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Volume 8, Issue 2: Poetics

Beautiful Meaninglessness

Douglas Jones

he most common is the most mysterious. We do very well in explaining the inner life of combustion engines, computer paraphernalia, and combine harvesters, but ask us about simpler things like how the odd, black squiggles on this page help us communicate, and most of us go a little pale. Our simple answers soon fail us, and we are driven to more and more complicated solutions, and finally we have to confess to deep mysteries.

The joy of music appears to be a fairly simple thing. Music moves us, and it can do so quite powerfully. A special melody may light upon us, and we will not let it flee from our grasp for a long time. But why do we enjoy it, and what does it mean? The answer to these two questions appears to be connected.
These questions are particularly interesting when we concern ourselves with pure or instrumental music, as found in baroque, classical, romantic, folk, or jazz. When we ask about the meaning of music which is accompanied by words, the answer is more straightforward. Meaning can be grasped from the words. And sometimes, a Vivaldi or a Bach will tell us what a piece of pure music "represents" by means of a title ( i.e. , seasons or passion). But what about the vast number of concertos, symphonies, etc. with no tell-tale titles and no words? Why is that sort of pure music enjoyable and meaningful?
Many answers have abounded over the years, but they generally fall into three groups. To put it in concrete terms, music theorists have suggested that the enjoyment of pure music is much like the enjoyment of either paintings or wine or flowers .
Those who argue that pure music is like a painting suggest that musical notes represent something else in the world in the way that a painting, say, of a vase or a person represents those items in the world. This notion of representation or "presenting again" is central to our notion of meaning. When some sign "means" some other thing, that sign presents-again or re-presents that other thing. When we want to know the meaning of the words liver or lighthouse , we, in part, want to know what those squiggles represent in the world.
In that light, the music-as-painting advocates suggest that the musical sounds represent something in the world. Some have suggested that pure music represents the human voice or human emotions. Others have argued that it represents the pantheistic forces in the world. Others -- in a sense conceding how difficult this trail of representation is -- have claimed that pure music represents itself, that is, more music.
But all of these options appear to be forcing pure music into an awkward mold, better suited to the other arts. Representation certainly isn't essential to beauty. It works wonderfully and easily for language and pictures. But musical notes or groups of notes do not pick out anything in an agreed upon way like liver and lighthouse do. Pictures resemble the things they represent, but musical sounds don't do so in any obvious way.
If we don't enjoy pure music in the same way we enjoy a painting, then perhaps we enjoy it the way we enjoy wine . Psalm 104:15 praises God for giving man "wine that makes glad the heart of man." Wine has ingredients which cause or stimulate pleasant sensations and glad hearts. Perhaps music is like this, say some theorists. Descartes thought that sounds pushed on our hydraulic nervous system and stimulated us to tap our feet and have good feelings in our head. Descartes aside, certainly music can aid in soothing or exciting us.
But this has problems too. Wine, unlike music, stimulates us in an automatic and universal way. Wine given to an average adult and a connoisseur and a child involve the same sorts of chemical activity rather automatically. Wine will always affect a child, but Mozart may not at all, or all the time, or not any differently than big brother banging on the piano. Even more interesting, knowledge matters greatly in the enjoyment of music. A person well-trained in music can find much more enjoyment in listening to Bach's Brandenburg concertos than someone who knows little or nothing about the details of music. The wine connoisseur, on the other hand, may enjoy greater knowledge, but that knowledge doesn't enhance the chemical effects of the wine.
Perhaps, then, if it isn't like a painting or wine, pure music is more like a flower . We know that flowers (at least lilies) are objectively beautiful, having garments far more beautiful than Solomon (Matt. 6:28). Our enjoyment of a well-crafted flower arises from the colorful order and intricacy of the flower itself. The beauty of a flower doesn't involve representing something else, like language and pictures. Flowers are, therefore, quite meaningless ; they don't represent anything else. Additionally, a flower doesn't stimulate us automatically like wine, and knowledge is a great help in flower discernment.
If music is like a flower, then we enjoy pure music for its meaningless beauty , that nonrepresentational beauty so gloriously expressed in the intricate arrangement of sounds which make up the music itself. There is no meaning to find in pure music. We don't ask for the meaning of a flower; we drink its beauty into our souls. How much more with the most glorious music?
And, unlike wine, we can increase our enjoyment as we learn more music. Discerning beauty in music and flowers involves the simple joy of seeking and discovering themes, parts, wholes, patterns, etc. One defender of this view notes that "I offer no explanation of why such 'discovery' is pleasurable. . . . [But this sort of discovery in music] is agreed on all hands to be the kind of activity that human beings generally find pleasurable. Why they find it pleasurable is an interesting and deep question." 1

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