The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

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Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music

In this and the following chapters which treat of the arts, I plan to make a concrete application of the aesthetic theory thus far developed. I want to show how the general principles which we have tried to establish can be used to explain the facts of our artistic experience. In doing this I shall hope to achieve a double purpose: first, to verify anew our theory of art, and second, to deepen and enlighten appreciation.

I begin with music because, as we shall see, there is a musical factor in all the arts, an understanding of which at the beginning will enable us to proceed much more easily in our survey of them. I shall confine myself to an elementary analysis; for a more detailed study would take us beyond the bounds of general aesthetics and would require a knowledge of the special technique of the arts which we cannot presuppose. Moreover, we shall not concern ourselves with the origin or history of the arts further than is needful for an understanding of their general character. We are investigating the theory, not the history, of taste, and are more interested in the present developed aesthetic consciousness than in its rudimentary forms.

As we appreciate it to-day, music lends itself readily to our definition of art. It is a personal expression–who, when listening to music which he enjoys, does not feel himself poured forth in the tones? It is social and public–what brings us together under the sway of a common emotion more effectively than concert or opera? It is a fixed and permanent expression, for we can renew it so long as men preserve the score where it is written; and, finally, it is free–who can find any practical or moral or scientific purpose in an etude of Chopin or a symphony of Mozart? Music is the most signal example of a mode of expression that has attained to a complete and pure aesthetic character, an unmixed beauty. Yet this was not true of music in its earlier forms, and a long process of development was necessary before freedom was realized. For we must look for the beginning of music in any and all sounds through which primitive men sought to express and communicate themselves. These were, first of all, the cries of the human voice, expressive of fear and need and joy–at once direct outpourings of basic emotions and signals to one’s fellows, to help, to satisfy, and to sympathize. In the voice nature provided man with a direct and immediate instrument for the expression and communication of himself through sound. Then, perhaps by accident, man discovered that he could make sounds in other ways, through materials separate from his body, and so he constructed drums and cymbals and gongs; and by means of these, too, he communicated his needs and stimulated himself to rage and excitement–and his enemy to fear–in war dance and battle rush. And in doing this he was imitating nature, whose noises, exciting and terrifying, he had long known: the clap of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of the waves, the crackling of burning wood, the crash of fallen and breaking things.

Out of unbeautiful noise sprang beautiful music. Men discovered that through the voice they could make not only expressive noises, but also pleasant tones; they found, perhaps by accident, that they could do much the same thing with reeds and strings; they observed that when they beat their drums at regular intervals to mark the motion of the dance, they not only danced together more easily, but also experienced joy in the very sounds they made; or that when they threshed the corn with rhythmic strokes or rowed a boat in rhythmic unison, their task was lightened and their wearied attention distracted to the pleasure of their noise. Hence at their dances of love or war or religion, they sang instead of shouted; and their instruments of irregular and expressive noise became instruments of rhythmical and melodious tones. Eventually, having experienced the pleasure there is in tones and rhythmical sounds, they made them for their own sake, apart from any connection with tribal festivals, and the free art of music was born. And yet, as we shall see, the significance of music depends largely upon the fact that tones are akin to noises; music could not take such a hold of the emotions of men did they not overhear in the tones the meaningful and poignant noises of voice and nature; to understand music, we must think of it against its background of expressive noise. In music we still seem to hear a voice that breaks the silence and speaks, the thunder that terrifies.

The material of music consists of tones, the conscious counterparts of periodic, longitudinal vibrations of the air. Tones differ among themselves in many attributes, of which the following are of chief importance for music: pitch, determined by rate of vibration, through which tones differ as higher and lower; color, determined by the complexity of the vibration wave, the presence of overtones of different pitch along with the fundamental tone in the total sound; intensity, dependent upon the amplitude of the vibration, through which tones of the same pitch differ as soft or loud; and finally, quality, that specific character of a tone, by reason of which middle C, for example, is more like the C of the octave below or above than like its nearer neighbors, B or D, whence the series of tones, although in pitch linear and one-dimensional, is in quality periodic, returning again and again upon itself, as we go up or down the scale. [Footnote: “See Geza Revesz: Tonpsychologie."]

The number of qualities in use in music–twelve in our scale of equal temperament–is, of course, not all there are in the world of tones; they are a human and arbitrary selection, governed by technical and historical motives, into which we shall not enter. Peoples with a different culture have made a different selection. But we are not concerned with the music of angels or of orientals, but with our own. With these twelve, with their possible variations in pitch, loudness, and tone-color, the musician has a rich and adequate material.

All the elements of an aesthetic experience are present in striking simplicity even in the single musical tone. There is the sensuous medium, the sound; there is a life expressed, a feeling aroused in us, yet so completely objectified in the sound that it seems to belong to the latter on equal terms with color or quality or loudness; there is a unity and variety and orderly structure in the dominance of the fundamental among the overtones and the fusion of all in the total clang. Thus every note is a complete little aesthetic organism. Yet the beauty of single tones is very slight,–less, I think, than that of single colors; they need the contrast or the agreement in consonance with other tones in order to awaken much feeling; they must be members of a wider whole; observe how, when sounded after other tones, they become enriched through the contrasting or consonant memory of those tones. Nevertheless, the single tone has its feeling, however slight, and to understand this is to go a long way toward understanding the more complex structures of music.

