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Devotion: Philosophy of Music 101

This week's devotion was written by NLC bass section member, Dave Michel. Get ready to embrace paradox!

This is Philosophy of Music 101. I am your instructor, Mr. Michel (M-I-no T-C-H-E-one L).

My goal for this class is to identify some distinctive aspects of music as an art form, and explore how music might inform life and spirituality. This course being about philosophy, just about everything I say today will be derivative and based on other's work. This won't surprise those of you who've had any of my other classes - derivative is just another way of saying "relational.” This is not a bad thing.

Even though this is a five minute course, it is worth 4 credits, so I encourage you to fully engage as you are able. Sorry - no credits for those of you auditing.

To start off, who can provide us with a definition of the word "paradox?” Right - a statement of impossible or contradictory propositions or concepts, which is still true. Some examples of paradox would be – Jesus (truly God and truly human, the Infinite living in creation with us), receiving by giving, the last shall be first, we are exalted by being humble, we live by dying. Luther's statement, “simul justus et peccator” - "simultaneously saint and sinner.”

And the physical world is full of paradox. How about the concept of "now" (oops - it's already in the past), the brain (mind vs matter, is the brain really a machine? ...and what is thinking, really?). Light – is it particle or wave (or is it "noun or verb")?

Here's my postulate - the core of music is paradox. You can experience the joy and beauty of music without exploring its underlying layers of paradox and meaning, but to truly understand music from the inside, you've got to embrace paradox (this also applies to many other disciplines, such as theology and physics). The reason for this is that paradox is about truth.

So, to music:

Music is ephemeral. When we perform music, the music is there in the hearing, and then it’s over. Performing music is an inherently transitory, experiential thing. Music is the very definition of “now” – oops, it’s already in the past.

Think about how sound works. When musicians perform, all we are doing is moving air. When the air vibrates (that’s called sound), it propagates and dissipates, and then it’s gone. You can’t get much more ephemeral than that. Every vibration is a unique event.

So performing music is ephemeral. Experiencing music is, too. As an audience member, we are treated to the little time slices of a musical performance, and then they’re gone. The only remnant is in our memory.

(Even listening to familiar recorded music is always a unique event, because, while a digital recording does not change, the world and our experiences are constantly changing. Think of a favorite recording – there will likely be a specific event connected with it in your memory. We aren’t really repeating an experience when we listen to a favorite recording – we are recollecting (or re-collecting) how it originally impacted us. Every listen brings something different. We are always listening with new ears, even to an old song.)

Music evokes emotions, and it can do it without words or visual images. It’s that emotional connection that makes music so effective and, well, magical. How is it that instrumental music can sound so triumphant (the end of Stravinsky’s “Firebird”) or free (Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”) or introspective (Mvmt. II from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, sometimes known as “Going Home” – you know that catch in the melody near the end)? Jubilant, creepy, funny, dark, brooding, excited – you name an emotion, and music can probably do it without words. And these emotions can be conveyed by a multitude of musical genres, and likely in a variety of cultural settings.

Here’s a facetious but still valid example (yes – paradox). Just listen to any Looney Tunes score; not only do you get a huge range of emotions, but each mood change happens in a split second ( – Carl Stalling composed scores for over 600 cartoons). How is this possible with just instruments?

Music’s inherent emotional capabilities are just the beginning. Add words to music, and you’ve got an incredibly powerful mechanism for evoking emotions.

Music is relational. Music is a system of note relationships, time relationships, dynamics relationships, all within itself. We, as singers, apply our capabilities and sensibilities to our music when we perform. And then the listener not only experiences the performance, but gives back energy to the performers in a virtuous circle. Everything about music is relational, not abstract. Even these crazy abstract ideas of music that I’ve been talking about are relational. Oooh – paradox!

Finally, music is transcendent. To be a musician, you must live in the moment. For a performer, this is the greatest paradox – our work is transient and timeless at the same time. Yes, there is timeless music. Yes, by performing it, we are part of this timeless music, if only for a short time. When we perform, we have to fully live in the moment. In the Now. Right in the middle of the paradox.

The Lord be with you…

Infinite God, in your love for us, you break through the boundaries of time to give us your Son, the Redeemer. We pray that you would be with us always, and especially as we prepare to perform the story of Passion Week to honor the great acts you have done for us. Help us always live as Easter people.

In Jesus’ name we pray,


Reference: Soren Kierkegaard (Repetition, Philosophical Fragments), Douglas Hofstadter (Gödel, Escher, Bach)