Music’s Invisibles

 

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Often when we think about music, we’re thinking about its visibles: the people making it (how they look and self identify, their gender, how they play), the instruments they play (acoustic or electronic? traditional or new? homemade or mass-produced?), and the contexts in which they perform (formal concert hall or the street? the recording studio or the home?). But music’s invisibles are even more interesting, precisely because you can’t see them.

Music’s invisibles begin of course with musical sound itself, whose elements have been variously described as the most perceptible and the least material thing (Leopold Sedar Senghor), as affecting presences (Robert Plant Armstrong), as a symbolic system without fixed meanings, and as a meaningful context not bound to a conceptual scheme (Alfred Schutz). In short, musical sounds are freakishly powerful yet mysterious—if you don’t see any musicians making it, you might even doubt that music exists apart from its life-force emanating from all those speakers in your life. But while you can’t see music you can certainly feel it, and the feelings music elicits is another of its invisibles. The right combination of rhythms and/or tones can move us to movement or an internal moving in the form of strong emotions: we get chills when the chorus finally arrives or the chords resolve themselves just so in a cadence.

There are invisibles beyond the invisible of musical sound and musical feeling too. Music is caught in an intricate web of talk about it—by the musicians who make it and by countless fans who share and debate over it with one another. These discourses influence how we listen to music because music talk creates mini-frames of reference. Have you heard so-and-so’s new recording? I like their old music better though. Kendrick Lamar is untouchable. The Foo Fighters are terrible. And so on. As the socio-musicologist Simon Frith describes this component of listening, music is always adjectival—we’re always describing what we hear to better get a handle on it, and more or less, “what we feel about the music is what it means” (Simon Frith, Performing Rites, 139) Finally, along with talk about music, there’s an even broader invisible which is music’s institutional frames. These frames include record labels, concert venues, print and online media, awards and arts foundations, and so on. Institutional frames go a long way to determine or try to determine the music you encounter. Who decides what music gets reviewed and what music is perpetually ignored? Who decides this is a “great” recording? Who decides why this composer or that performer is appearing yet again at Carnegie Hall or at the Grammy Awards? Are musical canons about the music or the consensus of a powerful and connected few? The workings of these institutional frames are complex and in any case, not simply decided by objective measures of Quality. In short, you and I don’t have much say over which sounds are heard by a few and which sounds reach a billion.

Having zoomed out from along music’s invisibles—from its sound to its feelings to the talk around it and its institutional frames—we return to sound. For me, this is the primary playing field on which music’s tiny details hold the most meaning: the shape of a single tone, the contour of a phrase, the listening response to a call, the considered counterpoint, the mix mixed just right. Despite music’s obvious visibles and its more subtle invisibles, musical artistry is always perceptible when you pay attention to how interesting music is a function of sounds doing interesting things.

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