In the first place, tones, unlike noises, are all pleasant. Although we cannot be sure why this is true, there can be little doubt, I think, that the regularity of the vibrations of the former, in contrast with the irregularity of the latter, is largely responsible. The clang, with its ordered complexity, is a stimulus that incites the sense organ and connected motor tracts to a unified and definite response, unlike noise, which creates confusion. The pleasure in the single tone is similar, in its causes, to the pleasure in the consonance of two tones. As we should expect from this analogy, the pleasure is greater in rich tones, which contain many partials, than in thin tones, which are relatively uninteresting. But the feeling of tones is something more than mere pleasantness; it is also a mood. Now this mood of tones is partly due to associations,–some superficial in character, like the pastoral quality of flute tones or the martial character of bugle tones, others more fundamental; but it has also a still deeper-lying root. For a sound stimulus awakens not only a sensory process in the ear, the correlative of which is a sensation, but also incipient motor reactions, which, if carried out, would be an emotion, but which, being too slight and diffuse, produce only what we call a mood. Every sensation has a meaning for the organism in an environment where it has constantly to be on its guard for danger or assistance; every sensation is therefore connected with the mechanism of reaction, with its attendant emotions. In ordinary experience, there are objects present to which the organism may actually respond, but in the aesthetic experience there are no real objects towards which a significant reaction can take place; in music, the source of the sound is obviously of no practical importance, while in such arts as painting and sculpture where interesting objects are represented, the objects themselves are absent; hence the reaction is never carried out, but remains incipient, a vague feeling which, finding no object upon which it may work itself off, is suffused upon the sensation. These sense feelings are the subtle, but basal, material of all beauty.

The variety of moods expressed in tones is almost endless. When we experience them, they come to us as the inner life of the total concrete tones, but they depend actually upon the working together of all the tonal attributes,–color, quality, pitch, and loudness. There is the subtle intimacy of violin tones compared with the clear arresting ring of the trumpet; the emotional differences between qualities like C and G, too delicate for expression in words; the piercing excitement of the high, bright tones, compared with the earnest depth of the low, dull tones; the almost terrifying effect of loud tones compared with the soothing influence of soft tones.

The precise psychophysical mechanism through which the different moods are aroused is for the most part hidden from us; yet in certain particulars we can form some idea of it. For example, the richness of feeling in the tones of certain instruments as compared with others is doubtless due to the fact that through the presence of more overtones and the admixture of noise, the reaction is more complex; the tense excitement of high and loud tones, as compared with the soft and low, is probably connected with the fact that their higher vibration rate and greater amplitude of vibration produce a more marked effect, a more pervasive disturbance,–the organism does not right itself and recover so rapidly and easily. These direct and native elements of feeling are then broadened out and intensified through other elements that come in by way of association. For example, in order to sing high tones, a greater tension and exertion of the vocal chords is needed than for low tones; loud tones suggest loud noises, which, as in breaking and crashing and thundering, are inevitably associated with fear; the loud is also the near and present and threatening, the low is distant and safe. Although each tone, as separate and individual, possesses its own feeling in its own right, the tonal effects are immensely accentuated by contrast with one another,–the high against the low, the poor against the rich, the loud against the soft–and through the summation, by means of repetition, of the influences of many tones of like character; the full meaning of music depends upon the relations of tones, especially the temporal relations.

This fact was fully recognized by Aristotle, who raised the question why tones are so much more expressive than colors. Music is almost the sole important art that relies on the expressiveness of the sense material alone, independent of any element of meaning. To be sure, the beauty of oriental rugs depends entirely on their color and line harmonies; for the meanings which the patterns have for their oriental makers is generally unknown to us of the western world; yet what we feel when we contemplate them cannot compare in volume and intensity with what we experience when we listen to music. And Aristotle correctly assigned one of the chief reasons for the superior significance of music–its temporal character. A color or line scheme may express a momentary mood, with perhaps just the most rudimentary movement as we go from the dark to the bright colors, or as we follow the motion of the lines as they curve or converge; yet it cannot express an action or process that begins, proceeds, continues, ends. When we look at the colors or lines of a painting or rug, we feel intensely, but there is no development or process of feeling; if the mind moves, it moves inevitably not with, but away from, what it sees. But tones are given to us in succession; we are forced to move with them; hence they come to express for us, in ways which we shall try to analyze, the changing and developing process of the inner life.

In its temporal aspect, music has two chief characteristics, rhythm and melody. In our music these are inseparable; yet they can be separated for the purposes of analysis; and a rhythmical roll of drumbeats or a careless succession of tones harmonically related proves that each may produce an aesthetic effect without the other. We shall consider melody first.

