Musical Depth


the distance from the surface to the bottom of something; the apparent existence of three dimensions in a two-dimensional representation; complexity or profundity of thought

As I wrote here a few years ago, music is a depth experience par excellence, that seems to have built into its design an endless capacity to conjure virtual spaces. We might even say about this conjuring, to borrow from the musicologist David Burrows, that music’s work is to model the depths of different kinds of experiences for us in sound, from the gamut of emotions to more abstract yet tactilely real sensations, such as how we experience the surfaces and bottoms of spaces and places. Here is Burrows:

“Seeing music as a model could seem cold or trivializing. But the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models: music doesn’t belong to the detached world of mathematical modeling. And there is nothing trivial about the musical enterprise: it is far removed from toy model airplanes or fashion models on runways. Certainly we are not consciously engaged in modeling when involved with music. Nobody turns on the stereo, kicks back and says, ‘Now for a little temporal modeling.’ If music is modeling at all, it is preconscious, participative, processual modeling: not the sort of model you stand back from and consider as you might a model to scale of the Colosseum in Rome. You live it” (David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time, 2007, p.69).

Music offers opportunities for experiencing various kinds of depth, including melodic and harmonic depth, rhythmic depth, and timbral depth. Melodies and harmonies have depth in that their pitches outline chords—with roots and fifths, octaves and ninths, tones and semitones—that trace a kaleidoscope of virtual shapes. A repeating blues I-IV-V progression, for example, evokes something like short journey in space, doesn’t it? It’s a familiar, reliable, and comforting kind of travel that goes and returns while serving as an open-ended frame for supporting melodies (more virtual shapes) above it. Rhythmic depth is created through music’s repetitions and syncopations, its polyrhythms (e.g. 2 against 3), its accents, its meter (e.g. 4/4 or 12/8), and its layers of different note densities (e.g. the drummer drums quarter notes while the bass player fills in steady eighths). Timbral depth (or tone color) is created through layering different instrumental (and non-instrumental) sounds. Whether it’s a voice paired with an accordion, a ride cymbal over a snare drum, brass blended with woodwinds, or a mix of synthesizer pads, music’s timbral combinations create ever-changing depths. And finally, music has depth of volume or dynamics. A Japanese shakuhachi flute or bass music penetrating our bodies into dance submission are just two extremes of how music creates depth by being very quiet or very loud.

Yet all of these different kinds of depth serve what I think is music’s most important quality: its emotional depth or depth of feeling. A fact that never ceases to amaze me is how music exists within a single dimension (sound) yet has four-dimensional effects. This is why music built from the barest of materials (two hands clapping rhythms, or a shakuhachi solo) can create multiple emotional bandwidths, proving that depth of feeling is music’s most virtual quality: you hear one thing and feel other things on a different level of experience. No wonder the highest compliment one musician pays another is saying that their music is deep.

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