The secret life of music

This theme has been on my agenda many times before. I have written about it, made workshops around it, lectured about it. But it is time to stop being “about” or “around” and go straight to the POINT. I am now gathering all my old material, and “downloading” new substance.

My premise is that music is such a wonderful thing. And let´s stop right there! Wonderful = full of wonder.

But if we have lost the ability to feel wonder — and its cousins curiosity, astonishment, reverence, fascination — then it doesn´t really help that music is so wonderful. We (listeners,, receivers) need to be wonderful as well.

Or maybe wonder-empty, having an inner vacuum that longs to be filled with fantastic new revelations. If I have anything I have this vacuum. Music, after a long life together, still fills me with wonder. I am still thrilled by the thought “Let´s turn the page and see what musical surprises will jump at us….”

To be continued, as you understand. On this site and its sister site Melosophy (music-wisdom) and its blog Melosophics.

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Music and chocolate

[From a lecture held at a school for young rock and jazz musicians]

Good morning. I would like to ask you, what do you like best and what gives you most satisfaction, music or chocolate? Who said chocolate…? Nobody?

Well then, how do you enjoy music? What a silly question! You listen to it, of course. Everybody knows that.

But then, how do you enjoy chocolate? More silly questions, you EAT it of course.

Let me read something for you from a small booklet that I got when I bought some fine chocolate.

The title is promising; “The art of tasting chocolate”.

(BTW when I googled that phrase I got a couple of thousand “hits”. There is even a website called exactly that, “The art of tasting chocolate”. When I googled “The art of tasting music” I got one hit, about John Cage.)

Anyway, this is what the little book says about how to (not eat but) taste chocolate.

Tasting technique –
[Did your teachers tell you anything about listening technique?] “It is best to be calm and relaxed, but alert and concentrated, and seated in an uncluttered place.”

Hm, that sounds just like a preparation for meditation.

“It is best to taste chocolate on an empty stomach, to the point of feeling hungry.” (Do you listen to music on a full or empty stomach?)

Further, not only you but also the chocolate should be prepared for the experience. It takes two to tango.

“Its ideal temperature lies somewhere between 66 F and 76 F. It is preferable therefore to remove the chocolate from storage at least an hour before tasting.”

There seems to be an awful lot of preparation when it comes to chocolate. How do we prepare ourselves for listening to music? (Another stupid question with no answer?)

So what´s next? Visual and auditory examination. Let´s look at it. “The chocolate should be brilliant, smooth and pure in colour.”

Then, listen to it. “The exterior should break cleanly with a faint, delicate sound.”

[Here I brought out a small piece of chocolate and held to it the microphone. “Let us listen to chocolate” — and I broke it carefully, the whole auditorium listening for the faint, delicate sound…]

Then what? Nothing! Place the chocolate in your mouth and do nothing. Don´t chew it.

“Allow it to sit (!) for a few moments to release the principle flavors and aromas.”

Then, finally, “chew five to ten times to reduce the chocolate to little morsels”.

Enough of my lecture.

I think my young audience realized that while we listen to music just one sense is involved (hearing), but almost all the senses are involved when we taste chocolate. Eating chocolate is a simpler affair, just involving your mouth, taste buds and nose (since so much of “taste” is actually smell).

All this throws light on the difference between eating and tasting. And also on the rather primitive approach we have to music tasting, if such a thing exists.

Well of course it exists, but not as a known idea or concept. We DO taste music, for example when we go to a record store and sample different tracks from a new CD to decide whether we want to buy it. But that is a mainly utilitarian kind of tasting, with a precise goal; decide to buy or not.

When we take the CD home, are we still tasting it? Yes, maybe the first couple of times. But we might just as well use it as background music right away, degrading it to a soundtrack with a simple, commonplace goal: to create a feel-good mood.

We make mood-music of many a piece that was never meant to be furniture music.

Talking about richness of experience I of course don´t want to claim that listening to a piece of chocolate breaking is comparable to a Chopin Nocturne. But let´s stop right there! I used the words “listening” and “hearing” without thinking about it. There we have those different quantities and qualities again.