A mere succession of tones, however pleasing separately, does not make a melody; for melody depends on a definite scale and on certain relations between the tones of the scale. These relations illustrate the three modes of aesthetic unity. First, there is harmony. Tones are harmonically related when they belong to the leading chords of the key. The tones of such chords, when sounded together, are consonant. Now harmony, which is an aesthetic feeling, although not identical with consonance, which is a purely sensory relation between tones, depends nevertheless upon consonance. In order to understand harmony, we must therefore first understand consonance, and, in order to do this, we must begin by describing the experience and then look for its possible causes. [Footnote: Consult the discussions in Karl Stumpf, Tonpsychologie; Carl Emil Seashore, The Psychology of Musical Talent, chap. VII.] As for the first, consonant tones, when sounded together, seem to fit one another, almost to fuse, despite the fact that the different tones are distinguishable in the whole. This fitting together, in turn, seems to depend on a resemblance or partial identity between them. For example, the most consonant tones are a note and its octave, which are, perhaps, actually identical in quality; but lesser intervals are also alike, as for example a note and its fifth, which are more readily mistaken for one another than two dissonant tones, say a note and its seventh. As for the explanation of consonance, we know that consonant tones have identical partial tones and are caused by vibration rates that stand to one another in simple ratios. Thus in a clang composed of a tone and its fifth, the first partial of the fifth is the second partial of the prime, and the vibration ratios are as two to three. The bearing of this second fact on the question of partial identity will become clear if we consider the concrete case of a tone produced by 24 vibrations per second, whose fifth would then be produced by 36 vibrations per second, and then consider the same tone and its dissonant second, the ratio of whose vibrations is 24 to 27; in the former case, there is a common part of 6 vibrations, a fourth of the total number of the first tone; in the latter, only 3, an eighth. That identity of partial tones is not a sufficient explanation of consonance–as Helmholtz thought it to be–is proved by the fact that simple tones, which have no partials, may still be consonant. Nevertheless, an identity of partials does undoubtedly contribute to the consonance of the complex tones used in our music; ultimately, however, the final reason for consonance must be sought in some underlying identity within the tones themselves, an identity that seems to be given psychologically in their resemblance, and with which physically the simplicity of their vibration ratios probably has something to do. And that in music the feeling of harmony should depend upon partial identity is what we should expect from our previous study of harmony in general. [Footnote: See page 87.]

The second of the tonal relations upon which melody depends is contrast. First, there is the contrast between the high and the low; even when notes are harmonically related, as a note and its fifth, they are in contrast, in so far as the one is measurably higher and more distant than the other. Of equal importance is the rivalry between the fundamental tones in the leading harmonic chords; for example, the rivalry between the tonic and the dominant. For each of these claims to be the center of the melodic progression, and draws to itself all the tones which belong to its chord. Dissonance is a cause of rivalry; for a dissonant tone is one that will not fit into a given harmony; yet since it is still a part of the melody, must have its home somewhere, and belongs therefore in another harmony, which, through this tone, is set up in rivalry with the prevailing one. A tone that did not belong to any harmony would not be a dissonance, but a discord,–a tone without meaning musically. Dissonances, like other contrasts, enrich the melody by establishing rival harmonies; discords destroy melodies. Just as the drama has little significance without conflict, so melodies are uninteresting without dissonances.

Were it not for the third of the tonal relations, melodies would lack unity and system and go to pieces under the stress of rival forces. This third relation may be call finality; [Footnote: The explanation of this is obscure; there is no unanimity among the specialists in musical theory.] it belongs among relations we have called evolutionary. By it is meant the fact that certain tones demand and naturally lead into other tones, in which they seem to find their completion or fulfillment. For example, the tones of a chord demand the fundamental tone of the chord; dissonances must be “resolved,"–must be followed by other tones of their own harmony; the diatonic tones over and above the tonic–the “upleader” and “downleader"–naturally lead into the tonic; and all the tones demand, either immediately or through the mediation of other tones, the tonic of the scale to which they belong. This principle of finality, which, in the classic music, is the basis of what is called “tonality,” by establishing the tonic as the center of reference and point of completion of all tones, gives to melody its dramatic unity. Through it, by creating the tonic chord as fundamental, the rivalry between the tonic, dominant, and subdominant is overcome, and all dissonances finally resolved into unity. Definite scales and tonal laws and schemes of composition are of the utmost importance for musical composition; there are, of course, many of these besides the classical, and they are all partly conventional; but that does not matter so long as, by being well known, they enable the melody to move along definite lines, arousing and fulfilling definite expectations. Those forms of modernist music that dispense with scales altogether, in which therefore there are no fixed points de repere like the tonic or dominant of the older music, can express chance momentary moods by means of rich and strange colors, but not an orderly and purposeful experience.

Of course, in our modern harmonic music the melodic movement proceeds by means, not of single tones, but of chords. Yet no new principle is introduced by this fact. For the chords have in part merely the significance of highly enriched tones, the harmonized tones of the chords taking the place of the partials of the single notes and imparting a more voluminous color, which may have its own beauty as such; and, in addition, they simply confer upon the melody another dimension, as it were, the tonal relations of harmony and contrast operating between the tones of the chords simultaneously, as well as temporally between the successive elements of the melody.

The orderly beauty which the tonal relations confer upon music is further enriched and complicated by rhythm. Rhythm in music is of two sorts: a rhythm of time and a rhythm of accent, or increased loudness. Through the one, the duration of a musical composition is divided up into approximately equal parts filled by notes and rests of definite length, and through the other, the light notes are subordinated to the heavy notes. The two, however, are interrelated; for the bars are divided from each other by the accents, and the accents recur at approximately equal intervals.

