Music: A Medium for Empathy or Emotional Contagion?
February 15, 2018 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Matthew Guerrieri On Empathy The crimes and misdemeanors language perpetrates against music are many and various, but one offense is more insidious than most, simply for being so insignificant. It’s a preposition. In English, invariably, we listen to a piece of music. Never with a piece of music.

Also is Music a universal language?

Some suggest it may be, others are more skeptical.

A link to a paper on the Musical Preference Factor Scale mentioned in Guerreri's essay.

And to provide a musical accompaniment for your reading, since Webern is mentioned so prominently in Guerreri's essay, Webern's Symphony Op 21 conducted by Boulez
posted by gusottertrout (7 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I don't seem to fit this model because the types of music they use as preference factors doesn't really jive with what I like.
posted by njohnson23 at 12:42 PM on February 15, 2018

I like what this essay is after, but its focus is sort of all over the place. My own thinking (as a musician) is that the issue isn't one preposition or another, but that 'music' is assigned the wrong role, grammatically and conceptually: music is not a thing to be listened to or with, because it's not a thing at all, it's a verb, a phenomenon that we experience.

We think of it as a noun, a thing, because we need to, just like we think of a day or an hour or a lifetime as a thing. Those are all temporal processes, not actual, concrete things, but we need to be able to talk and think about days or hours or lifetimes, so we turn them into concepts that are used as nouns, but they're not actually objects. Music is pressure waves propagating through air, in time, with human intention. Our experience of those pressure waves by paying attention to what we are hearing (i.e., listening) is the experience of music. I think that's mostly all that the author is trying to say, that hearing as a sense is passive, but listening is active. Listening to a piece of music is passive because it's just letting the sound waves pass over your head, but listening with it implies awareness of what you're experiencing via hearing, and mental engagement with it.

Also is Music a universal language?

While comparisons of music and language can be instructive, music cannot be a language because language is a symbolic system of communication and music is not. A word is a very specific sound that aurally symbolizes a discrete meaning; music is very specific sounds that have no symbolic or discrete meaning apart from themselves. A major chord is just a phenomenon, it doesn't actually mean anything.

It took me a long time to understand that that's what Stravinsky was saying in his (in)famous quote:
For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.
That doesn't mean that music is not expressively evocative, but rather that what we term 'expression' is all coming from the listener. 'Ceci n'est pas une pîpe,' it's a painting. It's not a sunrise, it's a C major chord (in fact, it's not even that, it's just the frequencies labelled 'C,' 'E,' and 'G' sounding simultaneously--even the label "major chord" is describing a holistic phenomenon). Everything beyond that, anything past the pure phenomenon itself, actively comes from the listener, which is why you don't just listen to or even with music: you experience it.

If anything, language is just a highly specific, symbolic kind of music.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:08 PM on February 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

Music is like a language, but you don't have to learn it in order to get meaning from it. Which is a big difference.
posted by rhizome at 6:41 PM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

LooseFilter, are you familiar with the terms "musicker" and "musicking" as used in this article? Is this field-specific jargon, and is there a difference between those and more conventional terms like "musician" and "playing" or "performing"? Or is it just one person being idiosyncratic?
posted by Daily Alice at 7:23 PM on February 15, 2018

Daily Alice, the term comes from Christopher Small's book Musicking. It's been really influential among music scholars, and I find it pretty intuitive, but it hasn't been taken up in common usage, so I understand how it could sound jargony.
posted by phetre at 11:13 PM on February 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

I occasionally use 'to music' as a verb directly, but it does sound awkward. A great counterpart to Small's book is David Elliott's Music Matters.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:54 PM on February 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's pretty rare that, when I start working on a piece of music, I have any conscious intent to express anything in particular. (When I do, frustration is one of my more common starting places. But it often gives way in the pleasurable process of making music.)

I just sort of start with improvisation or an experiment, and when I hear something I like, I follow where it leads in a vaguely Taoist way (the path of least resistance). The music that emerges sometimes suggests something to me while I'm still in the process, and if so, that becomes part of what I follow. Sometimes that doesn't happen until I'm "done" and come back later as a listener. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all, and it remains entirely abstract.

I know that's not what everyone does, and it depends on genre/artform... but I wonder how much more common it is than people might guess.
posted by Foosnark at 1:28 PM on February 16, 2018

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