In approaching the study of any subject we may fairly expect that this the subject shall be defined, although someone has ironically remarked that every definition is a misfortune. Music-lovers, however, will rejoice that their favorite artist is spared such a misfortune, for it can not be defined. We know the factors of which music is constituted,
rhythm and sound; and we can trace the historic steps by which methods of presentation and of style have been so perfected that by means of this twofold material the emotions and aspirations of human beings may be expressed and permanently recorded. We realize, and with our inborn equipment can appreciate, the moving power of music; but to define, in the usual sense of the term definition, what music really is, will be forever impossible. The fact indeed that music–like love, electricity and other elemental forces–can not be defined is its special glory. It is a peculiar, mysterious power; quite in a class by itself,
although with certain aspects which it shares with the other arts. The writings of all the great poets, such as Milton, Shakespeare, Browning and Whitman, abound in eloquent tributes to the power and influence of music, but it is noticeable that no one attempts to define it. The mystery of music must be approached with reverence and music must be loved for itself with perfect sincerity.
Some insight, however, may be gained into the nature of music by a clear recognition of what it is not, and by comparison with the more definite and familiar arts. The music consists of the intangible and elusive factors of rhythm and sound; in this way differing fundamentally from the concrete static arts such as architecture,
sculpture and painting. Furthermore, instrumental music, i.e., music freed from a dependence on words, is not an exact language like prose and poetry. It speaks to our feelings and imaginations, as it were by suggestion; reaching for this very reason depths of our being quite beyond the power of mere words. No one can define rhythm except by saying that rhythm, in the sense of motion, is the fundamental fact in the universe and in all life, both physical and human. Everything in the heavens above and in the earth beneath is in ceaseless motion and change; nothing remains the same for two consecutive seconds. Even the component parts of material–such as stone and wood, which we ordinarily speak of as concrete and stationary–are whirling about with ceaseless energy, and often in perfect rhythm. Thus we see how natural and vital is the art of music, for it is inseparably connected with life itself.
As for the other factor, the sound is one of the most elemental and mysterious of all physical phenomena. When the air is set in motion by the vibration of certain bodies of wood, metal and other material,
we know that sound waves, striking upon the tympanum of the ear, penetrate to the brain and imagination. Sound is a reciprocal phenomenon; for, even if there were the systematic activity of vibrating bodies, there could be no sound without someone to hear it. Good musicians are known for their power of keen and discriminating hearing; and the ear, as Saint-Saëns says, is the sole avenue of approach to the musical sense. The first ambition for one who would
appreciate music should be to cultivate this power of hearing. It is quite possible to be stone-deaf outwardly and yet hear the most beautiful sounds within the brain. This was approximately the case with Beethoven after his thirtieth year. On the other hand, many people have a perfect outward apparatus for hearing but nothing is registered within.
Combarieu, the French aesthetician, defines music as “the art of thinking in tones.” There is food for thought in this statement, but it seems to leave out one very important factor–namely, the emotional. Every great musical composition reveals a carefully planned and perfect balance between the emotional and intellectual elements. And yet the basic impulse for the creation of music is an emotional one; and, of all the arts, music makes the most direct appeal to the emotions and to those shadowy, but real portions of our being called the imagination and the soul. Emotion is as indispensable to music as love to religion. Just as there can be no really great art without passion, so we can not imagine music without all the emotions of mankind: their loves, joys, sorrows, hatreds, ideals and subtle fancies. Music, in fact, is a presentation of emotional experience,
fashioned and controlled by an overruling intellectual power.
We can now foresee, though at first dimly, what is to be our line of approach to this mystery. One of the peculiar characteristics of music is that it is both the most natural and least artificial of the arts and as well the most complicated and subtle. On the one hand, it is the
most natural and direct, because the materials of which it is constituted–that is, sound and rhythm–make an instinctive appeal to every normally equipped human being. Everyone likes to listen to beautiful sounds merely for their sensuous effect, just as everyone likes to look at the blue sky, the green grass, and the changing hues of a sunset; so the rhythm of music, akin to the human heart-beat and to the ceaseless change and motion, which is the basic fact in all life, appeals at once to our own physical vitality. This fact may be observed at a symphony concert where so many people are wagging their heads, beating time with their hands or even tapping on the floor with their feet; a habit which shows a rudimentary love of music but which for obvious reasons is not to be commended. On the other hand, music is the most complicated of all the arts from the nature of its constituent parts–intangible, evanescent sounds and rhythms–and from the subtle grammar and structure by which these factors are used as means of personal communication. This grammar of music, i.e., its
methods of structure and of presentation has been worked out through centuries of free experimentation on the part of some of the best minds in the world, and thus any great musical composition is an intellectual achievement of high rank. Behind the sensuous factors, sound and rhythm lies always the personal message of the composer, and if we are to grasp this and to make it our own, we must go with him a hand in hand so that the music actually lives again in our minds and imaginations. The practical inference from this dual nature of the art we are considering is clear; everyone can derive a large amount of genuine pleasure and even spiritual exaltation, can feel himself under the influence of a strong tonic force, merely by putting himself in contact with music, by opening his ears and drinking in the sounds and rhythms in their marvelous variety. The all-sufficient reason for the lack of a complete appreciation of music is that so many people stop at this point, i.e. for them music is a sensuous art and nothing more. Wagner himself, in fact, is on record in a letter to Liszt as saying, in regard to the appreciation of his operas: “I require nothing from the public but healthy senses and a human heart.” Although this may be particularly true of opera, which is a composite form of art, making so varied an appeal to the participant that everyone can get something from its picture of life–historical, legendary, even fictitious–as well as from the actors, the costumes and the story, the statement is certainly not applicable to what is called absolute music, where music is disassociated from the guiding help of words, and expressed by the media of orchestra, string quartet, pianoforte, and various ensemble groups. In addition to its sensuous appeal, music is a language used as a means of personal expression; sometimes in the nature of an intimate soliloquy, but far more often as a direct means of communication between the mind and soul of the composer and of the listener. To say that we understand the message expressed in this language just because we happen to like beautiful sounds and stimulating rhythms is surely to be our own dupes. We might as well say that because we enjoy hearing Italians or Frenchmen speak their own beautiful languages we are understanding what they say. The question, therefore, faces us: how shall we learn this mysterious language so as readily to understand it? And the answer is equally inevitable: by learning something of the material of which it is composed, and above all, the fundamental principles of its structure.