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5. Tonality, Harmony, Philosophy

Silence the Silence. Making Sense of Music Beyond Consumption and Contemplation

Peter Bruun
p. 313-330


La musique est une forme d’art. Nous l’admirons en tant que telle, nous la considérons comme importante et nous la contemplons, c’est-à-dire que nous l’écoutons avec une ferveur sereine. Mais dans notre société actuelle, la musique est également un produit de consommation quotidienne. Nous vivons aujourd’hui avec un fond musical quasi omniprésent et nous utilisons la musique comme accompagnement de nos activités quotidiennes. La musique est un moyen de « faire taire le silence ». Elle débarrasse l’esprit du sentiment d’ennui, de solitude et d’inquiétude. Pour comprendre comment la musique fonctionne dans nos esprits, nous devons dépasser cette approche. La musique est un processus mental qui nous permet de percevoir certaines structures sonores comme porteuses de sens. Ces processus mentaux renvoient probablement à des aspects fondamentaux de la compréhension et de la reconnaissance que nous avons de l’existence d’autrui. La musique reflète le fait que nous habitons tous le même monde. Cet article corrobore ce fait en s’appuyant sur la discussion de découvertes théoriques en psychologie de la musique et sur les preuves apportées par la pratique artistique et pédagogique de la musique.

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1It is astonishing to consider that 100 years ago you would not be listening to music without being in the proximity of someone actually making music. The invention of media for virtual reproduction and distribution of sound has changed our musical life in ways that we have probably yet to comprehend. And in a short time I imagine the era of physical media (records, tapes, CDs) will be seen as a brief transition in the development of music distribution. Today the digital flow grants us access to music almost everywhere and at all times. Like visual art is often used to fill out empty spaces that otherwise might seem annoying or even frightening, music is used to “silence silence”. It pours from loudspeakers in public spaces or we infuse into our mind through ear-plugs. Music fills the empty spaces of time where emotional voidness is looming. From being manifest in our lives primarily as a social event, a state of being-together-with-others-celebrating, music has now become a product. Music is something we produce and consume. This transition happened in a very short span of time.

2One might say, music is and has always been something that goes on in our mind. Music is not just the sound of it, and it should not make any difference how the musical sound is transmitted. The way we understand and respond to the music will be the same no matter if we play or sing ourselves, listen to someone playing or singing, or listen to music from loudspeakers (or earplugs). Hence one might claim that technological development has not and will not fundamentally change our relationship to music.

3Music is classified as a form of art. The present notion of music as an art form grew through romantic thinking in the 19th century. Music came to be regarded as something profoundly meaningful and spiritually significant. This was then something very exclusive and reserved for the so-called “serious” music of classical concert halls and opera houses. Today a lot of musicians in most musical genres would probably say that they are making some form of art: an important statement in our spiritual and social life, and should be taken seriously. Still, among the arts, music does not seem to have the status of visual arts or literature.

4I shall not go further into the subject of technological or sociological development of music. My concern here is how we understand music. We contemplate music as art and we use and consume it in our everyday life. Beyond or behind these modes of experiencing music, I claim, lies an understanding of music as a fundamental form of communication. To investigate this, I present theoretical findings in music psychology and examples from my own work as a composer and music teacher.

5Two questions will serve as guidelines:

  • How do we understand music: What is the mental capacity that enables us to identify, remember and recognize music across different forms in which it may appear and even allows us to enjoy the sound of music without the actual presence of someone making music?

  • Considering visual art, there is a common notion, that the meaning of an art work occurs between the work and the spectator, as he opens his mind to how the work may reflect aspects of his own spiritual life and of the social context where he finds himself. It is a dialogue between work and spectator that requires some mental effort, first of all opening the mind. Listening to music, we seem to expect that it should grant the listener some meaning immediately upon hearing it. If this is correct, why is there this difference in the way we perceive visual art and music?

1. Is music an art form?

6One of my first big inspirations in composition studies was the American composer Morton Feldman. Feldman very often spoke about the influence of visual art on his music. It seemed like his musical work gathered more energy from paintings and sculptures than from music. Provocatively, Feldman sometimes referred to himself as a painter who had gone astray into the wrong art form. A guiding star for Feldman was his friend, the composer John Cage. In the following excerpt from an interview, he speaks about Cage and the question of music as an art form.

FELDMAN: […] The question is, and it is because of John we must ask this question: Is music an art form to begin with? […] I mean it as a serious question. The question is, again, and say it to yourself when you wake up in the morning, say it to yourself when you go to bed, and say it five more times in this interview: Is music an art form? Because that’s what Cage is really forcing us to decide. It’s no question of art for art’s sake. But is it an art form? Or has it always been show biz based on a kind of small attention span? Did you ever hear those Chopin preludes? The thing is going on and it can go on forever and it’s got this fake cadence at the end. Every piece has a fake cadence, one after the other. The piece could go on for hours. What I mean by show biz is fantastic show biz […]

GENA: Is this something that Cage himself sees or, in his optimism, refuses to see?

FELDMAN: I think in a sense he’s not idealistic about performers; he was not idealistic about society. The man, evidently for some particular reason, thought that he was involved with an art form. Just like Jews are not allowed to win a war. Israel is not allowed to win a war. A writer could make art. A painter could make art. Maybe a composer is not allowed to make art, and maybe a composer never made art.

GENA: So, maybe, Cage is the first composer who freed music to become pure art, with the same kind of intention Pound had for poetry or Kandinsky for painting. But why do you suppose the issue of Cage’s music as art is so often skirted? I mean let’s talk about education.

FELDMAN: Everybody thought they’re listening to anti-art when they’re listening to Cage. They don’t know that the reason they’re annoyed is that it’s art. I’m serious now. I’m not trying to be clever.

