“Understanding” music. The paradox of the musical experience

I don´t understand it!

I once interviewed the Danish composer Bent Sørensen about his music during the Bergen International Festival in 2007. While talking about the effect of music Sørensen was quite firm on the fact that music was not necessarily to be understood, but first and foremost to be experienced.   It is not difficult to agree with this, but at the same time it is something of a paradox that one of the standard responses to contemporary or “difficult” music of any kind quite often is the phrase  “I don´t understand it”. So I thought I´d write a little bit about why “understanding” so often is experienced as something vital to our experience of the music.

This is in fact very logical as we are, by nature, equipped with a perception that is based on organization and “pattern-seeking”. We organize our perception of the world around us in order to be able to perceive it, and this act of organizing is what gives most people a sense of “meaning” and “understanding”.

In other words “understanding” is not strictly about getting an intellectual grip on something with our minds but more about sensing a sort of inner structure and coherence within what we are presented with. This is especially true when it comes to our experience with music and with language.

The element of temporalityklokke bern

Music is, along with language, a temporal art, meaning that it manifests itself along a timeline and we experience it as successive sound-manifestations. In contrast to this a painted picture can be experienced in the flash of a glance, although maybe not in its every detail. Music and verbal language share the fact that both of them are temporal expressions, we might call them temporal objects. So how do we humans experience temporal objects? What happens in our minds when we encounter them?

The “then”, the “now” and the “soon to come”

The key to the experience of something temporal is the sense of duration that it creates in us. We do not experience a temporal object as a series of “nows” one after the other. If that was the case then nothing would seem to endure through time; everything would be experienced as unrelated momentary flashes that would be wiped from our minds the moment they were replaced by something else.

When we experience temporality through our perception it comes with a primary sense of past and future given from the very beginning together with the “now” of the situation itself.  In phenomenology the full and immediate experience of temporality is called The living present. This is the name of the temporal whole so to speak, and as a whole it is composed of three moments called primal impression, retention and protention. These three moments are inseparable.

I´ll illustrate: Look at how we experience a sentence spoken to us. When we listen to someone speaking we are in a way in three different places at the same time. One part of our mind focus on the words at the very moment we perceive their sound (primal impression), one part retains the by-gone beginning of the sentence in the back of our mind, creating coherence between the by-gone and the present (retention) and the third part senses what is to come, making it possible for us to mentally anticipate the conclusion of what is being said (protention) and at the same time shedding additional light on what has gone before (this is also what makes it possible for people to interrupt each other during a conversation as they anticipate – correctly or incorrectly – the end of the other persons sentence)

In other words: Primal impression, retention, and protention refers to the way in which our consciousness structures its experience of temporal objects, both objects that are present and before us, and inner objects experienced in our mind.

With these three aspects we build our understanding of the world.

Do you know what you are saying?

Ever heard the joke about the millipede who one day started to ponder in which sequence to move his legs and from then on were unable to move ever again? Millipede

Every expression we make consists of a myriad of details (like the myriad of legs on the millipede) which have their natural place and relation to each other. When we speak we use words, pronunciation, stress and tone of voice consciously to impart meaning and as listeners all of these elements contribute to our understanding of what is said.

In music phrasing and a logical relation between the different parts of the music together creates an organic whole where every part is logically related to the other like the parts of a living organism. When we speak or play we seldom focus on all of these details as that would be a sure way to go mad quite quickly or end up paralyzed like our poor millipede. Instead we focus on the expression and the meaning which we wish to convey and then the details naturally fall into place all by them self.

The German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler describes this as he says that the only indispensable condition for an audience to be able to understand a speaker is that the speaker himself knows what he is saying, that he understands the meaning of what he is speaking of; Only when what is communicated is in accordance with one’s own understanding can it be given the right sound which leads to others understanding it as well. Furtwängler were of course speaking of conductors as well as speakers using verbal language.

Yet again the quote of the great conductor Celibidache becomes relevant “When do I know that a piece has come to its end? I know it when the end is in the beginning. When the end keeps what the beginning promised.”

The importance of memory

In order to know that the end has kept what the beginning promised I need to be able to remember the beginning (retention-work) and my memory works best when confronted with something familiar, something regular.

The language of contemporary music often (not always) consists of irregularities; irregular rhythms, irregular keys, irregular harmonic changes, irregular instrumental combinations, irregular instrumental techniques (etc etc) giving our retention a hard time retaining what has gone before. At about the same time our protention gives up trying to anticipate what is to come since it is having trouble finding a match in our database of previous musical experiences.  So after a while all that  is left is a constant stream of primal impressions which gives us the sense of being lost in a foreign musical landscape with a vague sense of confusion and the feeling of not “understanding” where we are.

For some people this can actually be a blast as it triggers their curiosity, but most people don´t like to be lost.

So we turn of the music.

There are of course several ways in getting acquainted with this strange and sometimes beautiful  foreign world, for it can be beautiful, but that is for a later blog text.
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