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Musings on Music

First of all, let me state that I have no formal musical training - I am completely self-taught - which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage:
  • Advantage: I can think on music from an 'out-of-the-box' perspective
  • Disadvantage: my thoughts may sound like utter nonsense to the more musically educated

I should also add that my musings were mostly prompted by classical Western music, although they are also applicable to other forms, Western and otherwise, to a major extent.

Music shares a number of characteristics with language which, as you probably know, is my other major lifetime interest, and I'll be using some linguistic terms in what follows.

Anyway, I shall start my musical musings with a bold opening statement: music is the most mysterious and unique of all human arts!

The Mystery of Music

Nobody has yet managed to explain satisfactorily why music can so affect us emotionally, even when just instrumental, i.e. not including words (lyrics) that may influence us on a 'rational' level.

Neurophysiological studies show its effects on our brain:

Music, a universal art form that exists in every culture around the world, is integral to a number of social and courtship activities, and is closely associated with other creative behaviours such as dancing.

Recently, neuroimaging studies have allowed researchers to investigate the neural correlates of music processing and perception in the brain. Notably, musical stimuli have been shown to activate specific pathways in several brain areas associated with emotional behaviours, such as the insular and cingulate cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.

In addition, neurochemical studies have suggested that several biochemical mediators, such as endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine and nitric oxide, may play a role in the musical experience.

Which may explain HOW - but not WHY - the musical stimulation of our auditory nerves can evoke in us deep emotional responses.

For a list of interesting books on the subject of "Music and the Mind", see this page on Classical Net - not included in that list are three other excellent books, which encouragingly confirm some of my modest intuitions below:

  • This is Your Brain on Music (2006) by Daniel Levitin
  • Musicophilia (2007,8) by Oliver Sacks
  • Music, Language and the Brain (2008) by Aniruddh D. Patel

The Uniqueness of Music

Music does not share with other forms of art a number of features, since it is simultaneously:

  • Relativistic
  • Universal
  • Abstract
  • Synchronic and diachronic
  • Inexpensive
  • Varied and repetitive

I shall consider each aspect in turn.


When I first started trying to read a music score, I was nonplussed by the fact that the duration of notes was not indicated in some exact was like, say, the number of seconds or some other measure of time.

Only a little later did I appreciate the ingeniousness of Benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo who in the XIth century invented the staff notation that we still use today: the duration of notes is expressed in fractions of a measure's duration , which means that one can play the same piece with a slower or faster tempo without the need for different scores.

Guido d'Arezzo (991–after 1033)
Another relativistic aspect of music concerns tonality: a piece of music is originally written in a given key for a given instrument/voice as best suited to its range, but can be easily transposed to any other key to accomodate that of a different instrument/voice.
Plaque on Guido's house
You may have noticed that musicians, before a performance, tune their instruments - but what to? To an A4 (central A on a piano keyboard) with a pitch (frequency) of 440 Hz, as established in 1955 by the International Organization for Standardization in ISO 16.

However, a director may require his orchestra to tune at a slightly different pitch, say 442 Hz, in order to play a given concert piece - it will sound slightly more brilliant.


As noted in the above quote, music is an art form that is present in every primitive and modern human culture, unlike other forms.

The scales used may vary but each culture recognises the basic acoustic fact of the octave, i.e. that a note of a given frequency in Hertz and another note whose frequency is an exact multiple or submultiple of it is the same note, albeit more acute or graver - incidentally another relativistic aspect.

Different musical cultures may divide the octave into 12 semi-tones like we do in Western music, or into 24 quarter-tones as in traditional Indian music, use 7 notes from the octave or more or less for their scales, but the octave remains the bedrock foundation of them all.

The Berliner Philharmoniker orchestra - Traditional Indian music ensemble


To use terms coined by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, music is a signifiant sans signifié, meaning that while other art forms have for centuries depicted or suggested something real and understandable, music has not - it has no explicit referent.

The idea that it was originally inspired by natural noises or animal cries really has no foundation - although some composers did write programme music with titles suggestive of some natural events.

Wassily Kandinsky,
first abstract watercolor (1910)

Synchronicity and Diachronicity

These are other linguistic terms apt to describe an aspect of music that is best understood by comparison with other art forms:

  • A painting is usually appreciated synchronically, i.e. in just one look one may like it or dislike it - a detailed analysis serves the art critic but not a normal onlooker.
  • A poem or a novel are appreciated diachronically, i.e. they require the passage of time to piece them together.
  • A statue or a work of architecture are also best appreciated diachronically, i.e. one has to walk around them to see them fully.

On the other hand, music is appreciatd both synchronically (harmony) and diachronically (melody).

Variation and Repetition

It may seem contradictory, but good music requires both, preferably over a certain span of time.

As opposed to classical music, for centuries performed live even for hours at a time, popular music seems to have been constrained by the limited duration of early shellac records, which could contain 3 minutes of music at most.


One can produce music without having to buy any instrument - e.g. just using one's voice, a self-made instrument, or some easily available contraption.

Granted that the more instruments, the richer the music - but it does not necessarily require a monetary outlay for paper, canvas, colours, brushes, chisels, marble, etc. etc. like visual arts, as well as suitably equipped spaces.

Jazz washboard
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