18. What is our Obligation to the Listener?

Consider how different the formal setting that is required for Classical Music is versus Entertainment Music. First of all, we require the listener to sit in a dark hall. Without knowing why, it was observed long ago that we listen to music better when it is dark. The reason for this is to limit the employment of our strongest sense, the eye. By preventing the eye from looking around at other things we give our sense of hearing a better chance of focusing our attention on the stage. There is one famous exception to this tradition: Vienna! In Vienna, in the great Musikverein concert hall, the highly literate musical audience has for times long past been in the habit of bringing scores to the concert so the lights are left on for them to read. Knowing of this tradition when I was a student of conducting in 1967–1986 at the Akademie of Music in Vienna, when it was advertised that the Prague Philharmonic was coming to town and would perform the Third Symphony of Mahler, I went to the famous music store, Doblinger, and bought a full score to take to the concert. By the way, Doblinger was the only music store in Europe where one could buy and sell used scores and I probably sold a few of mine to finance the purchase of the Mahler score. For a number of later years students of mine were amused to find and buy some of my old scores there. When the concert arrived, I was sitting with my score in the little balcony which runs along the sides of the hall, just wide enough for two rows of folding chairs. Sitting next to me was a large woman, who it turned out worked in a local bakery. She had no score but she was conducting along with the music, in large conducting patterns. I had to move my chair left a bit to be free of her wide second beats. During the intermission, after the third movement, I was standing in the foyer and she approached me. “I see you have a score for the Third Symphony.” “Yes mam,” I replied, “I am a student of conducting here and I wanted a score to better help me learn this music.” “What!,” she exclaimed, “you are a conductor and you don’t know Mahler’s Third Symphony?”

For Classical music we also assume in such halls total silence. This is a remarkable difference with the performance of popular music, including “big bands,” where audience members are continuously moving up and down the aisles while the music is playing, talking during the music and, in my experience even seeing audience members playing cards while they listen.

In Europe one also always sees large flower arrangements lining the entire width of the stage in front of the performers.

Why is it felt necessary to have this careful framing of the stage for Classical music? We have a nice answer to this question from a letter from Franz Liszt to Chopin in 1852.

Instead of laboring so to attract and please listeners at any price, let us rather strive to leave a celestial echo of what we have felt, loved, and endured! Let us learn to demand of ourselves whatever ennobles in the mystical city of art rather than to seek from the present, without regard to the future, those easy crowns which, scarce assumed, are at once dulled and forgotten!

The experience of the listener is the logical end of the aesthetic chain in music. This being the case, the question follows, What does the contemplative listener experience in music?

There are two broad areas of personal development affected when the contemplative listener experiences music. We might mention in passing that it is precisely these two areas where music education should be centered. First, as with the case of any other kind of intellectual exchange, we profit from the exposure to superior minds. For example, in a recent study of Thomas Jefferson as a young man, the author observed, “he was profiting immeasurably by contact with superior minds.” [Claude Bowers, “The Struggle for Democracy…” 96.]

Second, through contemplative listening the listener is able to place himself near the perspective of the composer, to experience through his experience. Because listeners vary greatly in their experiential histories, this opportunity for growth may be easy for some and more difficult for others. It was for this reason that Bruno Walter once observed that it is the special duty of musicians to remember those most in need of this kind of development,

There are people for whom life begins anew every morning. It is they who are ever more deeply touched by every renewed encounter with Schubert’s Unfinished, it is they whom the perusal of a familiar Goethe poem moves with the force of a first impression; people over whom habit has no power; people who, in spite of their increasing years and experience, have remained fresh, interested, and open to life. And there are others who, when they watch a most glorious sunset or listen to the Benedictus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, feel scarcely more than ‘I know this already’ and who are upset by everything new and unusual—in other words, people whose element is habit and comfort. It is for the former that our poets have written, our artists created, and our musicians composed; and it is for them, above all, that we perform our dramas, our operas, oratorios, and symphonies. As regards the latter, we artists must try, time and time again, to burst open the elderly crust they have acquired, or with which many of them may have been born; our youthful vigor must call upon theirs or revive whatever is left of it.”

