The philosophy of Music

What is music?
Is it just the sound of waves vibrating through the air?
Or is it much more than that?

If we wish to attempt to explain music, we can do so through purely scientific and empirical methods. Music however, is much more complex than that. Because of this, the potent and poetic effects that come from this sweet sound, beg for more than a mere, cold and scientific analysis of wavelengths and other points of data.
Indeed, Music cries out for a philosophical and even a poetic explanation, and that is what I shall give it!

If one thing is certain, it is that music has been around for a long time. it was mentioned in the old testament of the Bible, and that instance was forever made immemorial in Dryden’s famous poem, “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day”:

What passion cannot music raise and quell! 

                When Jubal struck the corded shell, 

         His list’ning brethren stood around 

         And wond’ring, on their faces fell 

         To worship that celestial sound: 

Less than a god they thought there could not dwell 

                Within the hollow of that shell 

                That spoke so sweetly and so well. 

What passion cannot music raise and quell! 

I think some of the power of music lies in its ability to conjure up, like a skilled magician, memories of past events, and happy visions of times ahead. Varying with the piece, these memories and visions can and do come in a variety of forms and have a multitudinous range of emotions attached.
This is why some pieces in particular leave us feeling calm and content, others are more conducive to a pensive mood whilst others still bring tears of sorrow or happiness to our eyes as we remember times long forgotten. In this way, music can have a very therapeutic effect and has indeed been shown to be useful in helping patients suffering from memory loss due to illnesses such as dementia.

One of the most delightful genres of music within the overarching genre of Classical music, is chamber music. I especially enjoy hearing and watching the complex dynamics of a string quartet. With the flowing, yet ever commanding presence of the first violin, the mellow, versatile voice of the cello, the voices of both viola and second violin offering support, all work together to produce the sweet, lilting refrains like some seraphic serenade.

I think that there are several forms of human expression. Or, at the very least, the expression of an individual who has the potential to communicate. The most basic form of expression could be said to be gestures. Essentially, body language, which is, of course, dependent on a corporeal form and is therefore imperfect. The next could be verbal communication. The highest form of verbal communication is poetry.

And the highest and finest form of communication or expression that can be utilised by any intelligent being could be said to be music. It was with music that the angels heralded the birth of the saviour. And it is with music that the elders kneel before the throne of God the Most high and worship him singing, Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.

One particularly eloquent fact concerning music can be found within Lewis’s novel, The Magician’s Nephew. In it, we find Alsan, the creator of Narnia, bringing forth a infant world, filling it with life, an immense span of new and wild possibilities. He does so, through song. Through music.

What is so significant about this?

What I find to be most interesting about this point, is that this is not an isolated example of the creation of the world. For example, in Dryden’s poem, we find the following stanzas:

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony

This universal frame began.

When Nature underneath a heap

Of jarring atoms lay,

And could not heave her head,

The tuneful voice was heard from high,

Arise ye more than dead.

Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,

In order to their stations leap,

And music’s pow’r obey.

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony

This universal frame began:

From harmony to harmony

Through all the compass of the notes it ran,

The diapason closing full in man.

Why is music associated so often, or at least in the above two cases, with the creation of the world?

I would beg to argue that it has something to do with the fact that music is so intrinsically tied with mathematics and order, as is the creation of the universe from nothing. Essentially, order from chaos.

In this long piece which is essentially a collection of philosophical musings, I have touched on a few of what I consider to be the most important and interesting aspects of the philosophical nature of music. Whilst I have done a less than adequate job of explaining these points, I hope that this article may encourage others to think in a philosophical manner on this and other topics.

For myself, at least, writing this and thinking deeply about this topic has been extremely rewarding and fulfilling. Perhaps in another article, I might try and tackle the difficult problem of answering the question, “Why is it that some pieces of music stir up deeper emotions, whilst others do not?”. But for now, I’ll leave you with one of  my favourite pieces of music, Haydn’s Quinten Quartet:

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