Theories of Music

I try not to talk about things that I actually care about. When I speak I want to be joking or telling a lie in a cheerful, innocent, light-hearted way. I know what I must look like when I am speaking seriously and “from the heart” and I don’t like it. I don’t like the look of myself getting serious about life. Life is a comedy in my opinion, and I want my speech habits to reflect that view.

Music is one topic I avoid at all costs. I feel way too strongly about it. My opinions are unreasonable and unfair and unrealistic to the extreme. My thought process as I listen is completely wrong. So instead let me share what someone else said about music that has haunted me since I first read it in one of the many books I stole from the Henry Buhl Library at Grove City College where I employed an elaborate diversion technique – The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. In a chapter called “A Crisis in my Mental History,” Mill describes a breakdown he had in his early twenties in which he finds music, and for the first time personally experiences its special value, its “good,” but:

“The good, however, was much impaired by the thought, that the pleasure of music…fades with familiarity, and requires either to be revived by intermittence, or fed by continual novelty…I was easily tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful. Most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.”

Already in the 1860’s Mill has a feeling of lateness about music. He fears the inevitable end, the end of discovery, the end of imagination. He can’t just appreciate music for the simple function it serves, he has to fixate on the limitations of the octave and the “exhaustibility of musical combinations.”

Why? Why do Mill and I and others transform it from an emotional delight into a tormenting mathematical problem laced with apocalyptic undertones?

These are important questions, OR they are pointless and irrelevant questions. It all depends on your theory of music. Mill’s theory goes something like ‘music is a realm where melodies compete and the surpassingly beautiful melodies win, but they too get old. Music as a form of entertainment has no value. It has value only when it is the best.’ We’ll call that the MILL THEORY.

Another, competing theory I’ll illustrate by referring to a “sculpture” I saw one night at a college house party. The “sculpture” was a plaster human head wearing headphones. The headphone jack was plugged into the forehead. One girl asked the “sculptor” why this was. “It’s all in your mind,” he told her. “You create the music in your mind as you’re hearing it.”

According to this theory, and it has been applied around to all the arts by now, music only really exists when audiences are hearing it. It has no objective existence. It changes according to who might be listening. Artists want to believe their audiences consist of passive sets of eyes or ears, but the reality is the eyes and ears are not objective sensory receptors. They have baggage. They see and hear through the complex lens of the personal experience behind them. What frightens one calms and relaxes another. What annoys one thrills another. What bores one fascinates another. Therefore in a practical sense the work of art does not exist by itself, only in conjunction with an audience. Music only exists in the experience of the listener. This is the AUDIOMETRIC THEORY.

Now the ARTIST THEORY, alluded to above, is a simplification of the MILL THEORY, and basically the opposite of the AUDIOMETRIC THEORY. According to the ARTIST THEORY, the work exists whether anyone is listening or not, and its specific characteristics produce nearly uniform responses in intended audiences. The vast variety of experiences claimed in the explanation of the AUDIOMETRIC THEORY is a convenient exaggeration. Everybody hears the same thing. The idea that some may choose to distort it and misinterpret it should not be fixated upon and twisted into the basis for a theory of music. A sculpture which depicts music traveling electronically from one’s brain to one’s ears attests not to any truth about the nature of music, but rather to the lack of education and thoughtfulness on the part of the sculptor. There is a good and a bad. There is a hierarchy in music because music is created by human beings of varying talents, and its creation is a craft which can be judged based on its merits against a standard.

Where do I stand?

I can’t tell you that. I can’t allow myself to get serious enough to tell you which theory I prefer. Preferring theories over other theories is not something I like the idea of me doing.