Bamberger, “The Conductor’s Art,”176ff

An additional area of personal development for which the contemplative listener has access through music includes special and unique opportunities for self-discovery. It is here that the concept of the melos of the music achieves a personal meaning. The melos is the concentrated, pure form of emotion, which is communicated through performance. Each listener then takes in this form of the emotion, sifts it through his own experiential understanding of that emotion, and in the process comes to understand in a more defined sense this aspect of himself. This is the same experience in music which Aristotle identified as “Catharsis” with respect to tragedy.

Wagner believed this is the great value of music, to allow us to “gaze into the inmost Essence of ourselves.” In addition to this very important observation, Wagner, in the following, also points out that music is the means by which the feeling part of us communicates, a part of us which cannot otherwise speak; that music, unlike painting, does this directly; and that the value of a composition is determined by the degree to which it does this.

Music, speaks to us solely through quickening into articulate life the most universal concept of the inherently speechless Feeling, in all imaginable gradations, can once and for all be judged by nothing but the category of the sublime; for, as soon as she engrosses us, she transports us to the highest ecstasy of consciousness of our infinitude. On the other hand what enters only as a sequel to our contemplation of a work of plastic art … the required effect of beauty on the mind, is brought about by Music by her very first entry; inasmuch as she withdraws us at once from any concern with the relation of things outside us, and—as pure Form set free from Matter—shuts us off from the outer world, as it were, to let us gaze into the inmost Essence of ourselves and all things. Consequently, our verdict on any piece of music should be based upon a knowledge of those laws whereby the effect of Beauty, the very first effect of Music’s mere appearance, advances the most directly to a revelation of her truest character through the agency of the Sublime. It would be the stamp of an absolutely empty piece of music, on the contrary, that it never got beyond a mere prismatic toying with the effect of its first entry, and consequently kept us bound to the relations presented by Music’s outermost side to the world of vision.

Ellis, “Prose Works of Wagner,” V, 77

The reason why this is so important is because music is our most effective language of our experiential self. We know the rational side of our self cannot do this. Language is one of our most important forms of communication, but anyone who has tried to write a love letter knows that language is quite inferior in the realm of the expression of emotions. Furthermore, when it comes to our most sensitive feelings we often don’t want to talk about them at all! Here language fails us.

Everybody knows that language is a very poor medium for expressing our emotional nature. It merely names certain vaguely and crudely conceived states, but fails miserably in any attempt to convey the ever-moving patterns, the ambivalences and intricacies of inner experience, the interplay of feelings with thoughts and impressions, memories and echoes of memories, transient fantasy, or its mere runic traces, all turned into nameless, emotional stuff. If we say that we understand someone else’s feeling in a certain matter, we mean that we understand why he should be sad or happy, excited or indifferent, in a general way; that we can see due cause for his attitude. We do not mean that we have insight into the actual flow and balance of his feelings, into that ‘character’ which ‘may be taken as an index of the mind’s grasp of its object.’ Language is quite inadequate to articulate such a conception. Probably we would not impart our actual inmost feelings even if they could be spoken. We rarely speak in detail of entirely personal things.

Langer, “Philosophy in a New Key,” 92

In another place, Langer concludes, “Language and music are similar in that both are means for expressing something. The difference is that language is principally a means for expressing ideas, and music is principally a means for expressing feelings.” [Langer, “Journal of Aesthetic Education,” Spring, 1966, 5–12]

Two additional writers expressed this same truth.

Robert Ingersoll:

Language is not subtle enough, tender enough to express all we feel, and when language fails, the highest and deepest longings are translated into music.

Hans Christian Anderson:

Where words fail, music speaks.

