Music and consciousness

After Roger Scruton, in his book The Aesthetics of Music.


There is a difference between music and mere noise, although you can’t tell by looking at a sound wave, if that one is going to be perceived as music or as merely noise. In order to turn sounds into music, a few things have to happen in the consciousness of the listener.

1. We need to have the acousmatic experience. Pythagoras spoke to his disciples from behind a screen. He wanted their attention to go entirely to his words, not to him as a mere individual. His followers were then called akousmatikoi, meaning: those who are willing to listen.

The acousmatic experience means that we mentally detach a sound from its source. We don’t perceive it as some quality of an object in the way that motor sounds are a quality of cars and barking is a quality of dogs. The sound itself becomes an independent object to us.

That’s already a special way of perceiving sound. When we perceive sounds as objects instead of qualities, these objects can have qualities of their own, such as pitch and timbre. This is not yet perception of music, but it is the first step.

2. In order to perceive those sound-objects as music, we have to perceive them as being interrelated. Since we perceive them acousmatically, we have detached the sounds from their real causality, but we perceive between them a virtual causality. For example, an F-sharp is perceived as ‘leading to’ the G. The virtual causality in music leads to an experience of movement in sound. We perceive a change in pitch as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, a melodic line as ‘climbing’ or ‘falling’.

Movement, by definition, takes place within a space. But musical space isn’t an actual space somewhere. It’s a virtual space. Musical movement is a metaphor.

Here’s a fact I find really fascinating: musical movement is a metaphor we can’t do without. It is intrinsic to our musical experience that we hear the melody go up and down, the rhythm going forward or holding back. Apparently not all metaphors are mere embellishments of language, as in, you can say something simply as it is, or you can be a poet about it and say something metaphorically. Whoever hears this sequence of sound-objects: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, cannot help but to perceive this as an upward movement.

The spatial metaphor is enclosed in our experience of music.

The causality in music is not a mechanical one, but a living causality. Think of how we perceive another person. When we watch the behavior of another person, all we literally see is how he moves his body. But often, somehow, we understand the reason for his behavior, the why behind it. Not because we are thinking of the literal causes of his gestures, which are muscle contractions. We find for ourselves an explanation for his gesture. Something in his emotional state, or some purpose he might have. We perceive the order and meaning of the behavior of the other.

That’s amazing, because what we literally see is just a motion or gesture. The meaning is what we see in the movement.

Of course, in our daily experience, we don’t stand still at the fact that only bare perceptions are coming from outside to us through our senses, and their meaning comes to us from within. In our normal experience, they are already connected. The phenomena (the objects as we experience them) already carry the meaning, the moment they appear within in our consciousness.

How much of the way we perceive our world comes from within, and how much comes from outside?

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