Some Thoughts on Music

Over the last couple of years I have found myself engaged in a number of critical discussions involving the nature and end of music. On numerous occasions these discussions have been crippled by my interlocutor’s assertion that there was no way to account for taste or to pass judgment on the quality of a musical piece. It was their opinion that the measure of music was only to be found in the ear of the listener, and if someone else didn’t like their particular kind of music, so be it, to each his own. To them, the talent of a musician or the particular musical worth of a piece were not things that could be perceived as concrete objective qualities; on the contrary, the musical worth of a piece was a completely subjective matter. Ones propensity for listening to the shrill and shrieking virtuosity of a heavy metal guitarist was in no way a judgment against another’s love of the resonant, rippling notes of a violinist playing Vivaldi. Beauty itself was amorphous, shaped only by the listener’s ear. In as much as the beauty of a thing was only formed in the ear of the listener, it then followed that beautiful things no longer possessed transcendent qualities which could manifest themselves in various mediums. The song existed only as a haphazard catalyst which might or might not produce a reaction in the ear of the listener.
I reject this assertion. I hold that just like everything else conceived and shaped by man, there are objective standards by which to judge the quality of a thing, be it a song, a performer, or a whole musical genre. Following on this, I believe it is possible to objectively state that some forms of music are superior to others in how they shape and correspond to the world around them. Naturally, one cannot criticize a thing in a vacuum; things exist in relation to the world around them and must be judged accordingly. One wouldn’t judge a lullaby by the standards of a military march, or a ballad according to the qualities of a dance tune. All of these things are particular to their own place in the world and the quality of each of them can only be discerned by how well they correspond to their place. Dissonance arises when a thing becomes lost or misplaced and falls out of harmony with its surroundings.
Amid all the noise of modern existence it is easy to forget the significance of words like harmony and dissonance. Most times we find ourselves in a position where the most we can functionally distinguish between is the near constant cacophony of our culture and the rare blessing of an occasional bit of peace and quiet. To try to distinguish some harmonious cohesion existing amidst all of the sounds around us is a hard task and generally we tend to accept some level of dissonance as the status quo. The crassness of the mechanical world has grafted its harsh logic into how we listen and our culture has become the poorer for it. However, even amidst all of the sound and fury of the modern age we still retain some recollection of the simple logic of a song.
Songs are unique among the things crafted by men, for while the words of a song are gathered from the pieces of our fractured fallen world, its melody is transcendent and resides on a plain in which all things resolve in harmonious accord. The inevitable rise and fall of the melodic line is mirrored in the movement of the seasons, the planting in spring and the harvest of fall. Life rises up out of the earth, blossoms and ripens, then withers, dies and returns to the earth. Hidden in a melody’s harmonious resolution is a promise unrevealed by mans observation of the natural world. This promise is that mans inevitable return is not to a cacophonous abyss but to the harmonious tonic which he had sought and desired from his inception. In its resolution the melody allows man a glimpse of the peace that lies beyond his own return to the dusty earth.
Some would argue that this interpretation of a melody’s movement is arbitrary, that man creates what he desires, he makes things how he would have them. According to them we reside in chaos, men in a maelstrom, trying to salvage a craft from the flotsam and jetsam, and hoping by some miracle to ride out the storm. If so, there really isn’t much point in discussing the matter since it’s an infinite storm and we’re all going to die anyway. Under such circumstances Epicureanism is the only logical response. That or suicide. But let’s say that there wrong and that the movement of a melody and a man’s life aren’t arbitrary, that one participates seamlessly in the other and there really is an inevitable logic and necessity in our movement towards a harmonious resolution. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then the movement and logic of a simple song takes on a whole new significance that resonates far deeper than a just handful of rhythmically staggered tones sounding in our ears. Song becomes the physical manifestation of the movement of our soul.


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