GENA: So music is an art form when John does it.

FELDMAN: If you give vent to the imagination and travel the path that he has taken, it becomes an art form. It’s not anti-art. Yes, the problem with Cage is that it’s too much art for music. […]

Gena (1982)

7Feldman (and Peter Gena) seem here to imply that there is some kind of seriousness that music normally is incapable of. It strangely echoes the view on music in Kant’s aesthetics, when Feldman speaks of a “small attention span”: music cannot express profound ideas or meaning and is relegated to the realm of more shallow emotions or fancies.

8The whole question of being an art form or not may, of course, in itself seem futile, since Feldman does not attempt to say what “an art form” may mean. (In many ways Feldman’s whole thinking, speaking and writing seems to be much about rearing the paradoxes that seem to fuel his artistic work.) Many discussions are in play simultaneously in the excerpt from the interview, but the central issue is John Cage’s music, that “freed music to become pure art…” I think that what Morton Feldman and Peter Gena are aiming at, is how Cage somehow managed to reverse the Kantian view. For Kant the apparent abstract nature of music makes it perfect for contemplation but incomprehensible and void of reason. Therefore it is the lesser art compared to visual art, particularly drawing. In the Feldman/Gena/Cage view, music is “the lesser art” because it is too much entertainment. It is, one could say, too comprehensible. The privilege of art is to not make sense. By being abstract, not entertaining, and becoming purely contemplative it becomes “true” art. That was Cage’s achievement.

9Set out like this, in either argument the question begged seem to have more to do with how we understand music than with how we understand art. What is it with music that makes it unfit for art? Does music — or does it not — mean anything, and should it better — or should it better not — mean anything? It struck me that no matter what, both views appear to be stuck in an awkward tangling of concepts revolving around: music means too little or it means too much. Music is (Kant) a pure form of art as it is abstract and hence open to contemplation, but it is a lesser form of art since it cannot mean anything, and therefore speaks only to emotions and not to reason. Or it is (Feldman/Cage) a lesser form of art since it is too much emotion — “showbiz based on short attention span” — and in that sense too much meaning, but is has the potential to evade meaning and become a pure, contemplative art form… I shall elaborate this further.

2. The everyday perspective: music, language and art

10There is a paradox connected to visual versus auditory perception and the way we understand pictures, music and language: It is tempting to link musical perception to the fact that sound has an immense emotional effect on us. Sound invokes fear, anxiety, expectation, etc. We react extremely fast to anything we hear and determine whether that particular sound needs a responsive action or can be disregarded. Vision does not connect to emotions in the same way. Vision is rational as it reaches out into the world to seek out the things we need. This, however, does not explain the difference in the way we perceive pictures and music. The perception of music is something different from the perception of sound. Music is sound — or at least, for now, we can say it is transmitted as sound — and we do respond emotionally to it. But not in the same way as we respond to sound as sound.

11If we look at the way we perceive pictures and the way we perceive music, there seems to be one fundamental difference. When we look at a picture we do not expect it to yield meaning in itself. We may recognize that it is a picture of something, but that does not necessarily bring any meaning to it. Once convinced that it is interesting, we are willing to invest some mental effort in making sense of it. We may even accept, particularly if it is a work of art, that the meaning is something you imagine or produce yourself when you start thinking about what you see: it is dialogue and interaction. When we listen to music we must necessarily be able to understand it. Music should initially put our mind at ease rather than putting it to work — not because we are lazy or expect the music to be only affirmative. But if the music does not make some sense upon hearing it we are simply not able to perceive it as music. It will be mere sound or noise. Being told that a particular stream of sound is music will not alone make you able to make musical sense of it. A professional musician may figure out a formal structure or structuring principle that resembles music as he knows it. Or he may find it fascinating or thought-provoking. But understanding it would not only be a matter of mental effort. There needs to be some kind of immediate mental correspondence. This is not a matter of finding it interesting or being aroused or not. It is just the basic feeling that it must make sense; it needs to have some meaning to it.

12In that respect music resembles language. Music and language are not expressive sounds to invoke emotion. They are structured systems of sound that we can understand. Understanding implies making-sense-of and finding-meaning-in what you hear. Upon hearing language and music you recognize an underlying structure. But language, grammar and semantic meaning seem “at first sight” to be closely linked to visual perception rather than to sound. Discrete objects, states of affairs, causes and effects etc. refer to the world as we see it, not as we hear it. As a means of communication, the way we use language appears to be closely linked to the gestures of “pointing to” and of “laying out”. Reference to sound in language, even when the name of the sound is onomatopoetic, will somehow feel metaphoric. Though grammatically and semantically parallel, I heard a loud bang is simply not saturated the same way as I saw a large cannon.

13The latter stands for itself and produces an image in the mind, while the former seems to cry out for context. This, in turn, makes it, the former, loaded and intense; not that you imagine the actual bang, but that you fantasize the cause of the bang. The latter is boring and closed unless stated with dramatic emphasis or in an exciting context. Put in present tense the difference between the two becomes maybe even more striking. Stating I hear a loud bang could be close to incomprehensible: strange and puzzling, if you do not hear the bang yourself, and redundant if you do. Reference to a cannon that I see but you do not see, would probably make you ask where — and you would expect me to point to it or direct your vision to the location of the cannon.