Unfortunately we very often hear music without actually listening to it. We hear it, yes, but without those mindfulness-like qualities that manifest when we taste chocolate, wine, cheese and perhaps food in general.

If a small piece of chocolate can give you a rich experience for all your senses, imagine what pleasurable heights we might reach if we applied the same kind of carefulness and mindfulness to tasting music!

Yes, you say, but all this is really quite logical. A physical thing like chocolate, a sandwich or even a pencil, we can touch, taste, smell or break. But how do you chew or break music? You cannot take it into your mouth, you cannot see it, you can only listen to it.

Let us not be so limited. Why did we get our inner senses if not to see, taste, touch or smell music? How can a melody be “sweet” or a sound “fat”? Look at this list of common expressions and tell me that we don´t see, taste, touch or smell music.

  • “metal” (heavy, black, industrial, Celtic (!), etc)
  • fusion
  • swinging
  • “hot” and “cool”
  • acid
  • sweet (dolce)
  • bubblegum
  • soft / warm (harmonies)
  • angular (rhythm)
  • lugubrious (piece by Scriabin)

The list could go on and on. If we look around we can find many examples of the senses overlapping. There is no need to talk of synesthesia, or one could say that we all have it to some degree.

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Names and benefit of doubt

Aspiring young author contacts a critic to whom he has sent his book. Well, what did you think of it? My friend, you can only allow yourself to write this badly when you are famous! (From a Hungarian book of journalistic jokes.)

This captures in a perfect nutshell the dilemma I want to talk about. Of course it is not a dilemma if you are famous, then it is a privilege.

With respect to music, more precisely listening to music, this leads us to the following questions:

  • Does it matter who wrote the piece your are listening to?
  • If you are later told that it wasn´t Beethoven but a nobody, or a computer program, will that change your impression of the piece?

This is turn leads us to the Grand Question: Do we hear what we hear, or what we think {we hear]?

If we listen to music by a Name (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bartók, etc. etc.) we, not necessarily but very probably, listen With Respect.

That is, with something like these thoughts in our head: “This is a great composer and the piece is very probably good music. It MUST be, since Beethoven/ Name / Name wrote it. I will try hard to appreciate or at least “like” it. If I don´t, there is perhaps (shudder…) something wrong with me, and I don´t want people to know THAT.”

We are so famous we don´t even have to say our names!
We are so famous we don´t even have to say our names!

Let it be clear that I view respect as something positive. Respect and tact are fine human qualities. Especially towards other beings, human or otherwise.

I am not sure one should be tactful towards art, though.

I mean, you can´t hurt the feelings of a painting or a poem or a symphony. At least I have never heard about a piano concerto that wept because somebody didn´t like it. The composer perhaps wept, but that is something else. We need not necessarily tell the composer what we think — but it would be sound to at least tell ourselves.

What a Name gets that a so called Nobody (better to say Unknown for now) doesn´t get is automatic respect. So in appreciating, valuing or rating music wee need a yardstick, a talent for being able to differentiate between an Unknown and a Nobody. It is of course difficult, and inconvenient, to do so — and very convenient to simply equate one with the other.

All the Names, the self-evident [we Now think!] Masters in art, were also at one time Unknowns, maybe even Nobodies. Back then it was the job of their contemporaries to figure out what they were, potential stars or asteroids. And today it is OUR job to make the same distinctions. Let me guess that we find this more inconvenient than our forefathers. It is just a guess, based on what I see in the zeitgeist.

Anyway, the Name gets the benefit of a doubt. Even if we don´t like or apprecaite his latest work — we might actually hate it, if we are honest with ourselves — we approach it with respect, a respect we don´t grant another work, maybe a masterpiece by an Unknown without a name.

So the Grand Question can often be answered thus: We hear less what we hear, more what we think. (Hans Christian Andersen wrote a very famous tale about this….)

