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Why does music move us? part 4


Types of sound

         We shall begin by considering the different types of sound that exist. There is a basic experience we have of the sounds of the natural, physical world; the sounds of wind, of rain, of an earthquake, of an avalanche, of fire etc. We have seen that sound is caused by movement. The physical world is in constant movement, is constantly changing, constantly being reordered, and the movement proper to the physical world is one of corruption and decomposition: the physical world is fundamentally in corruption. The sounds of the physical world, therefore, are sounds which denote degeneration, the breaking up of an order. They are the sounds of a constant reorganisation that is one of degeneration. This is not to say that they are not pleasant sounds; we enjoy, for example, listening to the sound of breaking waves. But it cannot be denied that in listening to waves breaking upon the shore, we are listening to the slow but sure wearing down of stones to sand – listening for a few moments to the movements of a degenerative process that lasts millions of years.

         It is only with the living world that we meet a movement which is one of regeneration rather than of pure degeneration. It is proper to the living being and what characterises it as living, that it regenerates itself. It has an immanence which allows it to be the source of its own movement. If the physical world ‘is moved’, the living world ‘moves itself’. The living world brings us, therefore, to sounds of growth, rather than decay, of a movement that is vital. We see that all movements of the living world, including local movement, are ultimately for the preservation of the individual by nutrition and of the species by generation. All animal cries and calls are directed to these two ends. The sounds of the living world are sounds of movements which are victorious over the pure degeneration of the physical world.

         If man is the summit of the living world we also find a summit in sound at the human level, with voice and language. With the voice man has a unique way of expressing his reaction to a sensible reality. The voice is the special vehicle of man’s spontaneous expression of the passions that a sensible reality arouses in him: we think, for example, of a scream of fright, a burst of laughter, a gasp of surprise, a sigh of relief. But in addition to these spontaneous expressions, the voice is also mastered by man: he is capable of conveying meaning, in sound, using language. It is thanks to his intelligence, to his ability to make universal relations, that man has language, and that he instrumentalizes his capacity to make sounds, placing those sounds in a conventional arrangement to convey meaning and express thought. Thus man’s capacity to make sound, coupled with the sense of hearing, is at the foundation of a spiritual communication. It is thanks to the voice and to language that I can enter into contact with my fellow man, that a spiritual contact can be made with another. This is what makes education possible. This is what enables me to know the friend: without speech, without discussion, without the sharing of thoughts, ideas, of each one’s experience of reality, expressed in language it becomes more difficult to know who someone is, to know his person. Indeed, the ultimate use of voice and language for communication will be in the ‘I love you’ expressed to the friend. With this we find the summit of man’s expressing his intentional relation as regards the fellow spiritual reality that is the person of the friend, expressing the most profound vital operation he experiences, that of loving another person.

         We observe also that the scope of the voice is far greater than that of language. If the human voice is particularly effective as a means of communication, it is also very affective. Depending as it does on breath, it comes from within the speaker’s very body, and is an amazingly versatile instrument with enormous capacities for producing a vast range of sounds. There are a great variety of ways in which the voice can be manipulated to express the different emotions that the speaker experiences; much can be ‘said’, in addition to the words used, by the tone of voice employed. If ‘yes’ in the English language means that the speaker’s consent is given, there are numerous ways in which, with his voice, the speaker can express the way in which he gives his consent: wholeheartedly, hesitatingly, reluctantly, etc.  Thanks to language, thought and intention may be expressed and communicated, but the voice has a special role in communicating the way in which I relate myself to something – to the object under discussion, to the idea presented, and ultimately to the person with whom I am speaking. It will be the way in which the ‘I love you’ is expressed with the voice that will ‘say’ the quality of that love, that will tell the friend something about the way in which he is loved. We may say, perhaps, that if it is the intelligence that dominates sound in language, it is the will in its capacity to love that masters sound to express itself in the voice.

         With man we also reach a level of gratuity in sound that goes beyond even communication using language. Just as man enjoys listening to sounds, so too he enjoys using his ability to make sound without necessity, for no particular reason. This is indeed where we find music. In whistling or humming a tune, even in singing itself, man uses his ability to make sound for more than its primary and basic functions, for the pure joy of doing so, and this thanks to his intelligence and life of the spirit. (Some people would argue that birdsong is also at this level of pure gratuity, but is that really true, or is it an imaginative projection of our own experience? Perhaps the key to this will be melody, which we shall consider later.)

         We start to see also, therefore, how sound’s capacity to be the vehicle of meaning, thanks to language and the human voice, has something to do with music’s power to affect the emotions. Sound is the privileged medium for conveying meaning. Meaning is also conveyed through the other senses of touch and sight (we think, for example, of the tenderness expressed in a touch, or the anger expressed in a look), but mutual understanding and communication are possible in a special way thanks to the sense of hearing and the conventions implied in language. As receiving the sound of a reality makes me aware of its presence, its position and distance in relation to me, by the sounds I myself make with the instrument of the voice, I express my reaction or attitude to that reality – the emotion or passion which that reality and its distance or position in relation to me give rise to. But we must also bear in mind that language has its limits; we cannot express every emotion we experience in words. Vocal expressions that do not involve language may sometimes convey more than language is capable of expressing; we might think of a sigh, for example. But even such non-verbal vocal expressions as this are not always adequate to the expression of emotions. In a sense, language and the voice as a means of communication culminate in a silence; in the silence of a pain too great to speak of, in a compassionate silence, in a loving silence. This silence is again, particular to man. The physical world, being in constant movement, is never silent; the living world has periods of silence, but it is only with man that silence is willed. Movement, and so sound, can be most fully dominated, mastered, by man. Indeed, man’s ability to control both the movement of his breathing and the movement of his touch will be essential elements when it comes to music.

         So much, then, for the different types of sound, culminating with the silence of man; we move on now to consider more closely what sound itself is. We can distinguish three, as it were, aspects to a sound; its pitch, its volume and its proper character – what we might call its timbre. We shall consider each of these in turn.

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