14Considering visual art, a picture can serve both as a piece of art and as decoration. Contemplating a picture as a piece of art we will pay deep attention to it, interpret and interact with it. Hanging on the wall as decoration it will be a part of the environment, to which we do not pay attention unless something directs our attention towards it. Similarly the same piece of music may be listened to intensely in a concert hall, or it may be listened to on the mobile phone or on the stereo as entertainment or pass-time while you are engaged in something else. It may even sometimes, like in busy, crowded urban areas, become a part of a sonic environment and become a sound that can be disregarded. But none of this can really be compared to decoration. When we listen to music even as a form of pass-time it will still affect us, only this is not because it is sound to which we need to pay attention. As mentioned before, when we listen to music we perceive it distinctively as something else than just (pleasant) sound. Yes, it affects us, maybe, emotionally, but there is also an underlying feeling of understanding and making sense of what we hear. Even with muzak in supermarkets or relax lounges, which could probably be compared to visual decoration insofar it does not serve other purposes than making the environment pleasant and comforting, I would say it serves this purpose only because we are able to understand it as music.

15To sum up, viewing music as art, we must consider that the way we make sense of it is different from the way we make sense of a picture. Music is not pictures painted with sound instead of colours. Yet we cannot understand musical perception by the emotional effect of sound. And though music, as spoken language, is conveyed by sound, its meaning is obviously not semantic content as in spoken language. Language’s meaning as semantic content seems much closer to vision than to sound. So what kind of meaning is it we expect music to have?

3. Musical meaning

16That music is structured sound, and how this structuring makes it possible for us to understand, has been convincingly demonstrated in the groundbreaking “Generative Theory of Tonal Music” (Lehrdahl & Jackendoff [1983]). The theory (“GTTM”) elaborately demonstrates the fundamental principles that generate the innate, underlying structural properties in all works in Western classical music. It thereby becomes evident that there is a certain coherence in the way music unfolds which corresponds to the coherent way we experience music. Thus our understanding of music, according to GTTM, simply means that our mind is or becomes familiar with these generative principles. This is the grammar of music. And we are able to memorize and recognize particular pieces of music because our mind, by these generative principles, is able to construct a mental representation of what we have heard. Music makes sense because it adheres to the generative principles by which our mind structures musical experience.

17As mentioned above, an obvious, and common, idea could then be that music is an alternative language. It resembles language, and music and language might be parallel systems of structured sound. Language maps the world “as we see it” and “think it”. So music might be said to map the world “as we feel it”. This in some way corresponds with how we perceive music: we understand it and it seems to speak to our emotions.

  • 1 “If the mental representation of music is not simply a copy […] of the original acoustic signal […] (...)
  • 2 As suggested above, some confusion could also stem from viewing language as a system of structured (...)
  • 3 “[B]ecause it does not have to serve practical communicative functions, there can be much looser co (...)

18Music psychologist John Sloboda tentatively suggests such an analogy between music and language. Going out from the basic notion that music is not just a stream of sound but also a structured mental process that we are able to memorize and seemingly copy in our mind, he suggests that music might be said to hold some kind of meaning similar to language.1 Since we have only one brain and one pair of ears, it does not seem far fetched to assume that it might be the same functionality that lies behind both language and music. Against this, however, speaks that language and music serve different functions in our lives. For the communicative function of language to operate, its semantic function seems crucial: we need to be able to make sense of language — word and sentences, grammar — but we also need to be quite certain that we speak about the same things and facts ”out there”. Music could not possibly refer to anything in the sense language can. For one thing, it lacks the fundamental semantic property of language of being either true or false. If we suppose music have some kind of semantic content, we could see a piece of music as a statement that has meaning and possibly also refers to something. (Something we cannot put to words). But we could never, for instance, make the opposite statement. We could not disagree with the statement.2 We do make sense of music, but it is difficult to say if we refer to the same things with our music.3

  • 4 “Perhaps the valuing of musical works for their emotive properties in concert with their apparent p (...)

19This issue becomes even graver when examined from a philosophical point of view. If music apparently is unable to refer to anything particular, why and how should we presume that it refers to anything at all? Even if the idea of music as an “alternative” language (of emotions) may seem obvious, it is quite difficult to find hard arguments that speak for it. The whole conception of an analogy between language and music might simply, as philosopher Diana Raffman points out, be an illusion we live by.4 From a philosophical point of view it is very difficult to say anything about the meaning of music other than: 1) it has coherent structures that can be understood and described logically/linguistically, 2) apparently these structures have a certain (emotional) effect on us.

  • 5 “For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all (...)

20GTTM itself leaves musical meaning at the level of structural understanding: the musical sound experience has a certain structured coherence that our minds are able to comprehend. The theory does not attempt to say anything beyond that. That musical experience also may affect us emotionally is irrelevant for musical understanding. In line with Stravinsky and many other prominent composers and musicians, GTTM tacitly agrees with Raffman’s provocative philosophical approach and remains silent about what cannot be spoken about.5

21A possible connection between our understanding of music and the emotional concordance we may feel with music is not for us to find out, and maybe does not exist. Not only is the connection of music to emotions not semantic, since music cannot be said to mean particular emotions, it is also illusive and varies from individual to individual. Even if there might at times be some agreement to the emotive content of particular pieces of music, we must consider the connection completely contingent. By recognition, a particular piece of music makes us think of moments in life where a certain emotional state was accompanied by just that piece. By association, music recalls other music that at other times has been associated with certain emotions etc. There needs not be anything more to this than the fact that the smell of cigar smoke sometimes reminds me of my grandmother, but it may also remind me of a mirror, since that was the first thing I would see when I entered my grandmother’s apartment. Reiterated memories and recurring associations create mental connections. But these connections are illusive and vary from person to person.

  • 6 I use the term “nominalism” here, because I believe the problem at stake is very comparable to the (...)