The pleasure in rhythmical arrangement is derived from two sources: first, from the need for perspicuity which is fulfilled through the regular grouping of the tonal elements in the bars,–their length being adjusted to the average length of an attention wave, and the number of tones that fill them to the number of items which can be taken in at one act of attention,–and through the subordination of the light to the heavy within the bars, the bars to the measures, and the measures to the periods. The second source of satisfaction in rhythm is the combination of feelings of balance and harmony aroused–a rhythm is not only a pleasing perspicuous order, but an emotion. [Footnote: See chap. V, p.90] For every recurring accent and interval competes with its predecessor for the mind’s attention, yet is in agreement with it since it, too, fulfills the law that pervades them all.

The full significance of both melody and rhythm depends, however, upon their interrelation, the concrete musical structure, the motive or melody in the complete sense, being an indissoluble unity of both. Now if we take the term will with a broad meaning, Schopenhauer’s characterization of melody as an image of the will still remains the truest aesthetic interpretation of it. For, when we hear it, we not only hear, but attend to what we hear; we hear each tone in its relations of harmony or contrast or fulfillment to other tones, freighted with memories of its predecessors and carrying with it expectations, which the following tones fulfill or deny. The melody begins, let us suppose, with the tonic note. This note then becomes for us a plan or purpose; for as it goes, it leaves in the mind a memory of itself, no mere pale sensation–no image ever is–but a motor set, an expectation and desire to hear the note again. If the next note is harmonically related, this purpose is partially fulfilled and we get the satisfaction of a partial success. If, however, the tone does not belong to the tonic chord, but, let us suppose, to the subdominant, it comes as a hindrance, an obstacle, or perhaps as a new and rival purpose springing up in the course of the fulfillment of the old,–a purpose which can be satisfied only through the other tones of its chord. Hence the tension of conflicting expectations and the excitement as now the one and now the other is fulfilled in the succeeding notes. Yet, since all other harmonies are subordinated to the tonic harmony, and even through their very opposition increase our desire for it, they must give way to the fundamental purpose with which we started; and when the tonic does eventually triumph, it fulfills not only itself, but all lesser desires of the melody; in it we find what we have been seeking, we arrive where we set out to go. And in this success we not only obtain what we first wanted, but more–an experience enriched by every conflict, and harmonious ultimately through the inner adjustment and resolution of its elements; for in hearing the final note we hear the memories of all previous tones, also. When the departures from the keynote are many and distant and sudden, and the melody wanders into the bypaths of foreign harmonies, moving along broken and zigzag lines, it expresses an exciting, a dangerous and difficult adventure; when, however, the departures are gradual and confined for the most part within the limits of a single harmony, moving in a smooth and curving path, it expresses a life that is secure and happy, tending to repose as the line approaches the horizontal, and as repetitions of the same note predominate.

Rhythm enters into melody to differentiate and emphasize. By means of accent and time-value, the different tones are weighted and their relative value fixed. The heavy tones assert their will with a more insistent energy; the long tones upon which we linger make a deeper and more lasting impression; while the light and short tones in contrast become points of mere passing and transition. If, moreover, we include the element of tempo, then all the temporal feelings are introduced into melody–the excitement of rapid motion, the calmness of the slow; the agony of delay, of waiting and postponement, with the triumph and relief when the expected note arrives at last. Finally, the effects of shading must be added, the contrasts between piano and forte–loudness that brings the tones so near that they may seem threatening in their insistence; softness that makes them seem far away and dreamlike.

Following the large idea introduced by Schopenhauer, which was enriched by the minuter studies of Lotze, Wundt, and Lipps, we may sum the foregoing analysis in the statement that music expresses the abstract aspects of action, its ease or difficulty, its advance or retrocession, its home coming or its wandering, its hesitation or its surety, its conflicts and its contrasts, its force or its weakness, its swiftness or slowness, its abruptness or smoothness, its excitement or repose, its success or failure, its seriousness or play. Then, in addition, as we shall see, all modes of emotion that are congruous with this abstract form may by association be poured into its mold, so that the content of music becomes not a mere form of life, but life itself.

It is, of course, obvious that our analysis has confined itself to the barest elements of the musical experience. Our music to-day, with its many-voiced harmonies, with its procession of chords instead of single tones, with its modulation into related keys, has an infinite wealth and complexity defying description. A large part of the astonishing effect of music is derived from the fact that in a brief space we seem to hear and absorb so much: the careers of multitudinous lives compressed into an instant. Yet the meaning of the complex whole can be understood, I think, from such an analysis of the simple structure as has been given.

The methods by which the larger musical wholes are built up illustrate principles of aesthetic structure with which we are already familiar. There is the harmonious unification of parts through the simple repetition of motives, their inversion or imitation in higher or lower keys, either successively or simultaneously; the execution of the same theme in another time or tempo; and through the interweaving of themes. There is the balance of contrasted or competing themes; the subordination of the lesser to the more striking and insistent motives; the preparation for, emergence and triumph of, a final passage that resolves all dissonances and adjusts all conflicts. Because of music’s abstractness, the connection between the parts of a musical composition may be loose or subtle, taxing the synthetic powers even of the educated listener; yet some contrast or analogy of feeling must always unite them. The structure of the whole may be either static or dramatic; in the former case the dramatic element is confined to the themes, the purpose of the whole being merely to work out all their significant variations,–to embroider and repeat them in new keys and rhythms and tempos, and to contrast them with other themes. Repetition is the great creative principle of musical development, the composer seeking to say over again in ever new forms what he has said before. And this, again because of the abstractness of music, is a significant process; to repeat the concrete is tiresome and trivial, but an abstract form is always enriched by appearing in a new shape.

