The Muse: What Music Actually Is

This article is about something I call the Muse. The Muse is not mythological superstition, rather it is the idea of music itself. Plainly, the Muse is music. Externally, the Muse is music in its most concrete and literal form: rhythm, melody, harmony, etc. Internally, the Muse manifests as a state of mind where the movement is felt, stimulating the mind and body. The musician is a conduit through which the Muse may pass into an audible form and enter the listener. The Muse is alive both externally as sound and internally as thought and feeling. What may be unintelligible to the more literal-minded of us, is that in both modes, internal and external, music remains the same thing. Understanding how this is requires that you step outside the static thinking you’ve been conditioned into by ordinary attitudes toward music.

Identifying Static Thought

Static thought is the bane of Zeno, the ancient Greek philosopher who believed motion was a paradox. In one of his thought experiments, he imagines an arrow flying through the air. In a durationless instant, the arrow is motionless and occupies a certain space. Then, in a future instant, the arrow occupies a different space. The arrow is motionless in both instants, and all instants between, yet somehow it still moves. Zeno asks this: if time is a continuum of these durationless instants, and motion is impossible in each and every one, how is it that motion can be possible at all?

The misapprehension of motion, and dynamic changing in general, is a hallmark of static thought. This is because formal contradiction is anathema to static thought, and change can only occur in something that is at odds with itself. If a thing were in simple accord with itself, then it could not move or alter. If something is to move or alter, it must have some discord within it that compels it to do so. This true for motion, and it is also true for music. Music is a fluid movement, and to channel it your mind needs to be fluid. For your mind to be fluid, you need to embrace contradiction. Static thinking is the inability to let something be in contradiction with itself.

If that sounds like gibberish, it might help to consider humour as an example of something that is at odds with itself. Humour generally needs to be serious and unserious at the same time to be funny. The funniest jokes are the ones in which you are lead to believe, even if just for a moment, that the person is being serious. Your sense of humour is a faculty that allows you to embrace contradiction, because contradiction is at the root of what makes something funny. Even people who think statically in all other areas of life can intuit humour, and the people who struggle with humour tend to be the most static and literal minded people of all. This is because no good joke can be literally apprehended, and no explanation of a joke can ever account for what it is that actually makes the joke funny. When one explains a joke, they are trying to help a person realize what is funny about it, because it can’t be explained directly and simply. The nature of static thought is that it analyzes the world by dividing it into distinct unchanging concepts that do not conflict or overlap with each other. It is preoccupied with ensuring that everything is formally logical, and so it cannot accept an explanation that is not direct and simple and literally apprehensible. A completely static thinker would not be able to grasp humour, because humour doesn’t abide formal logic. Nor would anyone would be able to explain it to them, because no one would be able to give an explanation that satisfies their need for it to be literally apprehensible.

Ideally you’re getting at least a vague notion of what “static thought” looks like, and hopefully you’ll have a clearer picture by the end of this essay. Going beyond static thought is a necessary step in channeling the Muse, and the level above static thinking is dynamic thinking. Dynamic thinking is what a musician calls “the groove”, and it is also what an athlete means to say when they refer to being “in the zone”. In this state, motion isn’t an ordered set of distinct moments, but instead everything seems to be a single flowing unity. The thinking of the Muse brings the mind into this flow. Certain drugs, especially psychedelics, can induce dynamic thinking, which is why they often have such a powerful impact on musicians. If what is meant by all of this is still utter nonsense to you, it’s likely that you want a direct and simple explanation that you can apprehend literally. Even if this kind of explanation was given to you, you probably wouldn’t recognize it. Don’t worry too much about it, you can revisit it later, just keep reading for now.

Recall how Zeno realized that dynamism couldn’t be captured in an ordered set of instants. In music, the equivalent belief is that music may be captured on a piece of paper as a series of notes and intervals. This is a mistaken belief; sheet music on its own is not actually music, because it doesn’t have the Muse. This isn’t to say that a piece of music can’t have been inspired by the Muse, but it’s the same truth as the fact that a photo of a person is not the person, and merely a static representation of a person’s likeness. Sheet music is devoid of vitality, and music is not music if it doesn’t have life in it. Of course, a musician may breath life into a piece of sheet music by performing it, but it’s important to understand that even in this case the music doesn’t exist on the paper. To static thought this distinction is trivial, unimportant, or even stupid. To dynamic thought, this distinction cuts to the heart of all musical misunderstanding.

If you are a victim of formal music education, this might be difficult to accept. You were taught to read, write, analyze, and play written music. When you learn this way, and only this way, you are subtly conditioned into seeing music as being entirely composed of forms and structures. Music looks to you like an ordered set of notes, or phrases, or interconnecting structures. You are taught rigid technique, definite theory, and hard rules that may only be broken if more fundamental rules are observed. Formal education teaches you to believe that a musician is free to express themselves within this structure of rules, but it also teaches you that the method with which you express yourself can also be scrutinized and evaluated by even more rules. This is the analytical approach to music, it’s the favored method of static thinkers and when taken to its natural end it will always kill the Muse. Analysis is the practice of forcing a dynamic concept into something static and directly apprehensible, but it is always an incomplete transformation. If one chooses to do this, they should understand that no matter how elaborate their set of rules, it will always suffer from an inscrutable gap between the dynamic and the static, or rather the living and the dead. The Muse undeniably has form, but it is a melting, flowing, and breathing form. It dies when you force it to stay still.

