If I ask you to thoroughly describe Shakespeare’s Hamlet – could you do it (assuming you have read/seen it)? Your could tell me it’s in English, that it’s believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601. You could count the words in the play, the nouns and verbs – or the sentences, or the number of acts. You would probably also tell me about the setting, characters, and the plot. You might describe the struggle from the famous soliloquy, Hamlet’s madness – feigned or real, or Ophelia’s death. You might describe the sense of betrayal Hamlet feels about his mother’s choices.
The task of trying to describe Hamlet shows us a number of things about creative genius. The bard is a great example of someone who applied tools (“Words, words, words”) specifically enough to transport us to another place and time. He creates in us reasons to care about the characters and the outcome of the story. From the beginning, he produces tension that continues to ebb and flow in a way that keeps us engaged in the outcome. The miracle before our eyes is that he does all of this with nothing but words – ink on a collection of pages that even after a few hundred years still has the power to move us.
As a musician, you are Shakespeare. You are the creator of the story (or in some cases, the channel through which the Creator tells The Story [passivity is a common characteristic of mystical experiences in music]). Instead of words, you use notes. Perhaps the content is not so easily described (words often fall short of describing responses to music), but the creation of a momentary window into another world is still what you are doing – with nothing but notes!
That’s not quite right though, is it? Are we really doing that with just notes? Without question, music can and does have the effect we are describing, but doesn’t it take something more than just notes to do it? Yes and no.
While it’s true that we are using notes, we can’t reduce meaning and experience in music to just notes – just as we can’t reduce the power of Bill’s stories to just words. The power of music comes in the interiority of notes, phrases, and structures.
First, a couple of brief definitions within the context of music:
Exterior: That which can be empirically measured, this includes pitch frequency, amplitude (pressure), tempo (measured in beats per minute – or any other way), notes, scale, chords, measures, beats, rests, the science of acoustics, overtone, etc…
Interior: what we experience when we listen to music (whether or not we are playing it) – this includes the sense of the meaning being communicated or the experience being transmitted, the sense of timelessness, joy, ecstasy, frustration, or peace, and the impetus to dance, laugh, or cry.
Clearly, music can be described in both of these domains and the reason that it’s important to acknowledge these facets is that we, as students of music, need to develop in both of them. Music is a language of the soul; it can communicate truth that is beyond the reach of symbols and words, but in order to speak this language, we must recognize that the sound (or more precisely the combination of sounds) has an effect on us individually and collectively.
I have known musicians who have great expertise and knowledge of the exterior – but seem to have virtually no awareness of the interior. I tend to think of these folks as professional musical technicians – capable of playing virtually anything, without having any sense of what it’s supposed to feel like. Consequently they are able to take the most beautiful music and express it with the precision and expressive capabilities of a computer. On the other side, I have encountered folk musicians who love the experience of music, and have an intuitive sense of how to create, but have not developed the vocabulary to effectively communicate with others about what they are doing or want to do. These people are immersed in the mystery of music but are often unable to go very far because they lack a map by which to navigate. All too often what results is a creative rut.
Great artists from any era or culture have aspired to bring both interior and exterior mastery together in their work. When they succeed, we hear technically brilliant and theoretically original execution of sound in the service of taking us into a new world of experience – levels of nuance in expression and composition that bring new revelations to the fore every time we listen to a piece. We hear music that has a certain kind of authenticity and clarity in what it tells us about ourselves and our world.
Granted, this level of mastery requires great talent combined with great discipline and no small amount of self-inquiry. As such, music that fully succeeds at this level is exceedingly rare. Even for those artists that aspire to it, success can be a moving target – the more we learn, the more we discover that we don’t know. But along the journey toward this goal, we as artists have the opportunity to live in constant wonder and inspiration (though despondency and frustration with our limitations can play a role, too).
Ultimately the study of music is a study of consciousness. It combines the interior and the exterior in both individual and collective domains. Revelation and wonder are constant companions. At each moment of discovery from the point of view of meaning, there is a need to develop new intentionality or openness – and at each discovery of a new technique, or refinement of theoretical understanding there is the process of learning how application and execution effects our experience.
When we are moved by great music, it is because the artist(s) have developed both the interior and exterior components of their knowledge. To become instruments of inspiration, we must continue to develop our capacities on both lines, greater sensitivity to how sound affects us, and greater knowledge of how to create that sound.