The explanation of musical expression thus far given, although it suffices to account for the basis of all musical feeling, is, I think, inadequate to its full volume and intensity. There is a concreteness of emotional content in some musical compositions–an arousal of terror and longing and despair and joy–infinitely richer than any abstract forms of feeling.

To account for this, two sources of explanation suggest themselves. First, the arousing of emotions through deep-lying effects of rhythm. It is a well-known fact, cited in most discussions of this subject, that the motor mechanism of the body is somehow attuned to rhythm. When we hear rhythmical sounds, we not only follow them with the attention, we follow them also with our muscles, with hand and foot and head and heart and respiratory apparatus. Even when we do not visibly move in unison with the rhythm–as we usually do not–we tend to do so, which proves that in any case the motor mechanism of the body is stimulated and brought into play by the sounds. There is a direct psychophysical connection between the hearing of rhythmic sounds and the tendency to execute certain movements. But there is an equally direct relation between emotions and tendencies to movements, through which the former find expression and are given effect in the outer world. To every kind of emotion–love and hate and fear and sorrow and joy–there corresponds a specific mode of motor manifestation. The connection between rhythmic sound and emotion is therefore plain; the link is a common motor scheme. Rhythms arouse into direct and immediate activity the motor “sets” that are the physical basis of the emotions, and hence arouse the corresponding emotions themselves, without any ground for them outside of the organism. And these emotions, since they are aroused by the sounds and not by any object to which they might be directed and upon which they might work themselves off in a meaningful reaction, are interwoven into the sounds,–they and the sounds come to us as a single indissoluble whole of experience. The emotions become the content of the sounds. And hence the strangeness of the musical experience–the fact that we feel so deeply over nothing.

The second cause for the concreteness of the musical experience I take to be certain emotions and feelings which are aroused by association, not with the rhythmic elements of music alone, but with the tone-color, intensity, and melody also. There is a human quality, a poignancy and intimacy, about much music, which can be understood only through its analogy with the sounds of the human voice. For the human voice is emotionally expressive through its mere sound alone: one can know a large part of what is going on in the breasts of people who talk in a foreign tongue just by listening to the sound of their voices–their excitement or boredom, their anger, love, or resentment; and one becomes conscious of these emotions, as in hearing music, without knowing what they are all about. All human emotions betray themselves in speech through the rise and fall, range of intervals, loudness or softness, tempo and differences of duration of tone. Now, although it is far too much to say that music is actually an imitation of the voice, it is nevertheless true, as Diderot thought, that in certain musical passages we overhear the voice. There is never any exact similarity between music and vocal sounds, but there is enough resemblance to awaken by association the feelings that are the normal accompaniments of such sounds. Any tone analogies that there happen to be are felt as such. This is notably true of all music that has a peculiar lyrical and human quality,–the music that readily becomes popular because it seems to speak direct to the heart. Originally, all music was song, and since speech and song employ the same organ, it would be surprising indeed if something of the same expression of the emotions that overflows into the one should not also overflow into the other, and that musicians should not, unconsciously or consciously, tend to choose their melodies because of such analogies. Instrumental music probably got its first melodies from song, and despite its vast present complexity and independence, has never completely lost touch with song. Since the first meaningful sounds that we hear are those of the voice, music must always have for us the significance of a glorified speech.

The fault of the original proposers of the speech theory was that they thought it a complete explanation of the facts of musical expression. Its explanatory value is, however, strictly limited, and supplemental to the more basic considerations adduced; yet it remains a necessary part of the complex theory of the complex fact we are studying. And the acceptance of it as such does not imply a belief in the speech theory of the origin of music. Song did not grow out of impassioned speech, but arose coeval with speech, when men found–perhaps by accident–that they could make with their voices pure and pleasing tones and intervals of tones, and express something of their inner selves in so doing. Yet, as I have suggested, it would be strange if speech did not react upon song–if the first vocal tones were not purified words, and the first intervals an approximation to those of speech. Thus in song, lyric poetry and music arose together as a single art for the expression of feeling, until the development of instrumental music freed the one and the invention of writing freed the other; while speech kept to its different and original purpose–the expression of ideas for practical ends, and produced an aesthetic form of its own only at a later period and under independent influences.

The complete understanding of musical expression involves, finally, as was suggested at the beginning of this chapter, the recognition of the analogy that exists between music and the noises produced by nature and human activities. Through the imitation of their rhythm, force, and tempo, some of these can be directly suggested by musicians. Yet this direct suggestion, although employed by the greatest composers, plays a subordinate part in music, and, since it introduces an element of representation of the outer world–tonmalerei–is usually felt to involve a departure from the prime purpose of music: the expression of the inner world through the emotional effects of pure sound. In the best program music, therefore, the purpose of the composer is not the mere imitation of nature–which is never art at all, and in music is always recognized as an unsaesthetic tour de force of mere cleverness–but rather the arousal of the feelings caused by nature. And as an aid in the expression of such feelings, imitation, when delicately suggestive rather than blatant, will always play a part.