The humour analogy remains true here. It’s commonly said that analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog: you may see what’s inside, but it kills the frog. The exact same holds true for music, but it is a little bit harder to see because the entire enterprise of music study is based on finding the most elaborate way to kill the Muse. Take a second to recognize how utterly ridiculous it would be if the analytic approach taken by formal music education was widely applied to comedy. Imagine devoting yourself to countless hours of dissecting jokes and comparing them to other jokes and trying to formulate rules for them, all with the hope of one day being truly funny; most people would recognize that you’re doing it all wrong and entirely missing the point of comedy, and yet no one recognizes that that is exactly as absurd as the standard pedagogical approach to music theory. Any musical soul who studies music theory sees this eventually. You find rules that can be broken if more fundamental rules are observed. Then you find that those more fundamental rules can also be broken in certain circumstances, which leads you to discovering the subtler rules behind those rules. Then later you find that those rules have exceptions too, which implies even subtler rules, which may also be broken, and so on. Once you sink enough time into it, you realize that there were never any rules at all, because if all rules can be broken, then none of them were truly rules to begin with.

The Motion of the Muse

If you’ve understood to this point or have independently drawn these conclusions on your own, then congratulations! You’ve started to free yourself from static thought. The analytic approach to music theory is as far as static thinking can take anybody, and if you push it to its natural end you’ll inevitably break it. It’s at this point in the process that the musician is confronted by a puzzling question: If there are no rules, then why does it seem like there are? Music isn’t mere chaos, after all, it definitely has some kind of structure that can at least be approximated by rules if nothing else. If it can be approximated by rules, doesn’t that suggest that there really are true rules that we have merely yet to discover? And if there really are no definite rules, doesn’t it still mean something that there strongly seems to be?

The answer is yes, it does mean something. The truth is that rigid structure is on one side of the Muse, but the other side is chaos and lawlessness. This wild side is like the serious note that gives a joke its punch. Just as humour is both serious and unserious, musical progression is both stable and unstable, and musical harmony is both consonant and dissonant. The key is that the Muse is always both sides simultaneously. This is what gives music its structure, chaos, and fluidity. Moreover, this is the very beauty of music in essence; the harmony of the Muse is the harmony of the world itself, the same harmony that exists in a joke, the harmony of life and death. When you are truly enraptured by a song, you can literally feel the non-duality within you as a simultaneous feeling of expectation and uncertainty. This is anticipation, and it draws you completely into the present moment.

To embrace anticipation, the unity of expectation and uncertainty, requires an improviser to abandon the fear of making mistakes. The fear of mistakes is foreign to the Muse, and prohibits you from channeling it. It is not enough to merely let go of the fear, you have to go as far as embracing the possibility of mistakes with excited anticipation, because that is what the Muse does. The Muse never worries, it welcomes unintended dissonance into the fold of harmony and makes it intelligible. Maintaining this kind of anticipation when you perform, the full embrace of expectation and uncertainty, makes you liquid and adaptable. To channel the Muse is to be as fluid as music itself.

In music, movement is sometimes understood as conflict then resolution, then conflict again and resolution, and so on. That’s not quite right. A truly powerful movement is an answer that, as soon as it satisfies the last question, instantly begs a new one. Every motion of the Muse is both conflict and resolution simultaneously. Each conflict is as much a resolution, each resolution is as much a conflict. This gives music its liquid, flowing character. Static thought can never grasp this, because it is stuck picturing music as a sequence of moments. It can’t grasp the motion of the Muse as one flowing moment, because it cannot understand how something can be at peace and in conflict at the same time.

Simple consonance is boring, and so is simple dissonance. Being able to expect everything is boring, and so is being unable to expect anything. The Muse is always both at once. The Muse is the feeling of approaching a symmetry or a resolution or an intelligibility that remains just out of reach. The Muse is the feeling of gazing deep into a fractal whose pattern you see but can’t discern. The Muse is always implying clear ideas but never quite giving them to you. The listener hears the impression of a shape and draws themself in to make sense of it, forever feeling that it’s all just about to make perfect sense, only to find that they have melted into a pun where the infinite set-up is the eternal punchline. The Muse is an action that is one with its reaction, opposites that dance instead of fight, the order of madness and the madness of order; within its fathomless depths you can find all of life and everything that humans love. The Muse is music itself.

How To Do Music

If you’re going to learn a theory of music, make sure you are learning the right one. Music is intuitive and expressive, so a theory of music should always be consistent with what it feels like to experience music. Chords, progressions, and scales are tools that are worthwhile to know, but they are not what music truly is. They will enrich and add to the sophistication of your musical ideas, but if you know what you are doing you can always channel the Muse, no matter what level you are playing at. The Muse doesn’t care what instrument you are playing, or how well you know it, or what key you’re in, because the Muse is the free human spirit innate to us all. So learn the rules and the structure, but learn to embrace chaos equally as well. Above all learn to recognize the feeling of the Muse, the anticipation, the expanding moment, the clarity, the mania, and then figure out how to channel it with intention.

At some point in the future I hope to work out a concept of music that starts from bare abstract dualities like accord/discord and develops them into the more concrete dualities that exist in concepts like rhythm, harmony, and melody. The idea is that if your entire understanding of every musical concept is organically clarified in light of how it embodies the non-duality of accord and discord, then the Muse will become intelligible as a supercoherent musical concept. Today is not the day to do that, but for now this article should hopefully give a little bit of insight as to what such a concept would look like.

 Date: February 22, 2024
 Tags:  philosophy music

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