The Meaning And Function Of Music

OF all the fine arts, music is the most difficult to define for the intellect, be-cause it is the most subtle, seeming to produce its effects as by a miracle. Indeed, that a mere succession of ordered sounds, varying in pitch, loudness and quality, should do to the human spirit what music accomplishes, must always remain a marvel.

On the threshold we meet a perplexing paradox. In one aspect music is primitive and universal; in another, it is connected with the latest and most refined civilization. Certain forms of music go back to the earliest times and are everywhere appreciated; yet the major development of the art has come within the last three hundred years. There is scarcely a savage tribe without some form of music; young children respond involuntarily to certain musical appeals; yet the full appreciation of much of modern music demands special gifts or a high measure of cultivation. Thus there is this initial puzzle in the relation of music to life. Something in music is evidently simple and universal; some-thing in it answers the need of highly developed refinement and civilization.

Perhaps we can throw light on the difficulty if we compare the response of different persons to the various elements of which music is composed. One responds mainly to rhythm, another to rhythm and melody, a third to both these and also to harmony. Thus there are three distinct elements in music, forming a progression away from simplicity and universality toward cultivated intelligence. The first and most universal of these is rhythm. This principle is everywhere. It is connected, as has often been shown, with the respiration of the breath, the beating of the heart and the circulation of the blood. Thus the response to it is universal and instinctive. There are few human beings, young or old, cultivated or ignorant, who are not stimulated to some physical movement in harmony with such a rhythmic appeal as that of a brass band playing a lively marching tune. Cultivation seems in fact to have little to do with this response to pure rhythm; it may even be stronger in the primitive and ignorant than in the intellectual and refined.

Melody is a more complex principle, subsuming rhythm under itself. Melody depends upon the pitch, accent and quality of tone, and is an ordered succession of sounds appealing as unified and beautiful to the sense of hearing. It may indeed be called the soul of music.* Melody is also a widely appealing element in music, yet only the simplest melodies are universal, while the more complicated demand some measure of musical aptitude or cultivation for their full appreciation. Many persons instinctively and vigorously respond to rhythm who cannot “carry a tune,” and require cultivation to respond fully to melody.

Harmony is the element of music latest in development, furthest from universal in appeal, demanding far more musical training for its appreciation. Note that in our discussion of music “harmony” is used in the technical sense. In the general usage, harmony means symmetry—the agreement of elements of a composition, or of form and content, and is thus a universal principle of all the arts ; but in music, harmony has a technical meaning as the consonance or con-cord of sounds occurring simultaneously or in quick succession. This is the principle, the development and progressive application of which is the glory of the musical art during the last three hundred years, expanding immeasurably the scope of music and giving it the place it holds as a leading art of civilization. High intellectual and aesthetic cultivation is needed for the full appreciation of this element of music in its more complicated forms. Thus varied is the relation of the three great elements of music—rhythm, melody and harmony—to human sensibility and intelligence.

All art must draw its forms ultimately from nature, and to this law, music is no exception; yet the relation it sustains to nature is widely different from that of sculpture and painting. The latter arts depend, as we have seen, upon the direct imitation of forms given in nature. No matter how great the element of idealization in the Venus de Milo, or the figures upon the Medicean tombs, these are, nevertheless, human bodies and faces copied directly from life. So a Titian painting with its transfiguring golden light, or a. Corot landscape with its idyllic mood and subtle atmosphere, after all, directly imitates, even though it idealizes the forest, the air and the clouds.

In music, also, every sound used is found somewhere in nature; it is difficult to imagine a sound not so given. There are, more-over, sounds which form a kind of natural music. Take the best of examples—the sighing of the wind through the pine forest. Who is irresponsive to that irregular rising and falling spheric melody, the wind wakens from the multitudinous pine-needles when, on a warm summer day, one lies upon the ground under the singing boughs. All the elements of music are present here. There is irregular rhythm with the rise and fall of the sound. A peculiar natural melody comes as the wind freshens and lessens. Even the element of harmony is in some measure involved, as the countless needles blend their slight tones in the billowy waves of sound.

It is difficult to abstract the impression of this natural music from the associated appeals through other senses. The play of light and shadow, the somberness of the boughs, the aromatic fragrance, the feeling of the bed of pine needles—all blend in one impression; and indeed it is, as we shall see, this fusing of many elements appealing through different senses, that gives the beauty of nature its wondrous charm.

Let us try, however, to isolate the impression of the music. There is direct sensuous pleasure given. Deeper than this, the music puts the hearer into a definite type of mood, which may perhaps be described as one of calm, exalted joy. The train of reflection accompanying this mood will, however, vary with every hearer.

