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Department: Parting Shot

Music & Truth

Art Cannot Be Reduced to Parts; Neither Can You

by Paul M. Jannakos

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 17

On the level of simple physics, music is the reverberation of pitches or tones that pulsate at so many wavelengths per second. The standard "A 440 hertz," which in Western musical practice has become the default pitch by which all orchestras "tune," is a pitch that reverberates a musical tone at 440 wavelengths per second. Every other pitch, or note, thereby has its own standard wavelength, all in relation to A 440.

Yet if one were to limit music simply to the level of tonal wavelengths, music itself would make no sense, and would be literally incomprehensible. To illustrate, imagine translating the whole of Beethoven's 9th Symphony into the digital codes used by a synthesizer—as has been done many times, much to the chagrin of musical purists like myself. Within this physical medium, music is nothing more than a collection of tens of thousands of zeros and ones, as related strictly to binary mathematics. On a basic level, some would say that this is what music "is": tonal wavelengths that correspond to predetermined pitches, or in this case, binary numbers that correspond to predetermined pitches.

In order to be understood for what it truly is, music must be listened to not simply as an arbitrary collection of sounds, each being emitted by a different instrument at a different pitch, but as a meaningful creation of melodies and harmonies that, when experienced as an integral whole, that is, as art in its own right, conveys the experience (and in many cases the ecstasy) of genuine beauty. And this is what we mean by the "aesthetics" of music: the movement, resonance, and texture of sound that makes music a harmonious, lyrical, and idyllic reality.

It should be obvious why science cannot explain what makes music, music. This is where the higher level of aesthetics comes into play, that is to say, when pitches and rhythms and contours of sound all add up to something that is "more than the sum of its individual parts." Thus, if one were to ask a science professor what makes Beethoven's 9th so powerfully graceful, he would say, "You're asking the wrong professor—go to the department of music instead."

The same analogy might be used in the visual arts or poetry, where no one in his right mind would venture to use the laws of science to explain the unique hues and textures of Van Gogh's thick painting style, or the curt, vocal rhythms employed by Emily Dickinson in her poems. These artful things belong, not to the world of the laboratory, but to the universe of aesthetics, as things that can only be known and valued by the power of beauty.

That science is the only sure way to genuine knowledge is a dogma that today's new atheists rigorously espouse, but it is a dogma that leads to the negation of the human soul. Yet if this is the case, then the atheist must logically negate poetry and literature and painting and music as well. For each of these art forms uses a language that transcends the language of simple science. Here in the West it is the function of the arts to belie the claim that science is the ascendant path to knowledge—to show how absurd such a claim really is.

In turn, this allows us to ask: What is it that makes a George Winston piano piece so profoundly enthralling? Or a Shakespeare play so poignantly heart-rending? Or a Renoir painting so wonderfully luminous? Are these artistic truths any less real than Euclidian geometry and Newtonian physics? Of course not. They are just different realities. They are truths that point to the higher sphere of beauty and grace and splendour that are recognized by the soul.

The claim of believers is that the epic biblical narrative employed by God to fully manifest himself on earth is much more akin to Beethoven and Renoir and Shakespeare than most realize, and is something about which science has very little to say.

And this is why heaven itself, like beauty, will ever remain a mystery to which the mind will always be a servant, a mystery that can be understood only within the deepest recesses of the human heart and soul. 

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