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Regis H. Schilken

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Is Music in Us or Are We in Music?

 (See original article for pics or diagrams)

Being in Music by Regis SchilkenMusic is a tacit thing. It is somehow inside of our very being. At times, it seems we are inside it. I’ve often heard it asked, “If a tree falls in the forest, will it make a noise?” Obviously, a being with a brain capable of hearing must be present for that to be true . Is that true for music? It would seem that a portable radio playing deep in the woods would be silent, left by itself; its waves of beautiful music simply waste away into space.

But herein is an opposite paradox. It would seem that a Beethoven could write a musical score even though he was totally deaf. So where did this music come from if he could not hear it? If his ninth symphony including all its choral parts was totally new, unhearing Beethoven created it inside his very being never having before heard it. This is the complete opposite of the tree falling in the silent forest. Here, music is silently created without any apparent source except the quiet genius of the human brain.

Franz Schubert was a prolific creator of music. He had completed several symphonies and had sketched out plans for a tenth. He apparently “wrote songs by the sheaf … over the whole range of his art—operas, cantatas, masses, symphonies, quartets, chamber music of all kinds” ( In fact, one of the most stirring symphonies ever penned (The Unfinished) was partially written by Schubert but not completed. The final movements were within his being, but this musical genius passed into non-being at the age of thirty-one.

Incidentally, Franz Schubert, for the most part a pauper until his untimely death, was buried in a small
Vienna village cemetery known only as WahringCemetery. Here he was laid to rest next to Beethoven (Schubert, Duncan, 1905).

So what is this strange thing called music? Attempting to find a definition is like trying to locate the exact spot in Beethoven or Schubert’s being from whence their music came. One definition often noted came from Edgard Varèse who claimed that music is “organized sound” (Goldman, 1961).
Varèse, an American composer, thought of music as “bodies of sound in space.” He delighted in experimenting with electronic sounds (Britannica on line).

But to my way of thinking, some noise is organized sound. For example, the squawking of a murder (group) of crows surely fits the Varèse definition, but I would not consider that noise, music. Yet it is ordered; if not, neither I nor other crows would distinguish the familiar cries.

There are those who think of music as a language, which carries across to the listener, certain emotions, thoughts, impressions, even political or sexual overtones: a lullaby, a Christmas carol, jazz, "The River" (Springsteen), a
march, modern rap. Without a doubt, the romantic heaving and sensual thrusting until its eventual climax of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristran and Isolde always reminds me of copulation and release. Then too, the spoken monotone of rap lyrics often leaves little to a prurient imagination.

Another definition from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary claims that music is the art and/or science of putting sounds and tones together in an orderly manner to produce “a composition having unity and continuity.” My only complaint about this characterization is this. I have listened to radio programs claiming to play “outer space” or "themes from space" music, which to me is rather beautiful, but it seems to lack a definite unity. This music floats freely without it and is very uplifting to my spirit.

In his book, Music as Heard, Thomas Clifton claims there are two critical attributes necessary for music to be meaningful. Music is a phenomena of sound which 1) carries across meaning to a 2) personally involved listener. This definition seems to exclude music that I tend to refer to as “elevator music,” the kind of music played in the background on an elevator, in a doctor’s office, in waiting rooms, or even on the car radio while I’m driving, but not necessarily paying attention to any meaning in the music. It simply distracts my thinking from a day of stress.

“Towards a Metamusic” in Xenakis, composer Iannis Xenakis defines music with seven different statements which, taken as a whole, seem to define music as a mystical experience. I particularly like these three expressions:
Number 3 - It is a fixing in sound of imagined virtualities.
Number 6 - It is the gratuitous play of a child.
Number 7 - It is a mystical asceticism.
However, Xenakis seems to use the word music in much the same way as most people might use the words: beauty or truth. The ancients often talked about the “music of the spheres” (Musica universalis) when they noted proportionate numbers existing between the placement and/or movement of heavenly bodies. No real music was involved. 

So what is music really? Thinking back on non-hearing Beethoven creating music entirely in his being and on Franz Schubert who already had in his mind plans to complete his unfinished symphony, here I must give my own bizarre definition of music: music is any sound that is pleasing to a being. Notice I did not say pleasing to the ear or to the brain. Science has yet to figure that one out.

Most diagrams of the human auditory system show a cut away of the ear ending with the auditory nerve. It is understood that this pathway leads to the brain, specifically the temporal lobe of the cortex; but how my brain makes my conscious being understand or appreciate sounds as music is up for grabs.

Recently, my wife and I attended a presentation of “Ella,” a musical drama highlighting the life of Ella Fitzgerald. During the show, I never once thought about the mechanics of listening. I just sat back in the music and enjoyed the performance.




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