Music: Art or Science?

(1) The question “Is music an art or a science” is, on one level, a silly one, since it is obvious that music contains both elements.  Pitches that sound good together are good combinations because whole-number ratios can describe their relationship. Strings, when sounding a octave, will have a length ratio of 1:2; when a fifth, 2:3, and so on. Thus far music seems vaguely science-y. It’s also clearly an art in that the goal of music is the expression of an individual or a community and their feelings. So far, so good.

But there is a more important sense in which music is neither of these things—art or science. The fact that we even feel the need to pit against one another “art” and “science” shows that we are following a paradigm, and that paradigm is one of decidedly modern origins. So the question holds little or no relevance to people living before 1600 because they would not have cared and it did not influence how they thought about music, how they composed it, or how they heard it.

Think about it for a moment: when we say “science” in English, most of the time we’re talking about an academic discipline that uses methods of inductive certainty to arrive at conclusions about nature. Music is not that, but do we believe there is a subtle similarity? Most of us assume that music is something that develops more like science than like literature. We assume that is gets genuinely better over time, more advanced, more complex and effective. That belief doesn’t mean we don’t see, say, 150 years ago as a golden era of music, but even if we did believe that was a golden era, we then must believe today is a dark age and 1000 years ago was too. So when we say music is a science, perhaps what we’re really doing is drudging up a positivist approach to music history. After all, isn’t there some sense in which the music of Beethoven or Brahms or Mozart or Rachmaninoff is just more advanced than Medieval music?

Similarly, when we say “art” in English, what do we mean? Art is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion”; art is for its own sake; art primarily is about satisfying the inner needs of the artist and secondarily about the art’s audience and receivers. The reason we have art around is not functional, it is purely that it deserves to be there. Now, this vision of art may be how we see Classical music, including Bach and composers before his time, but it is not how all of them viewed themselves. Beethoven definitely did buy into this vision of his own art, but Dufay from the 1440s definitely did not. Is it any wonder, then, that we see Beethoven as more advanced? Speaking of buying in or selling out, the very fact that we use the words “sell out” in modern popular music is shows that we think that commercial concerns, people-pleasing concerns, functional concerns pollute musical and artistic ones. But the origins of these ideas go back not to ancient Greece or to human nature but to German and English Romanticism, whose ideas still control our thinking.

(2) So is there a sense in which we can say music is inherently either a science or an art? Perhaps yes, if we return to an older understanding of these two words. Scientia is “knowledge” in Latin; ars is “skill”. Surely music requires both. This, interestingly, puts the emphasis on the act of composing music more than anything: you need knowledge to compose music (knowledge of the rules and the literature) and you need the craft and skill (extensive practice and experience at writing music). These two things bookend, for instance, Tinctoris’ De arte contrapuncti, where he begins by quoting Horace “scribendi recte sapere [i.e. scientia] est principium et fons” (knowledge is the first principle and the fountain of writing well), emphasizing the knowledge; at the end, he gives the opposite side of the coin, “Nam, ut Cicero ad Herenium ait, in omni disciplina infirma est artis praeceptio sine summa assiduitate exercitationis, (after all, as Cicero said in Ad Herenium, in every discipline the art’s instruction is weak without the most possible constancy of practice), emphasizing the ars end of things. Music, then, needs both art and science to survive, but only when “art” and “science” are conceived differently from our modern expectations.

But it’s not at all clear that the Medievals actually used these terms to think about music or, if they did, that they agreed upon it. Boethius and Cassiodorus, who both originally categorized music with the three other liberal arts in the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) did so because their conception of music was an overtly Pythagorean and Platonic one. Music was dangerous if sensually enjoyed and the sort of music that intellectuals liked was essentially mind-game stuff: arguing about tuning systems or the best way of mathematically describing a minor 2nd. But this conception of music hardly held sway among actual composers of the Medieval period, who mostly considered Boethius’ treatise on music to be stuffy and irrelevant, if they knew of it at all. It behooved Pythagoras, Plato, and Boethius to think of music and astronomy as part of the same game, since they wanted to view them as the same phenomenon of world harmony or musica mundana (Boethius attacks those who think this music of the spheres is actually sensual or hearable music); but fundamentally, these men thought that music of that sort could only be theorized about and that was the highest task music could have as a science. Obviously the western tradition didn’t go the way they thought, since soon the task of Medieval and Renaissance music became coming as close in human terms to that heavenly ideal as possible, which undoubtedly Plato and Pythagoras would have thought blasphemous.

