On the difficulty of discussing musical works

020 May 17, 2014 -- (asphalt)

Back in the day when I was writing in Romanian, and this is something of which the post-spyked-bricks-in-the-wall readers might be completely unaware of, I was, like any melomaniac, discussing music on the blog. Everything from jazz to progressive rock had a place there, and for a while I had felt that I just had to put my musical experiences into words. Uncoincidentally, my music intake was gigantic for something like six years in a row, so maintaining some sort of journal on the matter was actually quite inspired, and somehow inspiring.

But I must admit that at some point the whole thing started bothering me.

In the last couple of years I started listening to fewer musical works, partly due to a lack of the capacity to focus derived from my increasingly busy schedule, and partly due to my desire to grasp the depth of the music I was consuming. As you might know, progressive rock and jazz aren't particularly easy genres, and I've started complementing them with classical works, as well as whatever new "releases" I found interesting1.

This being said, I found (and still do) that keeping a musical journal continues to make sense. However, my latest journal entries failed to cover the actual depth of the music I'm involving myself with. Admittedly, this might partly account for my lack of formal musical background, although I have composed music in the past and I'm able to understand the underlying complexity of various musical works. What is more confusing is that while looking into "more professional" writings such as those supposedly made by Prog Archives' reviewers, I tend to see the same shallow approach to music analysis that plagues my own. And this is what made it even more bothersome.

I therefore postulate that discussing music is inherently hard, as hard as discussing love or beauty, or virtues or good, or even existence itself. Indeed, we seldom think of the nature of love while we become attached to someone, yet this doesn't make it any less dumbfounding; and that is, after all, what makes love so hard to put into words. The same goes for music.

From a purely mechanical point of view, music is but a sequence of sound waves which occur in such a way that they are processed by our auditory system to be interpreted as "likeable". This definition may be considered by some to be too broad, since then I would consider mere words spoken by a woman to be music; this is, in fact, not too far from the truth, given the expression "music to my ears". The hard fact is that humans grow to develop an affinity for certain sound patterns, with the possibility of cultural relativism: what I find to be music, you might find to be noise and vice-versa.

But then we could approach music from an abstract point of view; it, as many other (physical or otherwise) phenomena occuring in nature, can be described in mathematical terms, or, to quote Leibniz:

The pleasure we obtain from music comes from counting, but counting unconsciously. Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic.

Any person with basic musical training can confirm this: scales, modes and the circle of fifths are all part of a mathematical framework used to make sense of how musical "notes" happen, and all this without even discussing rhythm. Furthermore, musical notation is a purely formal construct, not unlike standard mathematical notation, which leads us to the possibility of describing music as algebra. It is very much a miracle, if you will, and one that matters.

There is, however, a third point of view, which the reader might have failed to consider, but which I notice daily in the spring when I open my window: music is a language, or rather a set of languages considered by many musicians to be universal2, despite the aforementioned cultural relativism. We often tell ourselves that birds "sing" when in fact they communicate, but it's not so often that we tell ourselves that we communicate through music, when we in fact do precisely that. The proof is trivial: music has an alphabet and, oh, so many grammars which send some kind of message, or tell a story, like B.B. King likes to say; one which we understand only subconsciously.

And therein lies the difficulty: describing a song's deep(ly) musical message would require us to translate that message into English or some other human language, and that is, I argue, impossible, since we don't, and can't, because we have no means to understand deep(ly) musical messages in terms of human language.

Let's take Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" as an example. The suite gives a detailed musical account of an exhibition of Viktor Hartmann's paintings, being split into sections accordingly. Now, our greatest luck as listeners is that the author has annotated his work, while the extra commentary describes the meaning of each movement. On the other hand, if we were to give the raw suite to a child without providing them with any extra information about the song3, their own unadulterated interpretation would be nothing close to that.

Generalizing, I am arguing that the author's subjective interpretation of a musical piece has, in fact, no relationship whatsoever with the public's interpretation, or, more exactly, with the billions possible interpretations. Thus we can't naïvely assume that there is in fact a one-to-one mapping between the language of a song and human language, let alone a mapping between the language(s) of many songs and the latter. In fact we can't assume that there is any mapping at all.

Having said that, I find it extremely difficult to write about my own musical experiences anymore, although they are now as rich as ever, if not richer. Granted, I'm not sure they were ever useful to anyone except myself, but all I can do is hope that I'll get to explore some new (or old!) music in writing in the future.


  1. Looking at things in perspective, I observe that "albums" are a stupid format to release to the public. One would have thought that Internet would free us from the need to have \(x\) songs in \(n\) minutes, but alas, old habits die hard.

  2. Not unlike mathematics, by the way.

  3. This is bound to happen when you're in a bar or a pub and you hear "that song" and then you have no idea how to find it afterwards. If it weren't for Shazam and whatnot...