On the Essence of Music

In the back room around the snooker table, [1] The Areopagus recently tossed a merry gauntlet in Scienda’s direction. A very silly gauntlet, with a smattering of rhinestones and a haunting but distinct waft of fish. Another time, we may investigate the question of whether said gauntlet has ever been used in a certain traditional dance style known as Au Cleese.

Elvi—that is, Quixote has determined to demonstrate that mathematics functions only as a partial descriptor of music, in that music consists of properties which cannot be reduced to mathematics. Such as rockin’ awesome coolness.

C = ø

Let’s dispense with coolness (property C) as an inherent property by simply arguing—er, discussing in genteel and dignified fashion: I think classical music is cool, and the blues clips offered by The Areopagus are not. I do not like fiddling or Elvis. I like tribal music, Bach, 20th century composers, and digital ambiance.

Coolness is a perceived property with a subjective nature, not an inherent one. I also happen to think mathematicians, by and large, are very cool.

Music is a sound. It’s the vibration of air particles at various frequencies and wavelengths. However, it’s not unordered, random sound, nor is it strictly repetitive sound, so its physics fail to sum it. It is a sound with intelligent design behind it. At the same time, it’s not a transmitter of specific information, such as the phrase, “this is cool.”

M ∩ S

While agreeing (very genteel of me, you’ll note) to some degree with Quixote’s proposition that music (set of sounds S) is not founded on math (set of expressions M), the question we’re addressing is whether math provides the most accurate way of looking at music. We can’t say music literally is math, any more than we can say words on a page are talk. But does math sum up the essence of music? What are the properties of music?

I can see that we’re going to have to be very careful here, or we shall never get a proper argu–I mean, genteel discussion out of it at all, since Quixote and I share many commonalities in our perspective on naturalism.

It must be questioned whether subjective elements such as “coolness” are properties of music; and whether of music exclusively, or properties shared with other things – in which case, in what ways can they be considered to define music or to constitute it?

B ≠ {M ∩ S}

My mother, a career musician who entered the profession for mathematical reasons, related a conversation she had with a math professor as an undergrad. She was not enjoying the content of a particular course. The professor asked her why she was going into music, and she replied, “Because it’s beautiful, it gives me emotions…”

To which he answered, “Math is beautiful, and it gives me emotions.”

There is a place where math and music diverge. Math describes other things than music. Is music constituted of other things than math describes? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s said. To what extent does that offer a definitive separation between object and observer?

The ultimate question is one of that ineffable entity, beauty, and its presence in a world which, in its naturalistic quantifications, does not account for any such thing. However, I intend to demonstrate that to claim certain qualitative properties as essential to music is in fact a naturalistic expression, one that runs many Christian discussions up on the rocks in seeking God-honouring definitions of music. (Read: the hymns-versus-choruses/music-style-church-splitting wars.)

In the meantime, let me attempt to help out a hapless engineer who once tripped over the perhaps unexpected presence of a philosopher-logician.

“I once had an engineer tell me that everything could be explained by mathematics. I promptly asked him to rephrase his assertion in a mathematical formula. I’m still waiting…” ~Quixote

The assertion rephrased: everything, explained in mathematical terms.

And now, being of British extraction, and having an uppercrust classical persuasion, let me close with some finely crafted and widely-renowned European music. Now this…is cool.

Scita > Scienda | a blog of thinky things and derring-do

[1] To which we repair in order to attempt to snooker one another with half-baked premises.

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4 comments

  1. “The Areopagus recently tossed a merry gauntlet in Scienda’s direction.”

    Hmmm…perhaps, but I seem to remember the gauntlet being flung by S>S after TA said music is not best explained by mathematics, but rather energy, passion, and soul.

    “However, I intend to demonstrate that to claim certain qualitative properties as essential to music is in fact a naturalistic expression,”

    It’s a very elegant thought, CD, and not at all the direction I would have predicted. It’ll be interesting to see its reach…

    1. Excuse me? All Sc>Sc said, very thoughtfully and genteelly, was that “music is essentially math,” to which TA retorted, “No it isn’t!!” After a brief flurry of which, TA finally regained intellectual coherence and proposed a definition of energy, passion and soul.

      (To which Sc>Sc may possibly have replied, “No it isn’t!!”…)

      Its reach is something I’ve heard debated around the dinner table by people passionate about physics, math AND music since I was in utero. As such, I’m going to enjoy developing a definitive proposition, between our two perspectives.

      “not at all the direction I would have predicted.”

      My week is complete. I shall now repair to my weekend basking location to contemplate the satisfactions of success.

  2. “My week is complete. I shall now repair to my weekend basking location to contemplate the satisfactions of success.”

    Ha! OK, I promise not to post a reply til after the weekend’s over :)

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