A Creative Compass: Music Is Feeling, Not Sound



In the second stanza of his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, Wallace Stevens makes a simple observation about the nature of music with an acuity that exceeds the findings of the most sophisticated music theorists:

“Music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Stevens brings our attention to one of music’s central curiosities: how it’s built from one thing (sounding vibrations) but is about another (felt feeling).

I keep returning to this line whenever I’m assessing music I’m listening to or when I’m working on something of my own. What Stevens understands is the many ways music can do its emotional work not only through its sound, but despite its sound, or in contrast to its sound. Keeping Stevens’ line in mind, I’ll ask myself how the music is working on a feeling level. What is it doing (to me)? What is it trying to achieve? How does it push or pull me along? How the music is working as sound is usually audibly transparent, but its feeling quality is a more complicated matter. A music can trigger multiple sensations simultaneously, like a mallet striking five bells at once: there’s an initial klang, but then you hear all those individual pitches overlapping into a chord and dissipating as they go their separate harmonic ways over time. How do all of us non-scientist listeners unpack this as we go along?

Stevens’ line also emboldens me to be a critical listener: as I listen I want evidence of some kind of emotional stance and if that stance doesn’t materialize sooner rather than later, which is to say that if the music seems to be more about sound than about feeling—I’ll jump ship. Maybe it’s for this reason that I’m weary of virtuosos or those who have pursued a technique to some exaggerated end. Musicians keep your attention through the feelings they generate, not their sounds per se.

The most useful application of Stevens’ line though, is to use it as a creative compass. The next time you’re inside that song, or at the concert, or playing an instrument, ask yourself whether or not the music is about the feeling or about the sound.

2 thoughts on “A Creative Compass: Music Is Feeling, Not Sound

  1. I was lead here by WordPress suggesting similarity with a recent post/audio piece of mine which used Wallace Stevens words.

    I agree with your point, even if I don’t know always know what Wallace Stevens is on about. In my theory, all art is about the exposure and transfer of other people’s perceptions (including feeling/emotions). Others disagree, particularly with that emotional transfer and if it can be inherent in music. The way I hear it stated sometimes is “I can use these chords or melodic intervals, played this way; and it may sound sad or happy to someone, but in fact I’m not feeling or intending the same thing, it’s just a musical color I produce technically.”

    Somewhere recently I saw some psychological study which may explain how what you and I believe to be eminently true isn’t held to be true by others. It appears that the ability to “read” emotional color in art, including music, is variable. What may bring me to tears is only heard by others abstractly. In effect, some of us may be “supertasters” for emotional content and others may be “auditory autistics”–if that’s not loaded a term.

    As to the virtuosos and the like, well it’s not just emotions and feeling that are part of that transfer. With some musicians and composers, the part of the experience that is being transferred is “Wow, what an usual choice. Or how did they manage to play that?” Yes, there’s emotion there (surprise, envy, admiration, and so on–and yes, boredom too) but it’s not necessarily what the composer or musician is intending. An artist like John Coltrane can display both kinds of transfer, the “how’d he do that” element of something like “Giant Steps” or the emotional wallop of “Alabama.”

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response to that post Frank. I think we can both agree that art-making and art-receiving has everything to do with perception, which may or may not involve a range of felt emotions too. Thanks for reading.

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