What is music?

Music is the most evanescent of arts because, by its very nature as sound, is an auditory experience that requires memory, retention, and feeling. Unlike a painting or sculpture or even the contents of a book, which require vision (vision accounts for 80% of our cognitive sense learning — and are solid objects variously interpreted — music can be heard but must be reproduced immediately afterwards to confirm the musical experience, let alone the pleasure or positive sensation experienced. Audiobooks are a substitute for vision, not the equivalent of the listening of anthropological and preliterate times.

Of the other senses little need be said. Our olfactory sense (our sense of smell) is a vestige of evolution and only serves to warn against injurious or foul gases or bacteria. This sense seldom rewards the average person who is not sensitive at least to the fragrance of a flower or herb. Our sense of taste similarly keeps us willing to eat but offers only passing pleasures. So works of music have a hard time not in getting our attention but in keeping it in our minds.

To the solitary or the purist, music is a grave challenge not because it is the creation or contrivance of another mind or personality, and not only because sounds of all origins are always competing with one another for authenticity. Music is a human creation yet not capable of restatement as an idea. One can talk about its effects but not reproduce it (the music) very effectively, especially that of an ensemble or orchestra. Unlike a painting or book, music emerges from a Pandora’s box. We must allow it to overwhelm us for the moment, to dominate the mental faculty, and to ring in our ears with themes and phrases and motifs — for days on end if we make the wrong choice of music or fail to put it in its place in our daily lives.

To successfully carry an idea or sentiment, music must be the vehicle of something else, something higher, more sublime, or on the other hand, more raw and emotionally primitive. This duality is not so forceful in objects of the vision because these are mental reproductions and remain static. They require that we assign emotions to them, that we be “pre-sensitive” to them. We can control their impact on our minds. Music is spectacle or accompanies spectacles, from entertainment to war. Spectacles are not sustainable ideas or emotions, do not sustain thought or reflection but directly affect the spirit, saturating the cruder aspects of what might be called the “id.”

Music can accompany the two faces of human endeavor — whipping up a martial frenzy or delicately interpreting the heavenly spheres. In between, music can pander to a variety of nuances, but always through human emotions and projections of positive or sordid. This plasticity of music is present but less obvious in painting or even writing, where the object lies static and lifeless unless a visitor sees merit or is willing to read doggedly and be inspired intellectually. The arts are often hijacked for the purpose of advancing a raw emotion or contrived idea. They often have little to do with reality and nature, even when we intend to express them as such. Books, paintings, and posters can try to conjure feelings, but music has a physiological function that can bypass the intellect.

Thus a typical painting depends on visual satisfaction but remains ocular and does not reverberate in our minds until the associations with ideas begins. A book remains short of a cognitive experience in its complexity, especially if it fails to move us to reflect and merely thrills us for the time of reading. We need critics to convince us of a painting’s value and scholars to interpret the place of a given book in the history of similar ones. These experiences are second-hand or even more hands removed.

But with some knowledge, skill, talent, or interest in music, a new part of human sensory faculties can emerge or be elicited, bypassing the mere visual or intellectual and striking directly at a mood, an atmosphere, a brooding or lightness, depending on the music taken seriously. Some sort of music moves somebody somewhere.

Perhaps this volatility of music is why Nietzsche revolted so strongly against Wagner’s primordial music of tragedy, death, and redemption, which militated against the ego-optimism of Nietzsche’s youthful mindset. Not so much the music was Nietzsche’s source of offense but the person and ideas of the composer. He knew the grandiosity of the music made it artistically difficult to refute as art, less dismiss. He transferred his resentment to the composer himself.

This transference is the perennial debate of art: Is the object of art to be held accountable for its creator’s flaws? Should we judge art ad hominum? In Turin in 1888, just short of his breakdown, Nietzsche wrote to a friend of the marvels of Bizet’s Carmen, in contrast to the heavy-handed Wagner. He makes the analogy of debilitated senses, the plea of weak eyes against glare — a utilitarian complaint for a moment of rest sought, not a music critic’s case but one weary and impatient with weighty themes. A little light music was called for. Different works of art have their appropriate times and moods.

Yet Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche are all passionately engaged with music as a tropos of aesthetics and philosophizing. They reach different conclusions, of course, and put music to different ends. Whether any given listener can endure the theory and will merely judge the music by their own preferences, dispensing with the critic’s futile interventions, shows us the subjectivity of music, especially when considering its popularization. Music today is largely utilitarian in being written to provoke a particular class of consumer to feel a particular subset of emotions. The phenomenon of the spectacle has become ubiquitous. Music is now the audio background to our humdrum daily lives and the places we frequent. With technology, more of it can be manufactured, separating us more and more from philosophy and aesthetics, more and more from silence and the authentic sounds of nature.