22You could call it a nominalist view on music6: the connection between an apparently meaningful musical structure and an apparent emotive content is arbitrary, and since music does not serve communicative purposes, there has been no need for establishing any particular denotative coupling between music and things and facts in the world. On one hand this is philosophically very hard to argue with, but on the other it feels unsatisfactory. Somehow it does not comply with how we actually experience music. We do feel a kind of deep understanding; a feeling of emotional concordance and communication with the music. The connection between music and emotion is not just based upon sensual experience. It is not just a certain (structured, comprehensible) sonic experience that recalls or associates to personal emotional experience. A song may invoke a certain feeling no matter if it is played differently — on other instruments or by a different performer. Often we will find ourselves humming a piece of music we know and realize that we are actually, by doing this, reflecting upon our own present emotional state of being. Humming a piece of music is not at first a sensual experience. It is an inner, personal recollection of the music, a mental process that may even have a creative aspect, as your own “humming performance” alters the music slightly. Again, one might argue that it is all just tricks of the mind: it is anyway all about recollecting and associating to contingent experiences. For now I can only say that I find it hard to see how this would at all be possible, if music did not in itself somehow contain or entail the emotive properties.

23Raffmann attacks the philosophical dilemma by examining musical understanding again. Musical understanding, she argues, is not only about understanding the grammar-like structures that GTTM can describe. It is also about understanding a vast amount of details that are not possible to describe structurally: nuances in timbre, intonation, tempo, dynamics etc. These are aspects, she claims, that go with understanding the music. They are not just effects of the musical experience. And although some of these elements could be described and possibly incorporated in a structural description, “there will always be a residual ineffable ‘corona’”.

4. Musical meaning as dynamic awareness

24If this is so, then there is something more to musical understanding than just understanding an underlying grammar-like structure. Music does not have semantic content or reference, but still it may mean something — something that may have to do with its apparent emotive properties. Inspired by GTTM and by Raffman’s philosophical investigations, Sloboda (2005, p. 163) further pursues “the structure and content of musical experience” between “musical knowledge or representation” and the “aesthetic and emotional effects” (ibid.) of music. Sloboda, from his psychological starting point, reverses the argument by examining, once again, musical experience. He points out that analyzing a piece of music according to GTTM does not explain how the musical experience is essentially dynamic. This dynamic experience of music, he argues, cannot be said to be an emotional byproduct of the music. Rather the dynamic experience itself is a precondition for understanding the structure. Hence structural understanding (“musical knowledge or representation”) and “aesthetic and emotional effects” may not be separate aspects of musical experience but have a common ground: dynamic awareness of music. The totality of the dynamic experience may well have to do with what Raffman refers to as the “residual ineffable corona”. Where she sees something that “cannot be spoken about” (cannot be described structurally) but still must be considered a part of musical understanding, Sloboda finds an aspect of musical experience that is a precondition for structural understanding. Essentially, they are probably approaching the same thing.

25In either case, the problem is, of course, the fundamental ineffability. The idea is difficult to support with further arguments. And with Sloboda, it entails you acknowledge the notion: that dynamic awareness is in fact an essential part of structural understanding of music. Sloboda himself mentions several examples that give evidence to his idea. Most of this has to do with the practice of making music and learning to play. There are certain ways of playing (pieces of) music by which a musician meaningfully accounts for and emphasizes the structure of the music. He does this exactly by playing “dynamically” — with dynamic awareness. Now one might argue that this is just tradition. But then I (per Sloboda) would argue back, that this — tradition — is nothing but a recollection of what musicians actually do and have been doing when they perform. Were there not a common notion of dynamic and structural awareness being strongly connected, there would be no such tradition.

  • 7 “Given a particular structural understanding of the music, feelings of tension or resolution are ju (...)

26For an example we could look at a section from a very well known piece of music: Mozart’s string quartet “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. Shortly after the beginning of the piece, there is a 10 bar transition (bars 18-27) from the main to the secondary subject. This can exemplify the bond between dynamic awareness and structural awareness very clearly. First two bars (18 and 19) are marked “forte” (“strong”, “loud”), going immediately back to “piano” (“quiet”, “soft”). Try now to imagine the piece ending at the first note of bar 18, without the sudden “forte”. (This may seem difficult, but try to imagine you do not know the piece beforehand). Though very short, it would be a completely comprehensible and satisfactory piece of music! We recognize that this section of music forms a perfect, complete structure, and this is exactly so due to our dynamic awareness: towards bar 18 the music is, by melodic and harmonic cadence, coming to a natural rest. The sudden “forte” is a dynamic effect that Mozart adds to the structure — the music simply, at this place, needs an impulse to continue. The next dynamic marking, then, is “crescendo” (“growing”, “getting louder”) in bar 20. This, however, is, one could say, tautologic. Understanding the musical structure in this section: the ascending melody, the harmonic progression, one would automatically play a “crescendo”. This — if not emotional then at least sensual and aesthetic — feature is neither an effect produced by the composer or the performer nor solely a response by listening; it is an indispensable part of the musical structure.7

27“Musical knowledge or representation” and “aesthetic and emotional effects” need not necessarily be considered as separate dimensions of musical experience. Certainly, many aspects of musical experience can be coincidental and may have to do with the context in which the music is heard, the mood you are in when you hear the music, etc. But the unity of dynamic awareness and structural understanding does point to a deeper musical meaning. As Sloboda suggests, “dynamic awareness of music involves reading the music as embodiment of […] broadly, the physical world in motion” (ibid., p. 170).

28The theory is obviously difficult to test experimentally: the unity of dynamic and structural awareness lies in the integrity of musical experience. Measuring brain or bodily activity, heart rate, or similar procedures to test dynamic awareness will tend to shift the focus towards the mere sonic experience. It could probably end up testing response to the loudness of the music. Using people’s own records of musical experiences could well result in reports of particular emotional experiences that, as mentioned above, may have to do with many other things. I believe to have found corroborative evidence for the idea in my work on composition with children. I shall return to this shortly.

