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.