Next to the pine music, the most impressive form of natural music is the beating of the surf upon the sand or rocks of the shore. Here, also, the impressions through the sense of sight complicate and make difficult the abstraction of the effect of sound. More, however, than. in the music of the pines, the element of rhythm is here, strongly and regularly accentuated. The melody is also more definite, if less moving, than in the other in-stance. Harmony, in some degree, is present in the union of sounds made by the wash of the long rolling waves on the irregular contour of the shore. Thus here, too, something of all these elements of the art of music is present.

Every lover of the sea will recognize at once the direct sensuous pleasure given by the sound of the surf. It tends, too, to produce one of several moods, influenced by the spirit in which we come. There is something peculiarly soothing, indeed almost benumbing, to the tired or grieving spirit in this music, and thus we tend to pass into a general mood of subdued meditation. What do we think about? Ah, to that question only a personal answer can be given. The emotional state is generic, the train of reflections is associated by the individual mind, and depends upon what it brings.

Another form of natural music which really rises to the plane of instinctive art is bird-song. Here rhythm is definitely used, and the element of simple, brief melody is highly developed. Technical harmony is absent. Perhaps for that very reason bird-song shows clearly the type of sensuous and emotional appeal made by music. I need not dwell on the pure sensuous delight we have in such music, nor upon the fact that bird-song lifts us generally to an emotional state of glad joy. Still, different bird songs produce moods widely apart, as is evident if one will compare the weirdly somber feeling with which one hears at night the reiterated three melodic notes of the whip-poor-will, with the tender mood wakened by the song of the hermit thrush. It is a further clue to the nature of music that bird songs spring from specific states of feeling, as particularly that of love-making, in the birds themselves.

Finally, a high kind of natural music is evident in the tones of the speaking voice.

Rhythm and melody are always present in the speech of deep feeling, with the flow, inflections and modulations of the words ; while voices differ from each other in quality (timbre) as much as do musical instruments. One hears voices with the moving, almost strident sonorousness of the violoncello; others that have the clear, stimulating call of the flute; others suggest the liquid melting tenderness of the harp. There are voices which, even speaking in a language one does not understand, have power not only to ,give keen sensuous pleasure, but to move one, by the tones alone, to tenderness and almost to tears.

Thus there are many forms of natural music in which are found all the sound-forms the art uses; yet the main business of music is not directly to copy these sounds, as sculpture and painting imitate the forms of the natural world. At times, it is true, music does this, as in imitating the sound of falling water, the rustling of the forest, or the twittering of birds. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony gives excellent examples of the use of such imitation in great art, and others are found in Wagner’s Nibelungen Tetralogy.

This is but a minor device in music, however, and may easily be carried too far. Then it be-comes a mere trick, as in those show pieces, such as the Wakening of the Lion or the Falling of the Waters, which graduates of what, without intentional irony, we used to call “finishing schools,” played to display their skill on Commencement Day to admiring audiences of parents and friends.

Instead of imitating natural music as its main function, what the art of music really does is to resolve the sound forms, given in nature, into their abstract elements, and then deliberately recombine these in harmony with human sensibility and intelligence. It is thus that we get the scale, which is a conventionally accepted order of intervals among these abstract sound forms. This is illustrated by the fact that widely different scales have been in use at times, as for instance, among the Greeks. So, too, in Chinese music an order of sounds is used which is sensuously painful to western ears ; while our music is said to sound no less discordant to the Chinese, habituated to their own convention.

Music thus differs widely from sculpture and painting in being less imitative and more creatively expressive. It is interesting that architecture, of all the arts dealing with forms in space-relations, is the one most closely comparable in method with music. I can still recall the sense of elation in a fresh discovery when I saw this identity between the two arts—the one dealing with spatial, the other with time forms, the one appealing to the sense of sight, the other to hearing—for it was a discovery to my own mind. Architecture also finds all its forms ultimately in nature. The tree trunk gave the column, its leaves the first capital; the Roman arch goes back to the cave-roof, the Gothic, to the aisles of a northern forest; yet the main function of architecture is not to copy these forms. It does so, if at all, only incidentally. Its method is to take these forms and reduce them to their abstract elements of line and proportion, and then to recombine these in harmony with the demands of the human senses and intelligence. So in architecture, as in music, mathematics finds severe and exact application. Thus architecture, though limited by conditions of utility, accomplishes in dealing with space-relations something similar to what music accomplishes in time-relations, and the centuries-old comparison of architecture to music is seen to be no extravagant metaphor, but rather to rest upon an illuminating scientific basis. The characterization of architecture as “frozen music” goes back to Goethe and beyond. How significant it is ! Who can stand before such a temple as the Cathedral of Milan, with its spires of aspiration, its countless adornments, its vast aisles, gothic roof, mingled light, forest of columns and great open spaces, and not feel as if a symphony of Beethoven had been caught in an instant and frozen into stone.

