How Is Music A Way of Knowing?

2011 Symposium2

Music is sometimes referred to as a way of knowing. On the surface, this may seem like a strange claim. We are used to thinking of music as being expressive, or entertaining, worshipful, celebratory and certainly as fun, but to think of music as a way of knowing seems at first like almost a let down. A way of knowing doesn’t seem to do justice to the enjoyment we get from music. To get at what music as a way of knowing really means, and at why music as a way of knowing is important, it may help to turn the claim around into a question. For example, what do I know as a result of listening to this music? After a busy day of teaching and often after school rehearsing, I have quite forgotten about how active I have been and how little physical relief I have had all day. Because I enjoy listening to symphonic music in the evening, it is common for me to come home, put on the ear buds, and begin listening to a favorite symphony, concerto, or film score. All I’m thinking about going into this is that I’m looking forward to jumping into the experience I’m anticipating listening to this music will be. Take a moment to listen to this music, especially if this is the first time you’ve stopped to catch your breath today.

Did you feel it? Did you feel the tension in your body float away into space? Did you feel your breathing slow and deepen, and your heart rate calm down? I did, and what’s more important, I only knew how tense I was at the moment I felt it drift away. Only in beginning to experience this sublimely beautiful music was I able to know that I was tense, and that a much more pleasant state of body and mind awaited me at the other side of this track from the movie score. This music is a way of knowing the state of my mind and body.

Music brings things out of us that we otherwise do not know are there. There’s an old song written in 1928 called “Springtime in the Rockies.” I only know of it because Grampy used to sing it to me when I was a young boy. Every time I call that song to mind, I remember him singing it, and I am stopped by a melancholy missing of him. I know my remembrance of him because it is brought to the surface by that song.

Music is a way of knowing things other than emotions and memories too. I shall never fly in front of the moon on a bicycle, but I have a sensation of doing so, a knowledge of what it would be like if I could, when I hear John Williams’ “Flying Theme” from his score for the movie E.T. I also know, thanks to composer, John Adams, what it is like to take a short ride on a fast machine, how, thanks to Richard Strauss, a great wind lifts Don Quixote through the air, and I at least have a better knowledge of the pain and anguish of racial division after experiencing the character of Joe sing “Ol’ Man River” in Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat.

On a more cognitive level, I know the space traversed by those toppling and mischievous notes that open Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, the space encompassed by those first two ascending and sweeping notes of the theme from G one With the Wind, or the claustrophobic confines of the aural world created by composer John Corigliano in New York Counterpoint. Mussorgsky lets me know just how slow and plodding an ox pulling a cart really is in the “Bydlo” piece from Pictures at an Exhibition, and Shostakovich lets me know in The Comedians just how comical things can get when they move along at gallop speed. Music shows me sound moving in space and time. It moves in space with rhythm, which is patterns of durations measured in beats or seconds, and space with pitch, which moves up, down, or remains stationary. My mind can imagine moving because my mind responds to music as if my body was moving, even if it isn’t. Music changes our heartbeat, makes us sweat nervously or calms us soothingly. It provides all our imaginations need to know things we can never experience directly, nor can scarcely describe with words.

Music brings things out of us that we otherwise do not know are there.

If anyone should doubt this, the next time you attend a live concert, be sure to read the review of it the next day. I’m certain the critic’s words, no matter how skilled a writer he or she is, will be no match for the actual experiencing of the performance he or she is attempting to describe.

Music is also a way of knowing structure. We intuitively hear notes in groups based on rhythm, pitch, or on what instrument is playing them. We remember not individual notes, but groups of them which form a recognizable melody or a catchy rhythmic pattern. We know how we ourselves move as we perceive patterns of strong and weak beats. We know the symmetry of duple meter, the lilt and sway of triple meter, and the uneasy delight of irregular meters wrenching our bodies now this way for two beats, now that way for three. We find an insight into a storm at sea by listening to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, feel the pride, pomp, and regality of something important in Walton’s Crown Imperial March, or glow with patriotic pride as a skilled musician begins the strains of our national anthem or other deeply stirring patriotic song.

These are all but examples of how through music we know flight, space and time, pride, humor, melancholy, deliverance from stress, structure and a host of other things not mentioned. When we stop to think about it, music is as much a way of knowing as it is anything else. Indeed, what we know from the more commonly discussed expressiveness is perhaps more impactful to us than the expressiveness itself. The next time you are listening to music and you become aware of something you feel, or are imagining, ask yourself, “how do I know that I am feeling this way, or how is it that I came to be imagining this,” and you will, I am quite sure, realize that it is the music that has pointed all of this out to you, and done this without any effort on your part. What you know from music becomes known to you quite intuitively, with no conscious effort on your part. That is why music is a way of knowing.


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