Chris Alaimo / Silhouette Staff
In the digital age, we are absolutely mired in music. Music is more accessible and varied than ever. We carry around smartphones that can store thousands of songs and with which we can listen to music privately. Music is a commodity for personal consumption; it’s an industry. I think we’ve lost our appreciation of it. It is no longer magical, awe-inspiring and inspirational. Listening to music is just what one does to pass the time on the bus or whilst studying - it’s commonplace.
My aim is to encourage an appreciation of music and the structures that make it possible to experience music. I want to draw out the complexities of our experience of music.
How is music possible? First, we note the phenomena of successiveness. Each moment is preceded and followed by another moment.
This is partly constitutive of the tripartite structure of past-present-future. While obvious, it is necessary for any and all experience. Imagine a melody played in a world that lacked successiveness: there would be only chords, multiple notes played simultaneously. Music, as we experience it, would not be possible.
Successiveness permits temporal discreteness. They are distinct and unconnected moments of time. Our experience is smooth and fluid, lacking any real discreteness except that which we retroactively impose. In any experience, there is a horizon of meaning, a horizon of retained and anticipated moments. This temporal horizon explains the continuity of all experiences but in particular it explains the unity of music, why we don’t just hear unconnected, temporally discrete notes, but songs, symphonies, melodies and harmonies.
Each time a note is played, a trace of the last moment remains with us. It is present as it is distant and fading. As one note succeeds the other, the first note remains part of our experience as just-having-been-experienced.
The past moments of our musical experiences, and all experiences, are as important as the present moment.
Combined with the present and future moments, they create a horizon of meaning and temporal continuity upon which it is possible to experience music at all. Without the past, the present is necessarily the genesis of a brand new experience, each moment arising and instantly forgotten with no trace of ever having happened - the next moment arises anew.
What of the future? All future moments are anticipated and intimated in our present experience and as anticipated they are present in our current experience. There seems to be a pattern - a natural range of courses for a piece of music to follow - that we expect and anticipate. As a note is played, future moments are part of our experience as yet to be experienced. From the moment the first note of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” is sounded, our imagination goes to work, anticipating the forthcoming symphony, the triumphant flurry of notes.
Musicians often exploit this particular element of our experience in order to build up harmonic tension, a sort of unconscious expectation of dissonance, typically a series of chords ending in a diminished suspended chord only to resolve in consonance that is typically a major chord. This technique isn’t exclusive to any genre of music it appears in progressive rock metal, experimental, jazz and classical music.
This anticipatory structure is not unique to familiar pieces of music. Familiarity merely sharpens our ability to recognize and predict.
Familiarity may breed boredom, but not because we experience the future as if it were present. It is because we are too familiar with the patterns of the particular piece of music, the lines it draws in the sand. It is no longer novel and captivating. We’ve gone down that path dozens of times. We can too easily predict the harmonic twists and turns the music will send our way.
It is the melody, the song as a whole, which is empirically primary. We do not hear individual successive notes that later sum up - in combination with the horizonal structure - to make a melody. Instead, we make sense of our experiences of the notes as parts of our experience of a song, a larger whole.
Our musical experiences are not merely series of heard notes. We hear songs. We listen to songs, not series of notes.
Music is creative not only because it takes a creative, innovative mind or tortured soul to make it but because it takes a creative, innovative mind to experience music at all. If there is anything we can rightly call a gift, it is our ability to experience music.