Is there any culture that lacks the divine touch of making music? Making music is seen as an evolutionary process which is also fundamental as the characteristically human activities as drawing and painting. The concept of universal grammar has been traced to the observation of Roger Bacon, a 13th-century Franciscan friar and philosopher that all languages are built upon a common grammar. The expression was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Noam Chomsky and other linguists. Many scholars believe that only music has the honor of being called as the only “universal language”.Sussane Langer explains that music, like language, is an articulate form. “Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new colour made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e., its internal structure is given to our perception. Only as an articulate form is it found to fit anything; and since it lacks one of the basic characteristics of language-fixed association, and there with a single, unequivocal reference.”
Aristotle explained 2500 years ago that music is mimetic or imitative. But what does it imitate, the harmony of spheres, or the sounds in the world around us, or Human emotion .To a certain extent all of these are right. What remains the same, however, is the role that emotion plays in the significance of our responses to music. Music does not communicate directly to us however the emotions that reside in a single stroke of a guitar chord or a piano note delivers a certain sense of emotions which can be traced back to culture which assists to educate us.
The meaning and value communicated by music are infinite. They vary from the military march national anthems by the Nazi Horst Wessel to the soft calling of one’s lover in ‘Dasht e Tanhai’ by Iqbal Bano. John Lennon’s quest for an idealistic society in ”Imagine” to the materialistic show off of 50 cents BMW’s and large villas in ‘window shopper’. Edit Piaf’s definition of love in ‘la vie en rose’ to the pessimism of the world in ‘Reign of blood’ by Slayer. The historical symphony of Mozart ‘Fur Elise’ (1867) to the new age sounds of Tiesto. In this essay I have chosen to explore Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elize’, Edith Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’ (1947) and its renditions by Dean Martin and Celine Dion as well as the fusion piece by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1995) and Eddie Vidder to demonstrate how value and meaning become a part of music during different phases of its construction.
In order to understand where possibly music can become meaningful and valuable we need to understand the different phases of its construction and the different factors that are involved in the construction of music. In order to break it down in the archaeological way – Michel Foucault’s signature style-, we can understand that music comprises of different element. An arrangement comprises of beats and cells, possibly resulting in a harmonized ‘fugue’ like that of Bach’s C minor. Or music can be organized by measure, repetition and variation. There can be passages and pieces and cycles. So construction of music can be broken down piece by piece or arranged into a large scale composition e.g. into a symphony, concerto or sonata. The decision to design a piece of music in a certain format also entails meaning and value. Complexity probably signals quality for a piece of music. The meaning involved can be the musician’s ambition to create a masterpiece or simply an expression of feeling. The rhymes of AABB or ABA or AABA can create a certain feeling in the listener but is mainly an expression by the composer. This theme is well reflected in Wordsworth’s poetry too. Any object he explains is part perception and part absolute reality. Music too derives value and meaning partly from perception and partly from it s absolute quality.
Beethoven’s status as a maestro is undisputed and in my opinion the key feature in all his compositions is the element of arousal. His work makes everyone feel a different way but also contains a unified structure that provides some standardization to the impact it can have on people’s mood and emotions. I take his ‘Fur Elize’ which is said to be dedicated to Therese, a woman whom he proposed but was refused by. One cannot fail to note that the music piece is a representation of some emotions on Beethoven’s part and therefore hold a very specific purpose for him and a unique meaning. However, the value of the piece lies in its universality. Instrumental music is absolute and pure music. Maybe the universality of Beethoven’s work lies in its lack of language and lyric.
In my opinion language can create a certain value and meaning for the person who understands but can also creates value for someone who does not understand the language. However, there cannot be uniformity in the experience and therefore none in meaning and value ascribed. Culture also cannot be ignored when it comes to understanding the value of lyrics and tunes.
I use the ‘Sea Dreamer’ as an example to illustrate how instruments can invoke a sense of cultural specificity and though it can serve to show fusion among different genres; it retains its unique cultural identity. I choose ‘Sea Dreamer’ because it combines the contemporary classical instruments and artists under the umbrella of fusion music. Anoushka Shankar accompanies Sting’s vocals with her accomplishments in sitar. Shankar plays the sitar in a way that it retains it cultural origins while also blending in with western lyrics and instruments. This example serves its purpose of illustrating that the origin of a musical instrument also plays a part in ascribing value to the piece of music. The lyrics and language can also create meaning and display many more nuanced aspects of the chemistry between musicians and musical instruments. Gender and sexuality also play a part in the renditions of the same musical piece. For me each person has their own interpretation of a musical piece and the meaning has much to do with personality, life situations, the history and social circumstances. Musicians are a product of their time and their work is a reflection of their perception of their times.