5. Musical meaning as the foundation of human symbolization and communication: being together

  • 8 “[…] we move with rhythm, and this movement simultaneously makes up the measure of time from ‘insid (...)

29In a recent, comprehensive anthology, “Communicative Musicality” by Stephen Malloch and Colwyn Trevarthen, the question of music and meaning is addressed from a different angle. In their introductory article, the editors present their idea of musicality going beyond the issue of actual music making. They suggest a very radical and thought provoking perspective: before being the ability to make and understand music, musicality is a primordial communicative force. It is the force that binds us together socially and enables us understand each other.8

30Malloch’s and Trevarthen’s ideas are developed empirically during their work in child psychology and music therapy. One of Trevarthen’s important discoveries is that it appears that children are learning language by first interacting musically with their caregivers. Hereby they learn the basic “rules” of communication: being attentive, keeping an open conversation, responding adequately, etc. In other words, we cannot reason before we can express ourselves.

  • 9 “[…] language needs musicality to be able to intentionally refer to states of affairs outside the d (...)

31In the anthology, Per Aage Brandt (2009, p. 31) takes this further, drawing from several strains of empirical and phenomenological evidence, that “what is […] probable is that human symbolization is grounded in temporal cognition, and human conceptualization of time is grounded in music”. Brandt points out that poetic elements in present language are not just artifices. The sole possibility of referring to imagined things, persons or conditions, requires poetic expression — requires musicality.9 Brandt’s hypothesis is that the very first musical expression may be connected to the love and longing we feel for absent persons — persons dear and important to us. The musical performance may be the ritual by which we give each other names — not at first in order to be able to recognize each other, but to be able to invoke the presence of each other when separated. This performative ritual of naming may be the very foundation of human symbolic communication.

  • 10 “The subject of the mind whose presence is felt by the participants is what I propose to call a ‘ho (...)

32The fragility and illusiveness of musical performance makes it the stronger in its symbolic nature. You hear a musical sign, this invokes a sensation of the action that produces it, which again invokes a sensation of a person being in the mental state that motivates the action. Thus music becomes the possibility of invoking a “virtual other”. Music is gesture in its purest form as it is directly tied to the performative action and refers directly to the body in motion. That music is abstract in the sense that it is not tied to any particular material other than the air in which sound moves makes the focus on what is played and the relation between playing and listening even more intense. Other art forms are gesture as well, but more indirect: the stroke of a paint brush e.g.10

33Finally, Brandt says, the symbolic, performative pratice of music becomes the foundation of our conceptualization of time. It is the cyclic metric and rhythmic patterns of music that create the frame-like, spatial structure of time, which enables us to imagine things happening or possibly not happening. Without that, our conception of time would lack depth and nuance. If this is true, it becomes obvious how musicality is fundamental for our understanding. The musical gesture is the basic form of human communication, and musicality is the force that enables us to coordinate our presence — being together in our highly complex and advanced human way. Referring back to Sloboda, this is truly a widening of the concept of dynamic and structural awareness in music. Music does not only have an animated structure that reflects the physical world in motion, it may be music that structures it! Through music we are able to structure our understanding of each other, and through this structured understanding of each other we structure our conception of the “world out there”. Through music we meaningfully inhabit and occupy the world together.

6. Example. Making sense with music: children composing

  • 11 “Fundamentally, music is something that people do.” (Elliot [1995, p. 38])

34We can thus understand music as something we do together so that we can be together. Arriving at this conclusion through music psychology and cognitive semiotics, it is interesting to find that it may actually go well hand in hand with the pragmatic views on music presented by e.g. David Elliot and Christopher Small.11

35In the “Small Composers’ Workshop” I do together with composer/musician Jesper Egelund and the FIGURA Ensemble,12 children compose their own music by means of at-hand instruments, scrap, voices, etc. The compositions are most often based on very small narratives the children make up themselves in small groups. These narratives are then played out with instruments and voices in small sequences of sound that eventually become musical form. Once there is a complete sequence, which can be memorized and repeated, there is a piece of music. The piece may then be developed in various musical aspects: the particular quality of sounds, the timing of events, etc. In the end the children demonstrate their pieces to adult, professional musicians from the ensemble, and they perform the music together. When the children create their own music from their own small narratives, it is evident that what they do is that they actually “embody the physical world in motion” (Sloboda [2005, p. 170]). It is precisely the unity of structural and dynamic awareness that enable the children to compose their pieces. Most of the children have no formal musical education at all, and they have no given musical techniques or concepts to apply. The concept is, so to speak, their own small narrative. Apart from that, they only have their fundamental musicality. The children work in small groups, which means they have to communicate their musical ideas to each other by sound and by motion.

36Composing in this context becomes a form of play. The children are so to speak left with their own imagination and each other. Normally being in the age of 7-12 years, although they do not have any formal musical training, they are old enough to be familiar with (several) cultural norms about music. They may occasionally somewhere in the process want to apply “a melody”, “a rhythm”, or even a musical quote, like (not seldom) the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony — for a dramatic event. But the strange and mind-buzzing observation is that all this seems to dissolve and disappear once the compositions take shape and they start performing them; reiterating the performance, working on the timing and pacing of events, qualifying and improving the music. Their composition becomes a structured form of communicative action: The more they become aware of the piece of music and the ideal flow, the more they are able to focus on the musical performance, and the more they are apparently able to forget themselves and yet recognize each other’s presence. And when, later in the process, they demonstrate their pieces to the adult musicians, it becomes even more clear that what they are demonstrating is a dynamic, animated structure. They demonstrate the music through their own bodily motion, and the adults join in by reading and following the childrens’ bodily presence.