Browning, with his delight in giving a fresh turn to an old thought, reverses the comparison, and to him, in Abt Vogler, music is liquid architecture, flowing forth into its many-domed, myriad-spired temple of sound as inevitably as the legendary palace of Solomon, built magically “to pleasure the princess he loved.” The comparison either way is illuminating because it rests in a profound truth. Thus the characteristic difference in appeal between the arts portraying statical forms in space, and those dealing with dynamic forms in time, will best appear if first we compare architecture and music in their respective effects.

Consider first the noblest temple the Greeks achieved—the ruined glory of the Parthenon—supreme symbol of Athenian greatness in the wonder of the Periclean age. Mutilated as it is by the vandalism of blind races and dark ages, it is still alive with the immortality the Greeks gave to all they created. How small it seems in contrast to the vast temples of Christian and Oriental art, but how perfect! The simple row of columns surrounds it, each planned to rest the eye with harmony. The roof rests easily upon these. In the entire structure is no mathematically straight line. Instinctively or consciously, the Greek master gave the slight or definite curve that charms with ease and beauty. The decorations—pediment, frieze and metope—are all planned in re-strained subordination to the dominant idea inspiring the whole.

The temple gives sensuous pleasure with its beauty of line, proportion and color, but through this it gives the pure architectonic conception for the intellect of man, with the deep esthetic delight in the adequacy and harmony with which the idea is expressed. The further emotions one experiences in its presence depend upon its setting and associations and one’s familiarity with these, as fully as is true of the marble groups in the British Museum, ravished from its decorations.

Turn to a representative example of medieval Christian art from the same field. Notre Dame broods somberly over the surging city of Paris, as it has brooded for centuries of time; vast, multiform, with its two towers and numerous spires ; the rose windows blending forms and light; its countless decorations portraying scenes from Christian and Hebraic history, teaching through the eye the religious story, blending the grotesque with the somber and terrible in those strange gargoyles—wild children of the northern imagination, leering down from eaves and towers.

Within, the wealth of stately columns stretches bewilderingly away, the Gothic arches multiplying the impression of space in aisles and nave, the mingled light lending mystery and awe to the whole. What a masterly blending it is of a bewildering multitude of forms, fused through the unity of appreciation in the spirit creating them all.

Sensuous and artistic pleasure—in what full measure they are given! Deeper, a wealth of conceptions, not united in one architectonic idea as in the Greek, but associated and blent through the unity of the human spirit, is expressed for the beholder. A somewhat definite mood is also awakened by the temple, its setting and associations; but the deeper range of emotions experienced in its presence must vary with the individual and depend upon what he brings as completely as with painting and sculpture.

To make clear the effect of music we must, of course, exclude for the present, song, which is a composite art uniting poetry with music in a new appeal. Let us take as a first example in music, a relatively slight composition such as Schumann’s Arabesque (opus 18) or Chopin’s Impromptu (opus 29). Each of the titles is suggestive: the “Impromptu” is a brief expression of a mood and spontaneous musical conception ; the “Arabesque” calls up at once those cognate delicate traceries in the adornment of Mohammedan architecture. Each of these brief compositions is made of a series of sound forms, differing in length, pitch and loudness, and arranged by the principles of rhythm, melody and harmony. Please note that the series is not made of statical forms, but is dynamic, one form or group of forms dying as the next is born, so that the composition must be recreated every time it is enjoyed. Thus the striking contrast in method between music and the arts presenting forms in space is evident.

The sounds and their arrangement give direct sensuous pleasure, while their order and combination, beautifully expressing a musical concept, give aesthetic satisfaction. Further, all the hearers of either of these brief pieces would feel much the same general mood awakened by the composition, and would even experience in common the slight succession of emotional states, corresponding to the series of melodic forms. The train of reflections, however, associated with the emotions, would be wholly individual and in no way determined or indicated by the composition.

Suppose the most appealing of Chopin’s nocturnes to be played sympathetically for a roomful of listeners. All appreciative hearers would experience, in different degrees, the sensuous and aesthetic pleasure given by the composition. All would tend to experience the same general series of states of feeling, being lifted, melted to tenderness, made to feel the pathos and the pain, subdued to the solution at the end; yet there would be as many different trains of meditation as there were persons in the room. You would think of the poem you know and which you associate with the music; I would think perhaps of Shelley’s lyric To the Night. You would meditate upon a phase of your own experience, the music recalls to you; I would brood over a chapter of my life, unknown to you. In the appeal of music the series of emotional states is given, the train of reflections is brought by the hearer, and is dependent upon his character, knowledge and experience.