There are, however, subtler and remoter analogies between music and noise, which produce their effects whether the musician wills them or not. Such, for example, are loud bursts of tone suggesting falling or crashing, events which usually have a terrifying significance; crescendoes, suggesting the approach of things, so often full of expectancy and excitement; diminuendoes, suggesting a gradual departure or fading away, bearing relief or regret. And there are doubtless hundreds of other such associations, too minute or remote or long- forgotten to recover, which add their mite of feeling to swell and make vast the musical emotion. As Fechner pointed out, these associations may work quite unconsciously, giving evidence of their functioning only through the feeling tones which they release. So important is the part which sound plays in our lives that there must be an especially large number of such underground associations aroused by music. All of our experiences are connected together by subconscious filiation; but it is only in art that their residual feeling tones have a full opportunity to come into the mind; for in everyday life they are crowded out by the hurry of practical concerns. In the earlier stages of the development of music they must have contributed a still larger share to musical expression, when the different forms of music were connected by habit and convention with particular crises and occasions, religious, domestic, and social, in the life of individuals and groups. But even to-day, despite the new freedom of music, they are not absent.

Looking back over our analysis of music, we see that it is characterized by the expression of emotion without the representation of the causes or objects of emotion. This fact, which has now become a well-recognized part of aesthetic theory, distinguishes music from all the other arts. Music supplies us with no definite images of nature, as painting and sculpture do, and with no ideas, as poetry does. It contains feelings, but no meanings. Music offers us no background for emotion, no objects upon which it may be directed, no story, no mise en scene. It supplies us with the feeling tones of things and events, but not with the things or events themselves. It moves wholly in a world of its own, a world of pure feeling, with no embodiment save only sound. It may express terror, but not terror over this or that; joy, but whether the joy that comes from sight of the morning or of the beloved, it cannot tell. In one brief space of time, it may arouse despair, hope, triumph–but all over nothing.

Yet–and this is the central paradox of music–despite its abstractness, nay, because of this very quality, it remains the most personal and intimate of the arts. For, itself offering no images of things and events to which we may attach the feelings which it arouses, we supply our own. We fill in the impersonal form of musical feeling with the concrete emotions of our own lives; it is our strivings, our hopes and fears, which music expresses. By denying us access to the world about us, music compels us to turn in upon ourselves; it is we who live there in the sounds. For, as we have seen, the rhythmic tones seize hold not only of our attention, but of our bodies also–hand and foot and head and heart, resounding throughout the whole organism. And, where our bodies are, there are we. Moreover, our life there in the sounds need not remain without objects because the music does not describe them to us; for out of our own inner selves we may build up an imaginary world for our feelings. As we listen to the music, we shall see the things we hope for or fear or desire; or else transport ourselves among purely fanciful objects and events. Music is a language which we all understand because it expresses the basic mold of all emotion and striving; yet it is a language which no two people understand in the same way, because each pours into that mold his own unique experience. In itself abstract and objectless, it may thus become, in varying ways, concrete and alive.

The great variety in the interpretation of musical compositions has often been used as an argument against the existence of emotions in music, but is, as we have seen, the inevitable result of their abstractness. This abstractness may, indeed, be so great that apparently opposite concrete emotions, such as love and religious adoration, despair and joy, may be aroused in different people, according to different circumstances, by the same piece. The music of the opera can be used in the cathedral. Yet strikingly dissimilar emotions have common elements–worship is the love of God; joy may be a rage equally with disappointment; and at their highest intensity, all opposed emotions tend to pass over into each other: hope into fear, love into hate, exaltation into depression. The elementary feelings out of which our complex emotions are built are few and simple; hence each one of the latter is identical in some ingredients with the others. And even the elementary feelings may have common aspects of intensity and tempo, of strain and excitement. Some musical compositions, like the fugues of Bach, seem to express nothing more than such extremely abstract modes of feeling, without arousing any associations that would impel the mind to make a more concrete interpretation. To express feelings of this kind in language is, of course, impossible, for the reason that our emotional vocabularies have been constructed to communicate only the emotions of everyday life. Other types of music–like the romantic tone poetry of a later day–which are more abundant in their associations, and hence richer in their emotional content, are difficult of translation for another reason: the rapidity of succession and subtlety of intermixture of the expressed feelings are beyond the reach of words, even of a poet’s, which inevitably stabilize and isolate what they denote.

But abstract and objectless emotions occur in other regions of experience beside the musical, even beyond the entire field of the aesthetic. All except the most healthy-minded and practical people are at times filled with vague fears, longings, and joys, the objects or causes of which they cannot formulate. Normally, feeling is directed towards definite objects and leads to action upon them, but may nevertheless become isolated from its proper connections, and function without issue. The extreme cases of this are the pathological states of mania and depression, where such feelings assume proportions dangerous to the existence of the individual. Intoxication and hysteria present analogous, though more transient phenomena. And one may observe the autonomous development of mere feeling even in the healthy life, as when one remains jolly after all occasion for it has ceased, or angry after the cause for anger has been removed. All feelings tend to acquire a strength beyond what is necessary for action and to endure after their proper objects and conditions have disappeared; hence the luxury of grief and revenge and sentimentality.