7. Example. Making sense of and with music: talking about it

37Can we actually be more certain about the meaning of language than about the meaning of music? After all, we only know that language functions: it has coherent structure that seemingly coheres with some mental processes of ours, and we can navigate the world with it. But in the end, meaning, even true or false, is anyway a continuous process that goes on between us.

  • 13 See footnote 4.

38As an experiment and for the sheer fun of it, I could try and reverse Diana Raffman’s provocative philosophical elucidation of the possible “musical fallacy”13 of assuming emotive content or meaning in music, because musical structures are apparently meaningful and apparently emotion-inducing. “Perhaps the valuing of spoken (or written) language for its apparent semantic capacity of mapping the outer world, in concert with its possesion of grammatical structure, fosters the mistaking of this mapping of the outer world as linguistic content”. To put it radically (and maybe to the somewhat funny side): Why should we deprive music of meaning just because we cannot talk about it? We do not deny language meaning just because we cannot “musick” about it. The problem here being, of course, that “meaning” is language, not music, but still…

39A few years ago I happened to read the following passage in a novel by the English author and journalist Melvyn Bragg. The “I” is an aging man, the “you” is his grown-up daughter. “Natasha” is the daughter’s mother, whom the man divorced, when the daughter was little — she later committed suicide. He is writing a letter to the daughter, recollecting a musical experience they shared few years earlier.

And then she began to sing… Soon I abandoned any attempt to translate the words and let the voice and the organ fill me with their sounds whose intention needed no translation. I saw, I believed, standing beside you in your belief, and seeing her sing, ‘seeing’ Natasha, a messenger. I was taken over by the sacred sound, the intimations and revelations which seemed magnetized by this sound. Later I remembered, as an adolescent, standing on a cliff edge in West Cumberland, looking over the sea at a rainstorm far off, knowing it would soon reach the land on which I stood and feed streams which filled the oceans which fed the rain clouds and that simple circularity, naïf as it might now appear, struck me then, fifty years ago, as a defining insight into the wholeness of life… Here, in Notre Dame… I may have had a similar glimpse into the heart of things. That it was impenetrable and incomprehensible did not matter… I was resurrected and so was Natasha and through sensation I understood… And then the music stopped. Why could it not go on for ever was a childish but, to confess, a true reaction. Why could it not go on for ever? (Melvyn Bragg [2008, pp. 264-265]).

40The fascinating aspect of this recollection of a musical experience is that it is, obviously, very personal and highly emotional, but it is not given specifically as a report on a musical experience. He wants to write to his daughter about their common belief and their common feeling of loss and deep longing: the person he loved but still feels he may have let down, the person the daughter misses maybe more than anything in the world. He writes about this by referring to a shared moment, where he realized that, for a while, music made the world meaningful. It appears to me to illustrate how making sense of music, finding meaning in it in the sense of actually meaning something ”in the world”, and finding meaning in the sense of ”value”, are totally inseparable.

41An immensely fragile but yet intensely meaningful connection is created between: 1) the shared moment of being together, father and daughter, listening to music, 2) the invocation of the music of their lost love/mother, and 3) the very important remembrance through the music of a defining moment where nature and the world made sense. When I first read this passage and every time I since reread it, it affected me deeply. I realized that this is not just because of my empathetic feeling for someone who has lost his love and maybe also feels shameful. Although the novel is to a certain extent autobiographical, the passage could be fictive for that matter, and it is at least conjured up from different sources: maybe there is an actual letter, but we cannot know if he is reporting this actual letter, the letter in light of his remembrance of the experience, or a letter he could have written, etc. But the reason, I realized, it affects me, is that I somehow sense that my own understanding of music is being understood. I feel understood in the same way as you sometimes feel understood by music. Upon reading it, it struck me that in the text there is a fine bond being tied between the experience of the water cycle bringing life to life — the simplest formula for life — and the music bringing life to the lost love. Both are experiences that cannot be explained in words. But through the musical sense, one enhances the meaning of the other. Both are in a sense musical experiences, but the actual musical experience brings out the musicality in the experience of nature: the structured temporal cognition stemming from human interaction that since nurtures the sense for life’s and nature’s own rhythm and flow.

8. Conclusion: Is music an art form?

42In the passage quoted above, Bragg asks maybe the most crucial question of all: Why could the music not go on forever? One can easily think of a world where music would not stop unless something actually stopped it: sundown, hunger, boredom, etc. The music would stop when something “from outside” brought it to a stop. Or it would just subside and eventually be over. Why does music, in our culture, have to stop? That it does is unquestionable. And we design various musical formula to make the music stop in meaningful ways. In “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, which I briefly dealt with above, Mozart applies one of the most prominent devices to make music stop: a harmonic cadence. Then he cheats us and lets the music go on anyway. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is a really advanced form of entertainment. It is “good show biz”! If it ended in bar 18, as I suggested above, it would be perfectly comprehensible and sensible, but it would be bad show biz: it would be much too short and hence there would be much too little entertainment. Therefore Mozart adds the little trick with the dynamics and the music can go on.

43Why can the music not go on forever? The answer is as tedious as it is obvious: it has to stop, because if it did not, there would be no ‘piece’ of music. And, one might say, there would be no work of art. This has brought us back to Morton Feldman’s question in section one: “Is music an art form to begin with”. The canny device of entertainment Mozart applies in “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” is probably exactly what Feldman finds foolish. Mozart lets the music finish and then anyway immediately go on as if nothing happened. Maybe music in that respect is smart in a somewhat silly way. And maybe this is what Feldman, comparing to abstract visual art that he admires so much, and which manifests itself in sheer presence and blatant senselessness, sees as “based on a short attention span”.