So if we have anyone to blame for either thinking of music as a liberal art or as one of the sciences, it would probably be Boethius and his school of thought, but it was a school of thought that has held little or no influence on the actual composition of music almost from the very beginning.

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Ambrose Singing Some World Harmony

Leo Spitzer, in his “historical semantics” on Classical and Christian Conceptions of World Harmony, explains that Ambrose’s composition of the first hymn focused on world harmony was something that only a Christian theology could have produced. While Hebraic music seemed uninterested in the concept of world harmony, Greek music seemed to believe world harmony couldn’t be imitated in human music at all.

World harmony, the ability to at once “express best the inner depths of human and cosmic nature”, was for the Greeks not only “inaccessible to human ears” but also purely metaphorical. Or, rather, human music was a metaphor for the universal music, but its purpose was purely a spiritual one, to understand the creator (poietes, a poet/musician) and to put one’s soul in healthy order (an idea Spitzer says later attracted Augustine). Thus music is central to Plato in the Republic because of the close relationship of harmony to the soul and the soul to the polis. “Plato establishes the parallel: individual body—individual soul—polis, all three being predicated on order and temperance. There is in man himself a politeia, which bids him attune his body to the harmony of his soul, ‘if he has true music in him’….”

The idea of world harmony, Spitzer points out, is attractive to early Christian thinkers because there is some resonance with passages of Scripture (Job 38:7, Liber Sapientiae 19:17, both of which are connected by later thinkers to concentum caeli and in organo qualitatis sonus). He doesn’t find it surprising, then, that Ambrose would make the connection fully clear in his Hexaemeron, a vision of Christian world harmony syncretized with Pythagoras. But Ambrose’s conception is nuanced or fulfilled. Although it’s quite true that “a human simile can give but a slight reflection of the consonance of the concentus undarum with the concentus plebis,” it’s also true that Christian singing can really be a worthy reflection of world harmony—in fact, even a better one that Greek speculation on it. “The Greeks, on the other hand, ascribed to music the highest place in the universe; and yet, though we are indebted to them for much philosophical speculation about music, it could be said that they have left us comparatively little of the music which should illustrate their philosophy. But in the hymns of Ambrose, we have a ‘performance,’ an ‘incarnation’ of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated; and the Church, which was represented in his hymns as echoing the music of the universe, served, actually, as the theater for the performance of these hymns (as it was to serve later as the original state of medieval drama).”

Ambrose, according to Spitzer, gets the “immortal merit…to have assigned to Christian music the task of embodying the Greek world harmony,” and not the ancient Israelites in their Psalms. “The Psalms were full of musical elation in praise of God, but the idea of world harmony was only potentially present; their radiant and resounding similes were symbolic only of the inner wealth of a religious feeling: pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable.” Certainly it seems like Spitzer’s assessment here is unfair and sloppy. Pictures conjured up to figure the unspeakable sounds like an excellent description of another religion’s music and poetry. And it seems that plenty of Psalms and Hebraic music (19 and 87, the Song of Moses, off the top of my head) would admit a world harmony idea pretty clearly.

But at the same time it’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling the need to find Greek philosophy in the Old Testament, a trap that many thinkers past and present seem to fall into when dealing with world harmony and musica mundana. A fierce desire to make musica mundana a Scriptural idea would presuppose that it ought to be there, merely to fit our Hellenic standards of beauty. The Timaeus is an awfully nice thought, but it is just a thought and it would be silly to wish David and Moses had thought and talked more like Plato. And yet this is what it seems many Medieval authors wished when they spoke of music. I’m content with the thought that Ambrose’s attempt to embody this world harmony would have scandalized the Greeks and struck them as a rash, overly bold and probably blasphemous. You go, Ambrose. Scandalize those stupid Pythagoreans.

What is musica mundana?

