Friday, July 08, 2005

The world is quiet here

The other week Mental Multivitamin had a few things to say about atonality and Alban Berg, with reference to a recent article excerpted as follows:

Music is both a balm for loneliness and a powerful, renewable source of meaning — meaning in time and meaning for time. The first thing music does is banish silence. Silence is at once a metaphor for loneliness and the thing itself: It's a loneliness of the senses. Music overcomes silence, replaces it. It provides us with a companion by occupying our senses — and, through our senses, our minds, our thoughts. It has, quite literally, a presence. We know that sound and touch are the only sensual stimuli that literally move us, that make parts of us move: Sound waves make the tiny hairs in our inner ears vibrate, and, if sound waves are strong enough, they can make our whole bodies vibrate. We might even say, therefore, that sound is a form of touch, and that in its own way music is able to reach out and put an arm around us.

(Does smell literally move us? Does everyone have nose hairs? Is their movement an essential component of the physiological processing of smells? Smell is powerfully evocative, but the case could be made for sound and taste. In each case, a step is taken outside of our predominantly visual world. It's a question of what you notice, what you're allowed to notice, what you're made to notice.)

A response noted that:
We have relegated music to simply an exercise in listening, and then intellectually verbalizing (for expression) what we hear.

What many of the twentieth century modernists do is to force us to go beyond intellectualizing about what we hear, to force our hearing to blend with those physical vibrations that are happening, to tap into something deeper from within our very center that we can't articulate. We can only express by moving. Or by creating something else in a physical or visceral way.

I've only skimmed the original article and the commentary it generated. I'm not currently interested in a discussion of the virtues, or lack thereof, of atonality and dissonance. It's the excerpted passage that my mind keeps returning to.

The music moves you.
"Can you feel the music?"

Is it because music is so physical that it is so emotional? That we ascribe the qualities of sound to certain experiences to convey their intensity?

An idea resonates.
It strikes a chord.
"How does that sound?"
A face or a name rings a bell.
Memories echo.

Voices, when soft music dies
Vibrate in the memory

— Shelley

I'm struck by how little music is in my life these days.

With some exceptions, I turned the stereo off and shut "music" out, rather unconsciously and I believe temporarily.

It started with the exhaustion of new motherhood. I needed to regain my ability to focus amid... everything — the spatial-visual clutter, the disorganization, the interrupted sleep. The noise of that time in my life (though all my senses were assulted). I wanted peace and quiet. (Even here, I think the "quiet" is metaphorical.)

Perhaps turning the music off was an attempt to disassociate, to stop up emotional leaks.

Of course, my world is not silent at all. I hear the whir of air conditioners, snippets of conversation passing beneath my window, hammers and saws in the distance, planes overhead. Birds. Cats.

I feel I am in tune (in tune) with my space. Tuned into it. This is something that much pop music actually prevents us from doing (opposite from what musicians of formal training aspire to).

(I wanted to research "expressions of sound as metaphor," but this wasn't a very fruitful avenue. However, here are some of the really amazing subjects to the study of which people devote their lives:
The effects of culture, environment, age, and musical training on choices of visual metaphors for sound
Modeling the effects of irrelevant speech on memory
Cross-language word segmentation by 9-month-olds
Modulating semantic feedback in visual word recognition
Foreign language knowledge can influence native language performance in exclusively native contexts

I note that I listed many topics related to language, because I studied linguistics, because a fascination with these things drew me to the study of linguistics. For a while I'd wanted to pursue Cognitive Science, but I'm too lazy, and probably not smart enough. I read Steven Pinker when I can.)

I'm discovering the music again.


Suzanne said...

Your post reminded me of two books -- one I've read and one that has been on my shelf for a few years, giving me baleful looks as I walk past it:

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain

I've read the book by Ackerman, and you might enjoy the section on sound (my personal favorite sense from that book is smell).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I have been trying to find ways of writing about music, lately, as part of the eternal neverending YA novel project -- and that first quoted paragraph puts some things into words that I hadn't, yet.

Music is, for me, the nearest analog to god. When people talk about spirituality, about what it FEELS like, I can almost understand it if I remember what it's like to play cello in an orchestra, completely surrounded by sound. And like religion, music can be a crutch, an escape from reality, a balm, a source of courage and of strength.

Anyway! You've got me thinking again, curse you! And thanks!

Diana said...

If you're not smart enough, no one is.

Isabella K said...

Like religion! Of course! It puts me in mind of scared and non-Western music, but especially chanting — the music is designed to induce physical states, to transport you to ecstatic heights.

I wonder, though, why music, more than the other arts?

Suzanne: The Ackerman is on my long list of books to investigate.

Diana: A really smart person would be less lazy.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember his arguments, exactly (it's been more than ten years!), but I remember Schopenhauer as having some interesting speculations about the effects of music. I'll have to go look that up. He was astonished at its ability to produce imagery in the mind without itself having a visual component (well, beyond the sight of the performer...), and I seem to recall he considered it very "pure", whatever that means. I know I have that book somewhere...

Anonymous said...

Wow...I related to this like nothing that you've recently posted. I have always had an, I don't know, visceral response to music that just seemed way too intrusive. When I'm alone, I prefer to be just that, alone. No music, no extraneous blah blah blah, no nothing. And yet I felt like a freak among my friends/family. "You really need to get into music!" For me, music was just another disraction that people used to get away from themselves; I have always valued alone time as a real prize. Sure, once in awhile, when I'm by myself, I love listening to music. Like right now, I'm listening to a new CD of an Hawaiian artist that I picked up while on vacation. But it's not necessary for me to fill the void. I like music but I don't NEED it; maybe that's the difference.

Thanks, I, for being on the same page as I am, as usual.


e_journeys said...

Without articulating an explanation as to how or why -- when I'm writing, especially fiction, music often serves as my background such that particular characters or situations dictate their own "themes". It serves as a powerful mood mnemonic, to the point where if I hear a particular piece in my head I know I am ready to delve into a certain part of the story -- or, if I'm trying to accomplish a certain verbal tone and don't know quite how to do it, I can literally awaken in the middle of the night with the right musical accompaniment playing in my head. (At that point I drag myself out of bed, power up the computer, and slip in the correct CD -- set to Repeat.)

Then there are those times when I have to write in complete silence, to the point of wearing earplugs. At those times the music distracts me from the "feel" of a scene and nothing I listen to seems to fit.

Joel Sternheimer believes music has a direct effect on protein synthesis ("Good vibrations give plants excitations" at
(might need to highlight this; I don't see the entire URL appearing in the preview unless I drag my cursor across it).
John Dunn and Mary Ann Clark have taken a similar (though not causal) tack with "Life Music: The Sonification of Proteins" at
-- blew my mind.

Following up on suzanne's note re Ackerman: I can also recommend her poetry collection The Planets: A Cosmic Pastorale.