In their most general character, musical emotions stand on a level with other purposeless emotions, except that they are deliberately induced and elaborated to an extent and complexity unmatched elsewhere. But while these emotions are morbid and evil outside of music, within music they are innocent. For outside of music they spring from dislocations of the practical and striving core of the personality, where, if persistently indulged in, they exacerbate the disturbance of which they are the sign, interfering with action and eventually endangering the health and happiness of the individual; while in music, being induced from the outside by mere sounds, they have no ground within the personality itself where they can take root, and hence exert only a harmless and transient effect upon the mind; they belong to the surface, not to the substance of the self, to imagination, not to the will. Or when, as sometimes happens, the deeper and perhaps morbid strata of the self are reached by the sounds, the feelings which are awakened from their sleep there, where they might be productive of evil dreams, find an orderly and welcome release in the sounds–they are not only aroused, but carried off by the music. This the Greeks understood when they employed music as a healer of the soul and called this effect catharsis.

If, indeed, music were just a means for the arousal of feelings, it would not be a fine art, but an orgy. For, in order to be aesthetic, feelings must be not merely stimulated by, but objectified in, the sense medium, where they can be mastered and known. But the intimacy of music is not in contradiction with the freedom and objectivity characteristic of all art. For musical feelings, although they are experienced as our own, are nevertheless also experienced as the sounds; in music we live, not as we live ordinarily, within our bodies, but out there, in a rarer and unpractical medium–tone. And in this new region we gain dominion over our feelings, through the order which the form of the music imposes upon them, and also self-knowledge, because, in being externalized in the sounds, our feelings become an object for our reflection and understanding. In music the light of reflection is turned straight upon ourselves.

The poignancy of music depends upon just this fact that through it we get a revelation of ourselves to ourselves. In the other arts, this revelation is indirect, occurring through the representation of the lives of other, real or fictitious, personalities; but in music, it is direct; for there the object of expression is oneself. Even in the lyric poem, where the reader and the poet tend to become identical, the unity is less complete; for when embodied in words, feelings become more exterior than when put forth into tones; a tone is closer to the self, because like a cry or a laugh, it is less articulate. Moreover, words are means of communication as well as expression; they therefore embody of any experience only as much as can be passed from speaker to hearer; the unique is for the most part lost on the way; but in music the full personal resonance of experience is retained. In music we get so close to ourselves that at times it is almost frightening.

And this is the reason why, on all the high or serious occasions of human life, music is alone adequate to express its inner meaning. At a marriage or a funeral, in church or at a festival, the ceremonial is traditional and social; it expresses the historical and group significance of the situation, but not that which is unique and just one’s own; it always contains, moreover, much that is outgrown and unacceptable–a creed of life or love or death that belongs to the past, not to us. But the music embodies all that we really believe and feel about the fact, its intimate, emotional essence, clear of everything irrelevant and external.

But music does more than express the inexpressible in ourselves; it gives us entrance into a supernatural world of feeling. Except at the rare high moments of our lives, its joys and despairs are too exalted for us; they are not ours; they belong to gods and heroes. In music the superman is born into our feelings. Music does for the emotions what mythology and poetry do for the imagination and philosophy for the intellect–it brings us into touch with a more magnificent life, for which we have perhaps the potency, but not the opportunity here. And in doing this, music performs a great service; for, outside of love and war, life, which offers endless occasions for intense thought and action, provides few for passionate feeling.

Thus far our study of the art has been confined to so-called absolute music. We must now complete our survey by a rapid consideration of the union of music with the other arts. Because of its abstractness, music, of all the arts, lends itself most readily to combination with others; yet even in the case of music the possibility of union is limited by the existence of a clear identity between the arts combined. Thus, music goes well with the temporal arts, poetry, the dance, and the drama, and particularly well with the first two because they are rhythmical; it will also unite with architecture, because that is another abstract art; but with the static, concrete arts like painting and sculpture, it will not fuse. One might perhaps accompany a picture with a single chord whose emotional meaning was the same as that of the color scheme and the objects represented, but not with more; for the aesthetic experience of the picture is instantaneous and complete, while that of the music requires time for its development and fruition; hence the two would soon fall apart, and a person would either have to ignore the music or cease to look at the picture.

Originally, of course, music was always combined with some other art, and first of all, probably with the dance. In its earliest form, the dance was a communal religious expression, about which we shall have little to say, since it belongs to the past, not to living art. For to-day the dance is a free art like music. The beauty of the dance consists, first, in the free and rhythmical expression of impulses to movement. This expression, which is direct for the dancer who actually carries out her impulses in real motion, is for the spectator indirect and ideal, for he experiences only movement-images aroused by movements seen, and then, by feeling these into the limbs of the dancer, dances with her in the imagination. And to secure this free and large, even though vicarious, expression of pent-up impulses to movement is very grateful to us whose whole movement life is impoverished, because restricted by convention and occupation to a few narrow types. But the dance would have little interest for men were it not for another element in its beauty: the expression of the amorous feelings of the spectator. These, although really located in the breast of the spectator, are nevertheless embodied in the personality of the dancer, whose charm they constitute. Finally, the content of the dance may be further enriched through the use of symbolic costume and mimetic gestures, suggesting emotions like joy or love or grief, emotionally toned ideas like spring, or actions such as courtship. Now music, with its own rhythmical order and voluminous emotional content, has an obvious kinship with the rhythmic form and amorous substance of the dance, and so can well serve to accompany it.

