[This was initially conceived as a fun post for me to write down my amateurish quasi-psychological/phenomenological musings. Somehow my thoughts became more serious as I continued write to the extent that it seems best to extend my thinking into two posts. Note that some of what is written may require some musical background. Also, I often post my entire writing on Facebook for people who find clicking on links a tiresome task (like myself) — I am not doing that this time because there are pictures and embedded audio which won’t appear on Facebook.]
What I wish to do in this post and the next is to put down some of my thoughts on the experience of music — it’s really an effort to put down some reflections that I have had for quite a while. Much of what I mention may appear painfully obvious to anyone who has had some musical training. Yet I think a closer introspection into our experience of music will prove fruitful in elucidating an interesting aspect of such experience. Specifically, I want to examine how we experience function in music and suggest that the phenomena of function is not in fact a sound. In other words we do not strictly speaking ‘hear’ function. Following this, I want to make some speculative suggestions on how the experience of function might be explained and, I hope, fruitfully extend it to other analogous areas of experience.
Isolating the Experience
To understand what I mean by function, let me try to describe and isolate the specific phenomenology that I am thinking of. By doing so, I hope to show that the experience of function is not a auditory experience, in other words, experiencing function in music is not hearing something. What does it mean to hear something? According to prevailing scientific opinion, the experience of sound is the result of sound waves entering the ear. Depending on the wave, its frequency, amplitude, and form (I think this is the word), what we hear varies — frequency determines the pitch of the sound (whether it is high or low), amplitude its volume (whether it is loud or soft) and form its timbre (e.g. a middle C played on a piano sounds different from a middle C played on a violin). There is a parallel here with visual experience — what we see is dependent on the light waves that enter our eye. Depending on the frequency of the wave, we see variations in colours, depending on its amplitude, we see variations in intensity — a combination of the two gives us the notion of various hues of colours.
Notice, however, that in the experience of music we also experience what musicians call harmony, which is the result of a progression of a cluster of notes (a chord). There are certain rules guiding this progression, some of which are tastefully transgressed at times but often still presupposed. These are the rules of musical harmony. In this framework, each piece of music revolves around a primary note, known as the tonic (or pitch-centre) and will be governed by a certain mode (thus we say that a piece is in A major, C minor and so on) — every note and chord will have a specific function once the tonic and mode are determined (i.e. its key). Note that the function of each note is not a product of its corresponding sound wave (a C still sounds like a C in whatever context) but is determined by its context, namely the key.
So far, this sounds like simply restating in a complex manner what everyone has learnt in Grade 5 theory. Yet I think this experience is actually fairly mysterious. One notices the strangeness when one reflects on the context-dependence on this phenomenon. In other words, the fact that the harmony or function that we experience of the same notes change when its harmonic context changes. Now, that certain experiences are context-dependent is nothing particularly novel. Our visual experience is also commonly susceptible to context dependence — take the famous checker shadow illusion as seen below. The two squares, A and B, are in fact of the same shade of grey, but the context has altered our perception of the shade such that one appears lighter than the other. (google ‘wiki checker shadow’ to see proof that they are indeed the same shade) However, consider what exactly the context alters in our experience of the two squares: it is the very hue or shade of the colour itself i.e. the visual experience, the very sight of the squares. However, the alteration of our experience of the same note or chord in a different context is emphatically not an alteration of the auditory experience — we still experience the exact same pitch, timbre, volume (assuming the latter two are kept constant) — something else, something that isn’t a sound, changes.
Let me say a bit more to isolate this experience for you. This part will require some acquaintance with music. Think about the C Major chord (the notes C, E, G played simultaneously). In the key of C major, this chord is the tonic chord, whereas in the key of F major, it is the dominant chord. The chord sounds the same in both situations, and yet is experienced differently: the appearance of the C major chord in the C major key is experienced (especially at the end of a perfect cadence) with some kind of closure to it or perhaps stability (one struggles to describe such things in words), in the F major key however, the chord is experienced as causing some tension or as generating anticipation. However, especially if you have perfect pitch, you will be able to tell that they are the same old notes.
Consider a different example: the experience of melodic intervals. (This relates more to the context dependence in the experience of specific notes rather than chords). In the key of B major, the notes B and D# are described as in the interval of a major third, whereas in the key of C minor, the same notes, B and Eb (enharmonic of D#, i.e. the same note on the keyboard or whatever) are described as in the interval of a diminished 4th. Few actually know that the change in the description of the intervals are really to mark a change in function. The interval in the context of B major will sound pleasant, whereas the very same interval in the context of C minor will sound gaping and jarring. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself: play a B major scale (five sharps in case you forgot) and then play B followed by D# and then play a C minor scale (three flats) followed by the same notes. (cf. Beethoven’s last sonata, first movement, where I got the example from). [Alternatively, play the example below. The relevant notes are the last two notes of each phrase, the rest help to set the context, B major first and then C minor] Notice that the two notes sound the same, you should be able to recognise this if you follow the example, but at the same time they are experienced very differently.
Function as the Experience of Live Possibilities
Hopefully I have helped you to locate what exactly I mean by the experience of function and have convinced you that it is not heard (it does not correspond to auditory experience, since the notes or chords are heard as having the same pitch etc.) but somehow experienced. What then is this experience? Here is my suggestion as to what that experience is: the experience of function is in some sense the experience of a set of live possibilities.
What do I mean by live possibilities here? Let me take a step back and talk about live possibilities in general. [The thought here is drawn from McCulloch’s Using Sartre pp. 35-36 though with some modification.] What does it mean to say that some x is possible? There are many senses of possibility at play. Of the broadest scope is perhaps logical possibility, where some x is logically possible as long as it is not a contradiction. And so consider the scenario where I will soon be suddenly transported to the moon and find that there is a nice summer resort there — the scenario is fantastic, but there is nothing logically inconsistent with this scenario, it is logically possible. There is also epistemic possibility, where some scenario x is epistemically possible if it is consistent with what I currently know — the above scenario would be epistemically impossible in this case. But neither of these are relevant here, what we want is live possibility. But what is it for some possibility x to be a live possibility? It is hard to describe, but that possibility x must be a salient possibility for me. This is not the same as epistemic possibility — there could be a range of possibilities that are consistent with what I know but only a number of them could be salient to me. For example, say I wake up one day and find that my parents are not in their room. It may well be consistent with what I know, after considering all the evidence I have, that they may have been kidnaped, but this is not a possibility salient to me. What is salient is the possibility that they left early and are already out etc. This is a live possibility for me.
What determines what the live possibilities are? Perhaps desire or expectation or something else, whatever makes those possibilities salient. What about our musical case? Here I suggest that the salient possibilities are in fact determined by its musical context, namely its pitch-centre and mode, i.e. its key. Each key has a formal structure (the rules of harmony) that mark out the permissible moves that are available after each note or chord, the harmony can only resolve in certain ways and only certain notes are made available. Of course, this formal structure is often subverted, but even in its subversion the very structure is still presupposed. My proposal is thus that what one experiences when one experiences function is in some sense the spectre of live possibilities as governed by the rules of harmony.
Our exploration might still feel somewhat incomplete at the stage. Given that the experience of function is the experience of live possibilities as governed by a set of rules, the rules of harmony, further questions arise. How do these rules make the possibilities salient to us? What exactly are these rules: are they merely formal constructs or are they somehow natural or innate? I think these two questions are related, in a subsequent post, I provide some speculation regarding these questions and try to extend it to other areas of thought.