Resonance: A Few More Thoughts About Music

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As I understand it, the word resonance refers to vibrations; where, when one object vibrates, it causes another to vibrate too. That’s the literal meaning. So, when we hear a sound, it is literally vibrations causing the structures in our ears to vibrate. From these vibrations our brains distill meaning, whether from random sounds, speech or music. Music is a particularly mysterious phenomenon, since it can resonate not only with our ears, but also with our emotional centers. Music can make us laugh or cry, cause disgust or ecstasy, and I doubt that even musicians understand how this happens. They may understand that when they play or sing something in a certain way it produces a certain effect in most people who hear it, but I doubt they understand why that happens.

Of course we know that music can have profound effects on people, and thus can be threatening to some. A lot of people feared rock and roll 60 or so years ago. Now it seems that rap is the music that is feared. My question is why music should affect us so. It seems to be a universal in human culture, which means it speaks to (or resonates with) something deep within us.

According to one source, this is our emotional center, which, in some contexts, the author refers to as a “brain”, and says that more can be understood through our emotional centers than our intellectual centers, because the emotional center is more subtle. Because this is  so, that makes possible what the author calls “objective art”, which he compares to a physics textbook, saying that with proper preparation anyone will get pretty much the same thing from a piece of objective art as anyone else.  He says that, by contrast, most Western art is based on associations, some of which may be pretty universal, but which people interpret according to their own associations, which may be quite individual. So one piece of music may move one person to tears, while another may not be able to hear anything in it at all. The difference in reaction may be due simply to each person’s background. Someone who has been trained may see more in a piece of art than someone who hasn’t been–but that may depend on the kind of training and just what effect it had.

Someone might be influenced to dismiss all music as meaningless, for example. Another person might be trained in the structure of music, and be unable to hear the music for the notes. Still another might be trained in the development of his or her emotional center, and be able to perceive much more in any artwork than an ordinary person would. We ordinary people just blunder around in the immense forest of music, and find parts of it we like or dislike, for reasons we probably don’t understand. I’ve never cared for opera, for instance, but it’s been immensely popular in the past, and continues to move some people.

In the 19th century there was a huge controversy about whether music should be representational or abstract. Richard Wagner was probably as popular a composer as there was in that era, and since he wrote little besides opera, his music was considered representational. Brahms was considered the examplar of abstract music, since he never wrote operas or music supposed to definitely represent any particular thing, like Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, for instance. That didn’t mean that Brahms didn’t appreciate Wagner’s music (I don’t know if the reverse was true), and now the whole argument seems kind of ridiculous. Some music is good, even if we can’t define what makes it good, and some isn’t, and categories seem to make little difference.

If there’s a way to know what makes one piece of music better than another, it must be through perception. The more deeply we can perceive, the more likely we are to be able to tell real gold from fool’s gold. The same is true for the musician. A musician who can hear the octaves within each note he or she plays may be able to play something that’s deeper than another person can play, though it might not be as immediately accessible, or even be thought boring. It’s an odd thing that virtuosos, who can play virtually anything, often seem to have little to say, while instrumentalists with much less talent may be able to light a fire in their audiences. Mere physical dexterity counts for less than what we might describe as emotional depth. Some people have a lot to communicate, others very little.

That doesn’t mean that many of us have nothing to say worth hearing, but that we haven’t yet figured out how to express whatever it is. We each have our own story, and that story may be meaningful to others, if we can find a meaningful way to tell it. Musicians want to make a living, like anyone else, but the best of them have something more they want to do, or they wouldn’t have gotten into music in the first place. That’s true of any kind of artist, and most of us have artisitic inclinations, even if we haven’t learned how to express them.

So go ahead and try creating. You never know when something you do may resonate with someone else.

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