Music’s Invisibles



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.

Sound Leaps


It’s the space
between the marimba bar
and its resonator
where sound leaps

from vibrating wood
to metal column
one oscillating to another
horizontal plane to vertical
from here to there

the space is just
as we do when we listen
a leap from being struck
by music to being moved by it
becoming sound’s wave.

Musical Belief


belief—an acceptance that a statement is true or something exists

Music can’t articulate claims about truth or falsity (can it?), but in its sounds and organization it can ring true or false or somewhere in between. One of the many things we do when we listen is try to figure out if we accept what the music is proposing. Our stance, of course, is a starting point shared with the doubting listening mindset, summed up in the question: Do I believe what the music is doing or trying to do? But in contrast to doubting, a believing mindset hears music as a glass more half full than half empty of meaningful sounds. Believing begins by assuming that what the musician is trying to do is true. This belief carries the listener along for the musical ride, trusting that the composer or performer will pull it off. Believing says I trust you even though only in the fullness of the elapsed time of a completed performance will we know if this trust was well-founded. The music may or may not ever get off the ground, but I hope it does and my believing this could make all the difference to the music’s success.