The result of the union is to enforce the rhythmic experience through the medium of sound, the dance keeping time with the music, and, through the heightened emotional tone and increased suggestibility created by the music, to deepen the sympathetic rapport between dancer and spectator. Thus the music is given a concrete interpretation through the dance, and the dance gains in emotional power through the music. In the union, the gain to the dance is clear and absolute; but the music pays a price for the concreteness of content which it secures, by forfeiting its power to express chance inner moods–what it gains in definiteness it loses in scope and universality. And only music with a strong and evident rhythm is capable of union with the dance; the more complex and subtle music, aside from the impossibility of making its delicate rhythms fit into those of a dance, has a variety and sublimity of meaning so far transcending the personality of any human being, that to attempt to focus it in a dancer, no matter how charming, would be a travesty.

Of equal naturalness and almost equal antiquity with the union of music with the dance, is its union with poetry. In song this union is a real fusion; for the tones are the vocal word-sounds themselves, purified into music. Here, of course, unlike absolute music, the tones are expressive, not only as other tones are through their mere sound, but also through their meaning. And this can well be; for as Schopenhauer remarked, just as the universal may be illustrated by any object which embodies it, so the vague musical content of a tone may be fused with the concrete meaning of a word of like feeling. And for many hearers music doubtless gains by thus becoming articulate; for, being unable to supply out of their own imagination the concreteness which music lacks, they welcome having this done for them by the poet; yet the gain is not without a corresponding loss. For when the musical meaning is specialized through the emotions that are the burden of the song, it necessarily loses the power which it would otherwise have of expressing one’s own inner life–once more, what it gains in definiteness it loses in scope. It no longer possesses the unique function of the musical. Hence, if we love the music, we shall not care whether or not we understand the meaning of the words, and what we shall value in the song will be only the peculiar intimacy which it derives from its instrument, the voice. Only rarely is it otherwise, as in some of the songs of Schumann, when the poetic interpretation is so beautiful and so completely at one with the musical feeling, that we prefer to accept it rather than substitute our own interpretation for the poet’s. But even so, the music, if genuine, will have value without the words. At the opposite pole are those songs, often popular, where the music, having little worth in itself, is a mere accompaniment for the words. In all cases, however, the music can lend to the poetry some of the intimacy which is its own, so that its burden has a deeper echo in the soul.

Yet much of poetry is unfit for union with music. This is true, first, of all highly intellectual poetry, where the emotions are embodied in complex and abstract ideas. One could not, for example, readily set Browning to music. Music may be deep, mystic, even metaphysical in its meaning, but it cannot be dialectical. The emotions that accompany subtle thought, even when intense, are not of the voluminous, massive kind which music expresses; they lack the bodily resonance of the latter; they are, moreover, clean-cut and static, while in music everything flows in half-lights, like a river moving in moonlight. On the other hand, poems which express rapidly developing states of mind, which contain quick, subtle transitions, are equally unfit for union with music. For music, although always in motion, is always in slow motion; it needs time to get under way, and time for its development in embroidering, varying, and repeating its theme. And this difficulty applies in a general way to every union between poetry and music. For words are primarily practical and communicative, and therefore cut short the passion which they express; whereas tones, never having had any other purpose than expression, draw it out and let it have its way. Moreover, poetry, because of its definiteness, is compatible with only a limited range of variation, beyond which it becomes monotonous, while music, because of its abstractness, permits of variations almost endless, and is enriched by every new shape in which its meaning can appear. If, therefore, poetry is to keep time with the slow movement of the music and conform to its mode of development, the verses have to be repeated again and again; but this destroys the poetic form–as in the oratorio, with its senseless iterations.

Finally, the temporal and developmental character of the drama would seem to fit it for union with music. Yet the union of these two arts is confronted with the same difficulties that beset the connection between poetry and music. The movement of the acting drama is swift and straight, that of music is slow and circular; hence if the music is to have its way, the action of the drama must stand. In consequence of this, there is little real action in most operas, prolonged dialogues in song taking its place. Only rarely–as for example in Strauss’ “Salome,” perhaps–is the form of the drama preserved. As a rule the unity of the musical form is also destroyed, the thread of the story being substituted for it. Last, as in the song, the universality of the music is renounced in favor of the interpretation given to it by the program. In the leit-motif, indeed, as Wagner uses it, where a musical phrase is provided with a fixed connotation of ideas and acts which is understood by the hearer whenever it recurs, opera ceases to be music at all in the strict sense, and becomes a musical language. Yet in the opera, as in the song, the music, when genuine, possesses its own independent meaning, which can be appreciated without the mise en scene or the program. And then only rarely, as in the Toreador song in “Carmen,” is the action so close to the inner meaning of the music, that the latter seems to gain by the interpretation.

It follows that Wagner’s dream of making the opera a sum of all the values of poetry, drama, and music, and so an art more beautiful than any one of them, is fallacious. For, as we have repeatedly seen, in uniting the arts, there is gain as well as loss; something of the form or meaning of each has to be sacrificed. The work that results from the combination is really a new art-form, in which the elements are changed and their individuality partly destroyed; and its value is a new value, which may be equal to, but is certainly no greater than, that of any other art-form. To put the matter epigrammatically, when the arts are added together, one plus one does not equal two, but only one again.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

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The Principles Of Aesthetics
By Dewitt H. Parker
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