The same truth holds with reference to all musical compositions from the least to the greatest. Consider such a world-masterpiece as the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, worthy to rank with Hamlet, the Divine Comedy, the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Supper of Leonardo as a supreme achievement of human genius. This complex work —the crowning expression of Beethoven’s mind—presents a succession of movements, differing each from the others in rhythm, melody and harmony, and thus comparable to a series of works of art, yet all strongly united by common themes and elements of melody in one masterpiece. Throughout, the work gives sensuous pleasure through its sound forms, and profound artistic joy in the beauty and harmony with which its basal ideas and moods find expression. Each movement, moreover, tends to waken in the hearer a dominant emotional state, and below that a succession of emotions, rising to the supreme exaltation of the concluding passage. The accompanying trains of reflection are, however, as completely individual as in the case of the little Schumann Arabesque first studied. Do not misunderstand me : I do not mean that music is “not intellectual,” as is often wrongly said. There is a profound and exact intellectual basis in all music; and to the construction of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven went surely as great intellectual power as is shown in the creation of Faust or Macbeth. I do mean that music does not give a series of definite ideas for the intellect, as is true of the arts dealing with forms in space, but that its dynamic series of sound-forms tends to waken in the hearer a some-what definite series of emotional states, while the associated ideas or meditations are unique in each person.

The contrast with the spatial arts is then evident. Sculpture, painting and architecture present, through statical forms, definite conceptions for the intellect and the imagination, while the emotions we experience vary with each individual and depend upon what he brings. Music, on the other hand, through a dynamic succession of forms in time, tends to arouse a common series of emotions, while the associated trains of reflection vary with each person and depend upon his knowledge and experience. Thus each of these two contrasting types has the strength wanting in the other, or each makes emphatic what is subordinate in the other.

To make it clear, compare the treatment of the same material in the two contrasting types of art. Take the Margaret story from Goethe’s Faust, as given in Gounod’s music and in the numerous paintings of it by German artists. Suppose you were quite ignorant of the Faust story, and heard the orchestral music of Gounod’s opera with the songs given in a language you did not understand: what would you get? You would receive first a large measure of sensuous and artistic delight. Beyond that, would be wakened in you, in succession, the great emotions associated with the story—the passionate longing of Faust, the melting tenderness of Siebel’s love song, the blind hunger of Margaret at the spinning-wheel, her sorrow and despair—all these would be given. These moods, however, could be associated with a thousand different love stories, and your reflections, in listening to the music under the conditions assumed, would in no way touch Faust and Margaret.

The painter, as we have seen, is limited to a single moment of the story in each work, and can interpret the whole only through significant moments. He can paint Faust bargaining with Mephistopheles. He can portray Margaret before the Cathedral door, in all the blushing charm of her young maidenhood, Faust gazing upon her in ruthless desire, and Mephistopheles with sinister sneer behind. He can picture Margaret at the spinning-wheel, with far-dreaming, tear-dimmed eyes, and the look of love-longing in her face. He can represent Margaret upon the straw of her prison, with the wild-staring look of remorse and madness. Thus he can give, beyond the sensuous and esthetic pleasure, clear conceptions of the characters and situations for our imagination and intellect. What we feel, however, is not necessarily the series of emotions aroused by Gounod’s music. Our feelings depend upon our attitude toward the characters and the story, upon what we have lived and know of love and pain.

A northern artist has painted two pictures dealing with the Brunhild story. One represents the Valkyr carrying, across her cloud-riding horse, a dead warrior to the hall of Valhalla. The other pictures Brunhild at the moment of her enchanted imprisonment. Odin imprints a kiss upon her brow as she stands there—a symbol of woe and resolution, while the flames spring up from the ground round about.

Thus each of these paintings represents a single instant of the story, the second a peculiarly interpretative moment, which to one who knows the legend carries something of the whole. The concept of the cloud maiden is definitely given with the clear idea of the situation of her life. Our emotions in the presence of these paintings depend upon our knowledge of northern mythology and its treatment in various arts, and upon our own life experience. Compare with this the mu-sic of Wagner’s Walküre, without the libretto and the stage portrayal. The pure, clear motif of the Valkyr maiden awakens a mood of exultant freedom. It is the call of the wilderness of untamed Nature, of the Wild hungers of the strong, free life. With this motive dominant, through what a wealth of emotions the music carries us ; yet these could be associated with many other stories besides that of Brunhild, while our thoughts, as we listen to the music, depend upon what of life and knowledge we bring.

Thus the strength of the one type of art is the limitation of the other; each makes explicit in its appeal what the other subordinates.