44If we take notice of the phrase “[…] to begin with” in Feldman’s question, it should probably be easy to answer the question with a resounding “no!”. Music was where it all began and at that time there was no such thing as art. On the other hand, if we consider art, particularly music, to be — with Brandt’s ideas — the very foundation of human communication, then art is omnipresent. And making art may be seen as the constant recollecting and reflecting upon the fact that we manage to be together and inhabit the world together. So music was indeed an art form to begin with.

45But if the question of whether music is “an art form to begin with” refers to music history and art history, one could ask if not “good show biz” is what made music an art form. Art may have served and serve many purposes. But if we think of art forms as something established in society as institutions — the art forms — is that not then exactly what they are: particular forms of entertainment? Visual art and literature in addition to this possess a certain object-like quality. Books, paintings, sculptures etc. are things. Retaining this formal object-like quality, they can be manifest in a public space as more than here-and-now entertainment. As things they are independent of immediate presence and participation and can be dealt with as matters of fact. They can be discussed and even traded. Yet they still deal with matters of personal meaning and value. They become cultural statements that transcend the public and the private and probably thereby also serve to maintain the necessary tension between individual and society. Perhaps this could actually be a suggestion for a pragmatic definition of art that does not rest upon recourse to art institutions themselves as the defining factor. Art is refined entertainment and/or it consists in statements that transcend the public and the private.

46Music has never really obtained the same object-like status. The embeddedness of music in physical presence and in being together, playing and listening, has not allowed that to happen. Even when musical notation and the alliance of music with text, drama and liturgical events made it possible to speak of musical works (of art), music continued to be tied to the actual presence of music making. Hence music has remained in the entertainment sphere — good show biz. The quest for (spiritual) meaning in romantic and modern classical music eventually became the quest for still more advanced show biz. But the problem of much music philosophy and the failure of much thinking about art to account adequately for music could maybe be traced back to this basic circumstance: music does not produce things. Meaning in music still rests solely in music making.

47Probably this is what Feldman, and Cage, were struggling for. A lot of music lovers felt that John Cage was depriving music of all of its means of expression, thereby dismantling music altogether. Hence the accusation of “anti-art” that Feldman refers to. But what Cage was trying to dismantle was maybe just the “show biz”. Feldman crowned himself the “master of nonfunctional harmony” and he experimented with pieces of music that would last for immensely long time: the pieces, as Feldman himself put it, just went on until they eventually ebbed away. I am somehow still wondering if his difficulties regarding music not being an art form may still have to do with the lack of objects in music. But apart from that, I believe that his and Cage’s objective was probably not to dissolve music into practically everything, but rather to rediscover music as making-music-together: the basic playing and listening — as an attentive doing! Cage’s occupation with sound, silence and time was not to suggest that music is just anything you want. It meant, I believe, that music before anything is attentive doing. His famous 4’33’’ piece where you do not play anything, was composed after an experience in an anechoic chamber. In there he heard two sounds: the sound of his blood stream and the sound of his nervous system — a very low note and a very high note. This made him realize, as he said, that there was no reason to fear for the future of music: there will always be something to listen to! Of course, this was a joke. But serious enough. Even when you — deliberately — do not play and when you listen, you do do.

9. Conclusion 2: Music consumption

48Cage (and Feldman) created their music in New York; a city that has plenty of sound — the familiar noises of other people doing everyday things. And in a world that has plenty of music going on practically everywhere. John Cage was engrossed in the idea of silence as a means of creating attentiveness. Imagine, however, a place and time without plenty of familiar noise, without music going on everywhere (and without anechoic chambers…). Sound can be disturbing — like threatening weather or the possibly unfriendly animals. But silence is terrifying! In the dark of the night, silence becomes the howling of ghosts inside your head. Music can dull the noise and it can silence the silence. It invokes the presence of someone — someone you understand. Perhaps the very first music recitals, where someone would play (or sing) for someone else, were forms of cradle song. Being allowed to focus attention on your own feeling of the music inside would be the ultimate sense of consolation and inner peace. In our world you would probably say, there is much noise. But in a sense there is also much silence. Paradoxically, the performance of urban life today seems to rely on an ability to a certain extent to ignore the presence of others. We are often alone. And we do things together without actually doing them together. Amidst a world buzzing with people and noise, we may often feel a strange “inner silence”. As if the immediate surroundings though familiar and well functioning do not really make sense, and as if we are alone even if there are people all around us. Music silences this “inner silence” and makes the “empty time” meaningful.

49Recorded music is recorded performance. Because we are able to understand music as the structured sound experience played out in performance, we can recognize music in a recorded performance. A lot of recordings today are not even produced by actually recording performances but rather by emulating performances in virtual spaces on music machines. As we are coming to accept music represented by the sound of recorded performance or emulated performance, music may be attaining a “virtual objective attribute” similar to that of literature. As I mentioned in the introduction, I believe we have yet to comprehend how this affects our relationship to music. It has allowed us to enjoy music without actual music making. It has brought about from music a product that we may consume and use in our everyday lives.

50Listening to music from loudspeakers or, as still more often, from earphones, we do involve ourselves with the music. In a way we are engaged in making music as we deploy our attention and let ourselves take virtually part. Sometimes we listen for entertainment. And the simulated performance of present music production indeed has many fabulous devices for making good show biz! Very often we listen to music to dull the noise or silence the silence. We do it to mitigate boredom, loneliness or feeling of alienation. Because music brings familiarity and comfort as it creates the fundamental experience of being together, making sense together, inhabiting a mutual, mental time-space and sharing fate. Even when we do it on our own.

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Bragg, Melvyn (2008), Remember me, London: Sceptre.