I illustrate this point further with an example from Edith Piaf’s ‘La vie en rose’ which means ‘ life through rose coloured glasses’ or literally ‘life in pink’ and reflects the pain the vocalist experienced in her troubled past. Growing up in the brothels of Paris, Edith had nothing to take her out of her conditions except her talent with singing. Her version of the song reflects that passion and energy to embrace life as the only precious thing she had. It is a reflection of her own persona too, which includes her gender, her experience of her sexuality and her passion for life. Dean Martin’s rendition in his voice changes the meaning to a different level of passion and a different kind of energy, which makes the point of some standardization of experience (e.g. passion) but also allows the flexibility to the artist and listener in ascribing own value and meaning.
So meaning and value of a musical piece does not lie only in its constructive phases but there is meaning and value creation at every stage of consumption and construction. I stick to Wordsworth philosophy of perception and reality and meaning and value as a subjective process which is part the beholder and part the object.
Such a project was conducted in 1995 when Eddie Vidder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan joined hands to project the universality of meaning and value creation in music. However, they manage to transcend the barriers if language and cultural specificity of instruments. The blend is a delicious mixture not just eastern and western music and instruments but also sentimentality, passion, vigour and transcendentalism.
Vikram Seth’s inspirational novel ‘An Equal Music’ serves as an example of how the process of meaning and value creation is synonymous with life in all its ups and downs, of how it is life long process that does not end with the originator’s life but continues long after.
There are those who say absolute music cannot be defined and quotes Walter Benjamin to support the claim that the process of defining music is useless because the concept cannot live up to the thing it names; but it limits the meaning by making it identical to the concept. So the meaning is situated in an ever changing constellation of elements. Chua describes his method of understanding music as a combination of Water’s constellation, Michel Foucault’s archaeology and Theodor W. Adorno’s dialectic. He attempts to therefore use scientific, unattached method dissecting epistemology for music but offers no synthesis in his dialectic like Adorno. For Chua only instrumental music is pure music, it is the absolute form of music. The meaning for him resides in the fact that it has no meaning. And for him it sediments the pristine features of music if it is associated with theology, cosmology, cartography, philosophy, zoology, anthropology, politics, aesthetics, sex etc.
Meyer adopts a more daring approach and one that is more prescriptive in its analysis of meaning and value in the construction of music. He begins with asking the fundamental question about what actually makes music great. How can we value a piece of music? Shall we only look at the neat and clean explanation of aesthetics? Or other factors like politics, marketing and metaphysics also involved. Meyer disagrees with the approach social scientists take to understand the value because they dump everything into cultural nuances and serves no purpose. So he questions whether music derives meaning from the referential and associative states that it can arouse? But concludes with a didactic statement on how a good valuable piece of music must have consistency, a unified system of expectation and probabilities and clarity in the basics. He also reckons that complexity has something to do with excellence. However, he warns that a good theme does not necessarily give rise to good works in his comparison of fugues by Bach and Geminiani.
Others have a more all embracing approach to understanding the process of value and meaning creation in construction, that participation invents, validates, circulates and accumulates musical meanings and music maybe a a symbolic entity that is consumed practically, intellectually, individually and communally. This perspective suggests that music acquires its value and meaning through a social process and may not depend entirely on its absoluteness but more on the social value ascribed to it. How can we distinguish between speech and music as the ‘worldview as intellection of reality’ versus ‘a worldview as the feeling of reality’. The process of meaningful interpretation explicitly conceived as social activity is then a logical explanation of how and why music may acquire a certain value and meaning.
The ‘intransitive understanding’ to expose the relationship between music and context. Music can be a therapy according to the psychoanalytical theories. And it can be used as language to voice the feelings related to psychosexual development that are too nuanced to be put into words or formal language.
There is no consensus on the actual process of meaning and value creation during the creation process of music. It is a natural subjective process that holds a different meaning for different people and contexts. The beauty of nature is purely based on that it has no set rules and likewise art, culture; language is truly a evolutionary process which has no guidelines. The process of the construction of music has absolutely no set of rules. No instructions are valid when developing any form of art. The structuring of art and specifically music is subjective to the writer of it. Putting guidelines to a divine process of melodies would only linger or limit the ability of creativity which one can pour into it. This can be best explained by the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven. Surprisingly enough he was deaf. How could a person create music with a symphony of 200 plus musicians without hearing a single note to what he has just played? Music does not only remain in the parameters of sounds and beats; it at times goes beyond imagination as a communicator. The process of meaning and value has no beginning and end. For a musician it is always present in his/her imagination throughout the process. What a music writer does require as a pre requisite for creating a melody is a rush of emotions. And emotions are probably the most subjective element in a human being. The real question for the value of a true musician is to quantify emotions into music. The process of finding the emotional rush can vary from the dejection by one’s lover to the beautiful skies of a far off valley. To find inspiration there are no manuals. Yet it might be the easiest thing to do for someone else.