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Continuing the conversation as I read Only the Lover Sings, by Josef Pieper.

Thoughts about music

What do we perceive when we listen to music with the ‘right ears’?”

I have been married five and a half years. My husband is a musician. He is the kind of musician who breathes music, who writes music more fluidly than he writes English, whose vision and life goal is to be an old man with a beard, quietly writing music in his study, preferably at the top of a tower. For at least three of these years I have nagged him with the question, why does music strike the listener so?

As a lover of the field of psychology, the words of “why” and “human” come together so frequently, it is for me as musical sounds are for my husband. In the invaluable Hitchcock movie, The Wrong Man, Manny says he likes to figure, like many musicians, he seems to be good at numbers. That’s the type of musician my husband is.

From The Wrong Man

 

So when I ask the questions, “why does ‘Let it go’ capture so many people?” “Why does ‘O God beyond all Praising’ give me chills?” “Why does —- sound so ugly?” he gave answers here and there, but it never quite satisfied. We were both looking at the music through a theoretical-scientific approach. I even thought it would be good to research the brain studies done while listening to music. That might open the door.

Along came Josef Pieper. It appears, it is not a scientific question at all, but a philosophical question. After all, if it can give you chills, if it can make you weep, if there is just that something about it, it must speak to that something spiritual, where no mathematical or scientific instrument can reach. For this we need, philosophy.

“…thus has the nature of music variously been understood in Western philosophical tradition…as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as manifestation of man’s will in all its aspects, as love.”

This is a revelation to me. Pieper puts into words so perfectly the sense that was just beyond my grasp.

Continuing, because music also involves the role of the artist performing the music, it cannot be divorced from that personhood. We do not only have the potential of music to do that which he describes above but we see music is capable of other things:

“Thus the musical articulation may include a shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest “goods”, the rejection of any ordered structure, the despairing denial that man’s existential becoming as a goal at all or that such a goal could be reached.”

And the other instrument in this dynamic? Music also involves the role of the listener who receives it.

“We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection—as contribution or hindrance, and both, once again beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching or education.”

I give you the conclusions he reaches, you’ll have to obtain a copy of the book to see the steps yourself. I will have to read this at least three more times to understand them myself. We learn from Pieper that music is related our quest, our movement whether towards perfection or destruction. His next step fascinates me all the more.

“…prompted by the disturbing observation equating the history of Western music with the ‘history of a soul’s degeneration’.”

He references a claim that we can see the development of Western music with the degeneration of the spiritual domain of the person. I’m fascinated by the influence of marketing in American culture for those who do not take their primary culture from their religion or ethnicity. What happens when Black Friday and Superbowl Sunday become the two biggest holidays of the year?

My mind is struck silent and requires meditation to ponder this question. For those whom mass marketing fills the cultural vacuum, what will the impact be with the only music they encounter is that which has been turned out through a marketing machine?

Certainly part of the answer will connect to the “shallow contentment with the facile availability of the cheapest ‘goods'” in this culture of instant gratification. Marketing deepens as music is never waited for. We don’t need people to play before us, we don’t need disc jockeys to hear our song requests. We download it and play it when we like. We don’t need speakers or sound systems. A person’s phone could have better speakers than anything else in their house. He or she can listen anywhere, any time. Instant gratification.

And because music is digital and personalized, it does not require any community to hear it, I can listen on ear buds. I am an island unto myself. When I am lifted up, I am lifted up alone, my feelings are witnessed only by me, they are not shared. And so they need never be defended.

The music of “Let it Go” was transcendent and uplifting. So often popular music is trite or banal or ugly. The message of the words resonates with the anxiety of the age. We are overwhelmed by our world and our responsibilities. Contemporary Christian music is sickly sweet and all to often high enough to make a contra-alto’s vocal chords bleed (or so it feels should I ever attempt to participate through singing). In the anxiety of our age we look for comfort, we want to know we are loved, we are perhaps too anxious to allow ourselves to be accused.

Have you ever heard “God of Mercy and Compassion“? An exquisite rendition can be found on Lent at Ephesus by the Benedictine Sisters. This is amazing stuff. But culturally, we want what is easily accessible. If we are content with that, we will accept what the marketers push at us, and so it deepens.

Click here to read my reflections on Only the Lover Sings, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2

Click on the Literature Tab at the top of the page to see my reflections on other works.