Most especially science will never come to our aid on the subject of emotions, because emotions are individual and science is only interested in the general. This represents a basic difference between the rational world of science and the experiential world of art. Even in the case of the study of human nature itself, science takes as significant only the general, the average (which represents no one in particular) and avoids the individual, which is in every case unique. The psychologist who studies aggressive behavior, for example, is interested only in those characteristics which create a syndrome of aggression but can draw no useful conclusion from any one individual aggressive person. Art is just the reverse. We might say: “The scientist dreads the presence of individuality as the death of science; the artist dreads the loss of individuality as the death of art.”

Collingwood agrees,

The reason why scientific description, so far from helping expression, actually damages it, is that description generalizes. To describe a thing is to call it a thing of such and such a kind; to bring it under a conception, to classify it. Expression on the contrary, individualizes … Expressing an emotion has something to do with becoming conscious of it.

“Principles of Art,” 112

Indeed, Liszt points out that it is one of the values of music that it relieves us briefly from our left hemisphere dominant world,

Only in music does feeling, actually and radiantly present, lift the ban which oppresses our spirit with the sufferings of an evil earthly power and liberate us with the white-capped floods of its free and warmth-giving might from ‘the demon Thought,’ brushing away for brief moments his yoke from our furrowed brows.

Letter to August Kiel, Sept. 8, 1855

In summary, as the distinguished conductor Celibidache points out, it is this personal relationship with our feelings which gives music its universality.

Music is the shortest way to expressing how little music has to do with the notes. The notes are physical, coarse textured phenomena. But in its relationship to another note, a note can become something which finds an echo in the human emotions. The reasons for this can be experienced in phenomenology, and demonstrated wonderfully. If it weren’t for this relationship between the physical phenomenon of sound and the emotional reaction, no one would want to make music, no one would have any interest in it. But it wakens something in us, and we sing and play to liberate ourselves again [through] this responsiveness.

Quoted in Los Angeles Philharmonic “Notes,” April, 1989

There are additional direct benefits which the contemplative listener gains through the experience of listening to important music, but for the present we conclude with the question, Is there physical evidence of this relationship? Take for example the familiar expression, “we are what we eat.” Can we imagine “we are what we listen to”? Schumann thought so,

No children can be brought to healthy manhood on candy and pastry. Spiritual like bodily nourishment must be solid. The masters have provided it; cleave to them.

The fact is there is even extraordinary clinical evidence to suggest that something similar happens with respect to our brain’s response to our experiences. Experiences actually change the brain physically! Thus the choice the listener makes, with respect to the quality of music he listens to, is a very serious responsibility, for it literally changes his brain.

The brain’s neurons change the communication pathways among themselves in response to experience, says Dartmouth’s Bharucha. Working with a computer model of brain cells called a neural network, Bharucha found that as he exposed the model to music, the layer of brain cells responsible for processing individual notes sent signals to another layer whose cells gradually became specialized for recognizing specific groups of notes, or chords. These cells in turn signaled a third layer of cells that gradually became responsible for recognizing groups of chords as belonging to particular keys. This hierarchical grouping occurred even though Bharucha gave the brain model no explicit instructions as to how the cells should connect themselves. Instead, the network simply organized itself in a manner that reflected the intrinsic organization of music itself.

“The Musical Brain,” US News and World Report, June 11, 1990. See also, Diana Deutsch, “What Happens When Music Meets the Brain,” Wall Street Journal, August 30, 1985

Our question was, “What is our Obligation to the Listener?” In addition to the answers given above, Aristotle, in his famous book Posey wherein he created the new branch of philosophy, Aesthetics, promised that if the basic elements are all present in a serious work, the reward for the observer would be “the catharsis of his emotions.” Among the surviving books of Aristotle we do not find any further discussion of this word, catharsis [katharein], however, following philosophers did comment on this promise and they will be the subject of the following essay.