Explaining music in a materialist age

 

The close relation that music has to the true nature of all things can explain the fact that, when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it. Moreover, to the man who gives himself up entirely to the impression of a symphony, it is as if he saw all the possible events of life and of the world passing by within himself. Yet if he reflects, he cannot assert any likeness between that piece of music and the things that passed through his mind. For music differs from all the other arts by the fact that it expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world….

Why do I find that paragraph so persuasive? It describes my experience of music — that it seems to me to make the world meaningful. I’m enlarged and enlivened by it. When I truly listen I’m in the presence of Truth with a capital T, Reality with a capital R. And yet I can’t say what its actual content was. Not really.

Music “expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world,” says Schopenhauer. What exactly does that mean? At the very least, he’s trying to say that music is about something terribly fundamental to our existence.

Years ago, when I studied philosophy, I remember that metaphysics was a serious pursuit. We were still looking for the nature of reality, and we weren’t at all certain that it was made up of matter rather than mind. Oh, I suppose even then, in the dark days of the 1950s and ’60s, materialism was winning out, had already won. Science was triumphant. But to me the outcome of the debate was still uncertain.

I’m bringing this up because last spring’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on the theme of “Arts & Letters” included the paragraph above from the 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and although I don’t remember much about Schopenhauer — he’s not the kind of thinker most of us keep close for reference today — I was reminded when I looked for him in Wikipedia, that he theorized that the world was essentially to be found in the human will. Reality was mind and not matter. The world of phenomena we experience isn’t made up of atoms; it’s a product of our will. Of our minds.

In our materialist age, scientists have never been more excited about the human mind than they are today. Listen to one of Charlie Rose’s Friday night conversations on the subject: prepare to be full of wonder. And yet, I haven’t heard anything as meaningful from them about music as what Schopenhauer said nearly two centuries ago. Nor do I think I will. Science is busy looking at the human brain, not the mind. The brain is the ultimate reality. Mind is, loosely speaking, only its reflection.

Descriptions of patterns of activity in the human brain will never explain music to me. At least not as well as this recondite nineteenth century philosopher does.

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