Brandt, Per Aage (2009), “Music and how we became human – a view from cognitive semiotics. Exploring imaginative hypotheses”, in Malloch & Trevarthen (eds.), Communicative Musicality. Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 31-44.

Elliott, David J. & Silverman, Marissa (1995), Music Matters: A New Philosophy of Music Education, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gena, Peter (1982), “H.C.E. (Here Comes Everybody): Morton Feldman in conversation with Peter Gena”, Tri-Quarterly, 54, Spring 1982, pp. 122-144. Retrieved from

Jackendoff, Ray & Lerdahl, Fred (1983), A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Malloch, Stephen & Trevarthen, Colwyn (2009), “Communicating the vitality and interests of life”, in Malloch & Trevarthen (eds.), Exploring the Basis of Human Companionship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-11.

Raffman, Diana (1993), Language, Music, and Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Sloboda, John (2005), Exploring the Musical Mind. Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function, Oxford: Oxford University press.

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1 “If the mental representation of music is not simply a copy […] of the original acoustic signal […] then such a representation might be held to comprise the ‘meaning’ of the music. This would be analogous of saying that the meaning of a sentence is to be found, not in its acoustic or visual characteristics, but in the underlying proposition, which speaker intends and listener recovers.” (Sloboda [2005, p. 163])

2 As suggested above, some confusion could also stem from viewing language as a system of structured sound that maps the world. We may be mistaken here: the system of sounds that constitute language may actually not in itself be referring to the world (as we see it/think it). It could be rather a mapping of the gestures by which we “point to” and “lay out” the world (as we see it/think it).

3 “[B]ecause it does not have to serve practical communicative functions, there can be much looser coupling between the representations of different individuals”. (Ibid., p. 164)

4 “Perhaps the valuing of musical works for their emotive properties in concert with their apparent possesion of grammatical structure, fosters the mistaking of those emotive properties for musical contents. (Raffmann [1993, p. 60])

5 “For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention…” (Stravinsky [1936, pp. 53-54])

6 I use the term “nominalism” here, because I believe the problem at stake is very comparable to the problem of nominalism in metaphysics. Though it may seem logical and consistent, it simply does not correspond to everyday experience. We might accept that the name of (word for) a particular thing may be contingent, as it may result from a practically infinite chain of referential incidents in coincidental circumstances, but why should this in itself leave naming of things to be on the whole arbitrary and coincidental? Nominalism lacks explanation as to how we actually do name things and thereby talk about them and recognize them. It inevitably points towards cognition and our interaction with the world and each other.

7 “Given a particular structural understanding of the music, feelings of tension or resolution are just a correlate of that understanding[…].” (Sloboda [2005, p. 167])

8 “[…] we move with rhythm, and this movement simultaneously makes up the measure of time from ‘inside us’; we tell one another measured stories with emotionally expressive grace — with what we call musicality. This musicality communicates, because we meet as actors first who detect the source of human movements in their form, subjectively — before we debate, explain, reason the imaginative and hopeful stories that our minds make up as reconstructions of objective reality ‘out there’”. (Malloch & Trevarthen [2009, p. 8])

9 “[…] language needs musicality to be able to intentionally refer to states of affairs outside the deictic ‘here and now’ of persons in communication. This ‘something’ includes in particular the invocational effect of rhythm in expressive movement”. (Brandt [2009, p. 31])

10 “The subject of the mind whose presence is felt by the participants is what I propose to call a ‘homunculus’, an imaginary person or ‘virtual other’ experienced as immanent in the work of art.” (Ibid., p. 36)

11 “Fundamentally, music is something that people do.” (Elliot [1995, p. 38])


13 See footnote 4.

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Peter Bruun, « Silence the Silence. Making Sense of Music Beyond Consumption and Contemplation »Signata, 6 | 2015, 313-330.

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Peter Bruun, « Silence the Silence. Making Sense of Music Beyond Consumption and Contemplation »Signata [En ligne], 6 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 05 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Peter Bruun

Peter Bruun, né en 1968, est un compositeur, professeur et critique de musique free-lance. Il a composé de la musique vocale et de la musique instrumentale, et s’est occupé en particulier, ces dernières années, de théâtre musical. Il fait partie de l’ensemble de musique de chambre et du collectif d’artistes « Figura » et il a produit avec ce groupe plusieurs représentations de théâtre musical, tant pour adultes que pour enfants. Il dirige, toujours avec ce même groupe, un projet pédagogique appelé « Les petits compositeurs », dans le cadre duquel les enfants ont la possibilité de composer leur propre musique et de jouer avec les musiciens de « Figura ». Le projet a été accueilli, lors de tournées, dans des écoles du Danemark et de l’Allemagne, ainsi que dans différents festivals à l’étranger. En 2011, « Les petits compositeurs » ont reçu le prix européen de la transmission musicale, « Yeah award ». Peter Bruun a donné des cours de théorie de la musique, de composition et de pédagogie de la musique au Conservatoire Royal Danois de Musique (Det Kongelige Danske Musikkonservatorium), à Copenhague et à Aarhus. Il a également écrit un certain nombre d’articles sur des sujets concernant l’art, la politique musicale et l’enseignement de la musique, dans la Revue de musique danoise (Dansk Musiktidsskrift). En 1996, il a reçu, en tant que compositeur, la bourse de trois ans accordée par la Fondation d’État pour l’Art (Statens Kunstfonds). En 2008, il a également reçu le Prix Musical du Conseil Nordique (Nordisk Råds Musikpris) pour son opéra de chambre « Miki Alone – sept chansons pour une femme folle » (« Miki Alone – syv sange for en gal kvinde »), composé en 2002, en collaboration avec l’ensemble « Figura » et la poétesse Ursula Andkjær Olsen.

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