Friday, 1 June 2007

The Meaning of Music and Life

A friend asked me, some years ago, “Do you believe that life has meaning?” I said, “Yes, I do.”

“All right, then,” she said. “What does it mean?”

Wow! A tricky one. When in doubt, answer a question with another question. I said, “Do you like listening to music?” She did: Beethoven, especially the piano sonatas. “Do you like that music that goes all over the place?” I did a bit of an imitation of Schoenberg, as best I could, which sounds like a random series of sounds, notes and knockings.

She said, “No. I can’t stand it. It does my head in.”

“You can tell Beethoven from that stuff, or a random assortment of sound effects, because Beethoven’s music means something to you, right?” She agreed.

“All right, then,” I said. “What does it mean?”

Well, she got pretty cross with me. In fact, she kicked my shin, which I thought was entirely reasonable.

The thing is, if you’ve got music, music means something to you. (My cousin was tone deaf. Music didn’t mean anything to him. He just couldn’t get it, although he acknowledged that it meant something to other people; he didn’t dismiss it.) But you can’t say what music means. If Beethoven could have said it in words, he wouldn’t have had to engage a whole orchestra. He could have written a letter to a friend. “Dear Hans, Today I have understood that the real essence of life is the Brotherhood of Man,” or something.

You don’t say what music means; you play it. With life, you don’t say it or play it; you live it.

Question: Is it possible scientifically to prove the existence of music? Some scientists tell us that music is nothing but a pattern of vibrations in the air, a bye-product of mechanical events occurring in various collections of wood, metal, reeds, gut, etc. Some say that the existence of music is an outdated myth from ancient times, and that those who believe in it are credulous and naïve. Others listen to the music.

On May 27, our good Friend Maurice gave ministry. Paraphrased: Roman Catholics respect the authority of the Church, and believe in God because the Church tells them about God. Protestants respect the authority of the Bible, and believe in God because the Bible tells them about God. We Quakers respect the authenticity of the inner promptings of our hearts, and we believe in God because the inner promptings of our hearts tell us about God.

Now, extending this model to the vexed question of the existence of music: Some people believe in music because the Royal College of Music tells us about music. There wouldn’t be a Royal College of something unless that something existed, would there? Some people believe in music because they have seen it written in a book. They may not know what it means, but it’s there. But we Quakers listen to the music.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul for your insight into a diffieult question. The way you paralleled 'life' and 'music' is really helpful. I am no musician and I know little of the Royal College but I can remember a time when trying to make sense of my faith and life, I hung on to the statement 'I believe in music'. It may be to everyone's taste but I do know the music I like to listen to. Maurice Bartley

Simon Heywood said...

What I like about this is the idea that Beethoven knew what he meant, but couldn't have put it into words.

Anonymous said...

People should read this.