What We Hear When We Listen to Music

Jim Merod

[April 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:3.]

Music is the most mysterious of the arts. It is organized sound unfolding in time. The temporal dimension of music exposes and then obscures not only information that holds individual musical elements, it reveals and buries all at once the trajectory of each lyrical drama that enchants or startles us. Perhaps that is why our hunger for music is unquenchable, unless some mind-numbing fact or the aesthetic obliteration of severe depression blots our openness to such charm and beauty. We can never exhaust the appeal of a great song or a provocative performance. The very nature of music makes it ungraspable, unless you feel that intellectual analysis somehow is adequate to frame and describe music’s structured yet elusive will-o-the-wisp.

Not all music cavorts in charm and beauty. I will not descend to the bathos of popular sonic antics to indicate an example. John Cage has provided numerous instances in which something that we must call “musical” is neither beautiful nor charming in any way that those words traditionally designate. A great deal of John Coltrane’s late-period, avant-garde experimentation is without charm, utterly devoid of beauty in any sense that I can corroborate, yet nonetheless profoundly, disturbingly musical in every sense of the term’s innate meaning.

The question “What do I hear as I listen to music?” begs many other questions. When am I listening? Where am I listening? For what purpose? Alone at home or with others at a concert? As I am recording? As I am mastering a recording? Each of these suggests more questions still. Am I listening to a solo instrument or vocal? What genre of music? Do I listen the same when I sit at the front of a concert hall as when I sit or stand at the rear? Do I listen to music differently if I have had some wine or scotch? Questions that indicate the contextual basis of listening can be multiplied at length.

The point, however, is that all listening is situated in a specific set of contexts that shape the way one attends to musical events. Imagine two almost diametrically contrasted listening circumstances: the attentive rapture of a woman about to give birth to her first child, the last musical reverie of a man about to be executed, guilty or innocent. The contrast implied by these two modes of attention is divided by light-year emotional distances.

I imagine that the perplexity of listening to music with all of the peculiarities and personal nuances that suffuse its engagement appears far simpler than the contrast I point to and the contexts that haunt my awareness here. I’m certain, for most people, listening to music is a deeply pleasant activity, perhaps an escape from life’s grinding details, a sustained moment of giving oneself up to the ease and comfort of transport.

Think, for example, of the conversation between Old Karamazov and Father Zosima, early in the first book of Dostoevsky’s magnificent novel. So much of what I would call the “music” of the scene prepares us for the crime and narrative attention to come. The music, if that is really what it is, will be found both in Old Karamazov’s prattling buffoonery and in Zosima’s cheerful tolerance and admonition. Reading the scene, one imagines the voices. One hears the rickety coarseness of the failed patriarch, hears (too) the songful harmony of the Elder. Russian is an utterly musical language. For pure seductive value, it rivals French and Italian. Listen to Puskin spoken aloud by the right person if you do not believe me.

My point is that we can find music to attend to in many places. Language spoken well is inherently musical. Anyone closely engaged with writing becomes deeply attuned to the musical nature of language and to the unmusical baggage piled all around us.

I am not sure if my early awareness of the inner rhythms in great music began with my sense of the music and non-music in spoken language, or if my childhood’s many years alone with my own Victorola conditioned me to hear music wherever and whenever it presents itself.

Jan. 24, 2001, 4 p.m.