I think musica mundana has been misunderstood both in antiquity and today. The point is not, I think, to redefine our conception of the heavens into our predefined concept of music, but the other way around, at least, or maybe a redefinition of both. Mostly our conception of music needs redefining, though. It’s interesting to note that Boethius in De Musica registered himself as something of a skeptic of the idea of musica mundana and made fun of people who thought the music was actual music, music that you could hear.

Clearly we can’t hear it, and the usual explanation is that the music of the spheres is something so fundamental to our surroundings that we have ceased to notice it for its ubiquity, but were it to stop, we would immediately notice its absence. I’m not sure where this idea has its origins, but it may be clouding us as to exactly what the ancients thought about the subject.

This is just guesswork, but I think the idea comes from a few observations about music and about astronomy:

(a) Motion through air creates sound.

(b) That sound can be manipulated into music by combining two motions whose movements span certain ratios (2:1 being an octave, 3:2 a fifth, and so on).

(c) The heavens also move.

(d) They can be explained in terms of similar ratios.

(e) Consequently, the heavens are engaged in the same sort of activity.

Music, then, is a genus—the genus of objects in motion according to whole-number ratios—which subsumes the species (a) heavenly bodies (musica mundana) and indeed also (b) what we now call music (musica instrumentalis).

Lewis, Tolkien, and Music of the Spheres

Music of the spheres, musica mundana, is the music that the spheres make in their rotations around the earth. (That’s why, incidentally, the first person to put forth a coherent theory of musical intervals was Ptolemy. Just like the heavens could be described in perfect ratios, so could music.) C. S. Lewis explains in The Discarded Image that, like Dante in Paradiso, “if our ears were opened we should perceive” that which makes the universe “lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.” (Discarded Image, 112)

The problem comes in the motion of the spheres. It must, to an Aristotelian mind, come from something that moves but is not itself in motion (hence Aquinas’ cosmological argument in ST 1.2.3). God must himself cause the Primum Mobile to rotate, and then, like Timaeus’ demiurge, PM passes on what it has received from the ineffable God to lower spheres. The problem for the Medieval Model, similarly in Timaeus, is that God himself can’t be soiled with this act of moving or creating. “But we must not imagine Him moving things by any positive action, for that would be to attribute some kind of motion to Himself and we should then not have reached an utterly unmoving Mover.” (113)

So, attempting to “save the phenomena”, Aristotle postulates that God “moves as beloved.” C. S. Lewis explains, “He moves other things, that is, as an object of desire moves those who desire it. The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God, and, being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe.” (113) This is what Dante means when he ends the Divine Comedy with “the love that moves the Sun and the other stars” (114).

It’s a beautiful thought, but Lewis points out that this is not the typical sense in which we refer to the “love of God”. Usually we mean his love for creation, but in this case, we’re referring to creation’s love of him. This isn’t necessarily a point of tension, but the general idea that the ineffable God couldn’t be involved directly in the act of creation is precisely the bone of contention that is picked in the battle between Neo-Platonism and Christianity.

Interestingly, in Tolkien’s play on the idea of musica mundana, he resolves the tension by a sort of “we love God for he loved us first” creation story. Of course, it still comes back to music.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme,  unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. Then Ilúvatar said to them: “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 15)

Here you have many of the elements involved in the music of the spheres, but the theme is declared to them directly by Ilúvatar. He wills it and he has kindled in his angels the Flame Imperishable, much more like the theistic conception than the deistic conception, but at the same time he does delegate, much like the ineffable God of the Medieval Model. This God, however, “will sit and hearken” and is glad “that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.”

Lewis points out that the Medieval Model is hierarchical according to the devolutionary principle: anything derived is necessarily less perfect than the original from which it was derived. That is why man and matter are at the bottom of the Hellenistic totem pole (ha, ha). Every middle-man creator that has created has lost more and more of that original ineffable God, and man and matter are the last to be created. Tolkien’s universe, though, is hierarchical still, but not according to the devolutionary principle. The theme is first explained by Ilúvatar, but is inevitably harmonized upon and adorned by the Ainur, “each with his own thoughts and devices.” It is through them that great beauty has been wakened into song. Just as the boss who takes a personal interest ends up getting better work out of his employees, Ilúvatar is intimately involved in the music making—not distant—and so, through his Ainur, the music doesn’t devolve but evolves. Instead of corrupting the original, the Ainur crown it.