate possibilities of loopholes in the experiments, and in answer ever more powerful new experiments close those loopholes and confirm the lack of an objective reality. Eventually, this will permeate through to society. Or will it? Are these profound discoveries destined to remain the ‘atonal music’ of science, only known by the elite? Right now, who knows.)
As science, art and philosophy reach the borders of the humanly knowable, they all start bending out of shape, and splintering. Science becomes string theory, or blossoms into pseudoscientific metaphysical ramblings about multiverses, art becomes broken, splintered, abject, philosophy becomes an unending pointless rambling.
It’s getting late. This essay is becoming a rambling, showing a certain noodling improv quality despite my best efforts to keep things interplaying amongst each other in a neat, zingy resonating way. For sure, some noodling’s fun, but I don’t want to ‘do a Derrida’ and end up back in the clouds as the reader’s eyes glaze over. And I want at least somebody to read this all the way through.
So. I say again, the intellect needs to be connected with the heart. And with the heart primary, not the head. All the things that really matter in life are imponderables of the heart such as love, meaning, time, friendship, kindness, humour, happiness, grief and that indefinable something that you find in yourself when you work through it – the sort of things where you somehow know what they are until the intellectual mind tries to codify them, to pin them down. When the analytical intellect finds itself suffused with the imponderable, there is both simplicity and complexity, and when they’re properly getting on with each other we have proper art. Music that touches us, of course, is of the heart and thus one of those most important, indefinable imponderables. With the heart firing on all cylinders, the intellect is freed from the drudgery of being in charge, something it ultimately isn’t cut out for in any event, and with that freedom it feels a huge burden lift, and it dances joyfully, allowed to be itself for a change.
Curiously, the Philosophy Lecturer’s name that Saturday night down the pub was Arthur, a name shared by one of the philosophical greats known for his pessimism and for really, really hating Hegel with a borderline scary passion. Old Arthur I’d need to check more fully, though to be fair he certainly had ‘tunes that you could whistle’ in the form of very many often rather droll quotes and indeed his guide to winning arguments, which is still as relevant in the internet age as it was when he wrote it, plus ça change. But in any event I’m really grateful to the young Arthur who got me thinking so fruitfully that sunny summer night. Cheers!