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[An older text from my first attempts to get to grips with the “music of man”, Musica humana. This text reflects on Musica instrumentalis and its connection to M. humana; from the one we can better embrace the other. See footnote for reference to Boethius, from whom these terms originate.]

Imagine that you are listening to a violin-piano recital. Think about all the things that take place before the duo actually starts to play.

The musicians enter on stage. Applause. The pianist strikes middle “A”, thereby establishing the Standard (probably 440 Hz). The violinist tunes his “A” string in accord with the piano. Thereupon he tunes the other strings to this now common standard. The concert can begin!

In this simple, commonplace situation we see a world of meaning. The theme here is tuning, being in tune, and it is not without interesting variations. Witness the different levels in operation.

1) Violinist tunes his “A” according to the piano
2) Violinist tunes his other strings to that “A”

1) means that there is accord within the group, in this case a group of two. 2) means that there is internal accord (harmony) within the solitary instrument.

Actually, this tuning business starts much earlier. For example, the piano has to be tuned before the concert. In this simple act we can see an example of a beautiful guiding principle in music. If we had the same prosaic, quantitative thinking (focusing of efficiency and saving time) in music as we generally have in society, the piano tuner would approach the pianist before the concert, and ask: “Tell me, which keys are you going to play on tonight? No use tuning strings that aren’t used….”

That would be a bad joke. Of course every string is tuned. Not only because it would be disrespectful to do otherwise, but also because the unstruck strings contribute to the overall sound. Overtones, undertones — every string matters.

There are more aspects to consider. The two musicians not only have to tune their instruments, they also have to be in tune as musicians. One cannot play in a wildly romantic manner while the other goes for dry objectivity; they have to find a mean.

Of course, many musicians play together exactly because they have similar musical temperaments. But you cannot always choose your partner. You might have to play with somebody who has a totally different view of the music. The tuning process then becomes more difficult; one or both sides will have to compromise, or at least meet on the bridge.

But it is not just you and the other musician(s) who have to harmonize. You also have to tune yourself to the music, and the composer. You and your partner may form a wonderful team playing a hideous Beethoven; in tune with each other but not with Ludvig.

Or the other way round. There are rock groups and even string quartets where the members don’t speak to each other, even travel in separate cars. They are obviously not in tune as persons, but during the concert they nevertheless play the same piece – in the same tempo – in the same key! Even people who are not on speaking terms regard music as a common, almost sacred zone. Cease fire!

Then we have the room. You have to take acoustics into consideration, too. That’s one more tuning process. You don’t play the same way in an intimate salon as in Carnegie Hall.

And the room is filled, hopefully, with listeners, people. Another factor to harmonize with, acoustically and psychologically. The audience can be seen as, and treated as, an instrument; a many-headed, many-stringed lyre. Especially in rock and jazz music there is much playing on this instrument. (Shall we call it “Audie-phone”?) Sometimes even more than on the regular instruments…

So now we have a whole series of “strings” to tune. The musician, the instrument, the instruments together, the musicians together, the music, the room, the audience. Out of this increasingly complex model I want to single out three factors. Let us call them the Individual (1), the Group (2), and the Whole (3).

In terms of Musica instrumentalis this could mean (1) one instrument, (2) all instruments, and (3) the room. Or (1) musician, (2) all musicians and (3) all musicians and the audience.

Seen on the level of Musica humana (the music of Man) this could mean (1) a single human being, (2) a group (small or large; a couple, a family, circle of friends, nation, etc.) and (3) the Earth (a classical Whole). (3) could also be the solar system.

Footnote: Boethius says there are three kinds of music: Musica instrumentalis (what we nowadays term music: playing, singing, sounds, CD-s. etc. This is all we have nowadays.), Musica humana (the music of man, not very clearly explained as I remember, the subject of my studies), and Musica mundana (the music of the world, what we call the “music of the spheres”, something very abstract and probably meaningless for most of us.).

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[An older text from my first attempts to get to grips with the “music of man”, Musica humana. See footnote for reference to Boethius, from whom the term Musica humana stems.]

