On The (In)significance Of Musical Experience

by Thomas Brett

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of listening to a podcast interview with a writer talking about information theory, or art history and design aesthetics, or the philosophy of work, or the politics of technology, I find myself thinking about the purpose and relative (in)significance of music.  Musicologists have long studied the formal properties of music, mapping the relations among its parts; anthropologists have shown the social uses and meanings of music within communities of players and listeners, and cultural historians have located music within the circulation of music sound reproduction technologies, the technology of musical instruments, and discourses (real and imagined) about what it all means.

But there is an absence at the heart of music and sound that keeps them forever puzzling to us: there is no there there.  Music, that most vaporous of phenomena, seems to be, to borrow a phrase from G.W. Trow, a “context of no context”: music is about nothing and then spends its time chronicling that nothingness.  (Trow used the phrase to describe the conceptual space of television.) The relations among music’s parts can be mapped and described, but they don’t constitute a language with a stable set of meanings; in fact, on person’s “happy chord” could be a sad sound for someone else.  Furthermore, music’s sounds don’t really reflect real world things.  At the core of music seems to be an inherent insignificance–an agreed upon pseudo-discourse onto which we project elaborate systems of meaning and significance.  In this regard, it might be reasonable to say that music is an elaborate Rorschach Test in sound.

But this is not to say that music isn’t terribly important to our day-to-day lives, because it often is.  Could it be that music’s significance lies in its very insignificance?  This in itself tells us important things about what it means to be human: that we appreciate the contours, relations, and timbres of music for their own sake, and for how they combine in infinite ways to make us feel deeply.

But consider another perspective.  Perhaps our ability to extract feelings from music has something to do with how it draws on the particular faculties of our minds, specifically our memories and our ability to project past experiences onto the future.  In a talk on the Zocalo Public Square podcast (which I highly recommend), the neuroscientist Antonio DAmasio discusses the nature of human memory:

“We live every moment, every second of our life, poised between the lived past and the anticipated future.  The anticipated future exists as a set of plans that we have formulated.  And those plans have been committed to memory.  So what you have is something particularly bizarre, which is to have memories of the future…”

Memories of the future.  So maybe some of the pleasures of music arise out of our projecting what we think might happen next based on our previous listening experiences?  The nature of this interaction between our past experiences and our present exposure to a music is surely incredibly complex, since we all have vastly different (and idiosyncratic) listening histories.  No wonder music can seem perpetually new, since, as Damasio says later in his talk, we are ourselves continually changing, “moving in time, relentlessly, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”  The best we can do is take snapshots with the help of this moving Rorschach Test in sound.  At the very least, listening to music makes us aware of our fleeting “here and now moments.”