This is a basic factor representing BREADTH, the opposite of narrowness or monomania. Staying on the level of Musica instrumentalis*, I want to point out three kinds of breadth.

1) The ability to play just about every note on your instrument. Your hands must no be too small. A pianist needs to be able to strike the highest and lowest keys of his instrument simultaneously. Child prodigies cannot do this, nor handicapped people. Not everybody allows this to be a handicap, however. Remember Paul Wittgenstein, for whom both Ravel and Prokofiev wrote piano concerti for the left hand.

2) The ability to play in different styles, at least from Bach to Bartók. Saying about a musician: “Everything he plays sounds like Beethoven” is not a compliment. It points to a lack of stylistic breadth.

3) The ability to strike different emotions in one and the same piece. To go from poetic calmness to wild passion in no time, with minimal take-off run. Just as you need to be able to play piano pianissimo (ppp) after forte fortissimo (fff), or a very high note after a very low one, you also need to be quick and mobile when it comes to the emotional keyboard. This is a talent that instrumental musicians share with the actor.

So, a musician needs to be broad and not narrow. (I realize that this is in part dictated by the current state of the music world. Every musician has his temperament, his fortes (and also his pianos, so to say). Formerly an opera singer could tour with very limited repertoire. He only sang what he knew best. In those times his profession was close to that of the circus artist.)

He has to know himself as a musician: know which strings his instrument has, which styles he can play well and less well, which emotions he can express easily and with more difficulty.

Most of this, and so much else, are taken for granted in music.


So, what can we learn from the musician´s basic relationship with his instrument? What are the consequences for Musica humana?

First of all, a violinist must know that his instrument has four strings. The guitar has six, the piano eighty-eight. How many strings do we have as human beings? Do we adjust our out-of-tune strings, or even notice them?

We can observe interesting differences between different kinds of “out of tune strings”. When a violin string is out of tune, the musician adjusts it immediately, possibly even replaces it. When an accompanist tells a singer that (s)he sings out of key, the singer replaces the pianist… And if somebody dares to point out our weaknesses to us… watch out!

A string is a tone that is often played. Transposing this to our inner life, a thought only once thought, an emotion only once felt, is not a string.

We can picture ourselves as a large keyboard with broken and missing keys.


Standardization is impossible; no two people have identical keyboards. Nevertheless, each of us stand in a certain relation to the Ideal Keyboard We Could Be. Usually we do not know ourselves as we know our violins and pianos. We do not know our repertoire, which keys we possess and which we are missing. We don’t know when we are out of tune. We also lack a standard, the 440 Hz of human normality.

Footnote: * Boethius says there are three kinds of music: Musica instrumentalis (what we nowadays term music: playing, singing, sounds, CD-s. etc. This is all we have nowadays.), Musica humana (the music of man, not very clearly explained as I remember, the subject of my studies), and Musica mundana (the music of the world, what we call the “music of the spheres”, something very abstract and probably meaningless for most of us.).

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Melosophia – presentation

The word Melosophia (one of my word-inventions, others being “ononism” [wanting/ demanding to be online all the time — never, even for a moment (God forbid!) being off-line] and “interligence” [the intelligence engendered when we harmoniously connect our minds together) refers to the combination or fusion of music + philosophy. Let us even dare to use the w-word: wisdom. It´s not dangerous, it doesn´t bite. Let´s get used to it and use it freely, as once the old Greeks and others did.

Sophia = wisdom

There are other old, archaic words for what this is about, but melosophia is a new word. Why a new one when there are old ones? Because old words, as often happens, are weighed down with associations that are no longer relevant, often academic, dry, dead.

Here follow my musings about Musica humana (one of the old words, from Boethius), the concept of musicality applied to everyday life, of musicians as well as non-musicians.

Also some practical methods for applying this “musicality”. Deep water, in other words. One of the favorite terrains.

I start by posting two older, rather abstract, texts of mine. Much water has passed in the Danube since I wrote them, new insights have been won since then. “Music tasting” for example is practical (and enjoyable) Melosophia.

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