a little something extra

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

music in space, or not

In the comments on the most recent post, the subject of music as experienced in space and time arose. It's a big idea, at least in my life, so I wanted to give it its own post before I went forward with the next Sabbath installment.

Most folks who comment on this blog are accomplished musicians of one stripe or another. Wanda is a professional soprano; Tripp is a former professional bass. Ben has sung with the Mighty Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (hereafter MASOC) for years, and is a skilled recording engineer. Colleen sang in a very popular rock band for a bunch of years. Shannon has studied opera. Erin sings with an a cappella ensemble, at least until she moves in a couple of months, and I hope if she wants to she'll have an easy time finding a group to sing with in C'ville. Etc. etc.

So of course, everybody here knows that the shape, spaciousness and composition of a room (or outdoor auditorium) where a musical performance takes place has great influence over the resulting sound. For a quick at-home comparison: go sing a song in your shower. Then sing the same song in a carpeted room elsewhere in your home. Hear how different that sounds?

But I posit that, while space greatly influences any musical performance inhabiting it, the experience of music does not require space.

How is this possible? Strictly speaking, it's not. During our lifetimes, we exist in 3-D space. We are born small; we grow big. We gain weight, lose weight, alter our bodies by surgery (plastic or otherwise). Throughout our lives, we occupy space; we cannot exist without occupying physical space. In addition, the sound vibrations we name "music" require air to travel through. You got it: more space.

But. The experience of music includes our internal soundtracks. Ever gotten a song stuck in your head? (No, I'm not suggesting any particular songs here, I don't want to saddle you with an earworm.)

Does the version of Morton Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium currently playing inside my head require space? Well, the space inside my head is already there. (Both true, and a joke!) But the music I hear on my mental soundtrack isn't affected by what room I'm in. I can manipulate it the way I can manipulate my experience of listening to any music -- I can "tune in" to the violins, or the percussion, or the alto line, I can make it louder or softer, I can skip around inside the piece. And what space I'm in does not alter that experience of music a whit.

I maintain that the internal experience of music is as valid as any other experience of music. And, it doesn't require space, isn't affected by exterior space, and doesn't respond to changes in space.

That's all!


At 10:25 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. Don't you think you need to have the original experience in a space that ultimately influences that spaceless memory? I suggest that only a few rare birds can look at music and then hear it in their minds. The rest of us need to hear it the first time, and then we can re-experience it and reshape it, creating valid experiences.

Love Lauridsen myself, especially Dirat-on (sp). I melt when I hear that done well.

At 10:50 AM , Blogger meeegan said...

I agree that it depends on how much skill the person has at mentally "hearing" what they're reading. My internal musical experiences are much richer if I've sung or heard the piece than if I'm just trying to read it off the page -- my sight-reading skills are not that impressive.

At 1:57 PM , Blogger Benjamin said...

An excellent post!

Taken to its logical conclusion, you can posit that nothing actually requires space to experience it! I was getting at this when I asked if there was anything that didn't require time and space to experience it, and answered my own question with "dreams". The mind occupies a chronological and spatial context all its own. If we have a good enough memory of something, we can experience anything we've experienced before all over again. Now here's a fun question - when one hears music in their head, what does one "hear"?

For example, when I hear the Durufle Requiem, I almost always hear it "performed" as the first time I ever performed it (during this performance the basses collectively lunched on the first entrace to the "Libera me" movement, nearly causing the redoubtable Al Calabrese a myocardial infarction on the spot - this bit is also in most of my internal performances, unless I really work hard at it). One component of this performance was the fact that it was in Glenn Memorial (about which comedian Stephen Wright once quipped "Wow, this must be what the inside of a wedding cake looks like!"), and so when I hear it, I hear it in Glenn Memorial. The space was delivered part and parcel into my head along with the music. Is it possible to hear an abstract, idealized performance of a piece in your head entirely without context to acoustic?

And then there's the whole creative process - how the hell do we hear things we never heard before? I sometimes "write" music in my head when a particular melody strikes me. I don't know where it comes from, but I hear it in my head (and always in a perfectly warm acoustic) the same way I do when I'm remembering music.

One segment of the notes I've compiled for this never-finished short story read as follows:

"There is no functional difference between direct experience and memory - both are results of neural activity, the physics and chemistry of the brain."

What I mean by this is that hearing music and dreaming about, or remembering music are all things delivered to our brains via... our brain. All of this happens in our heads. So what's the difference between a thing remembered vividly and a thing experienced directly?

Anyway, maybe we "experience" music in space, and we "dream" (asleep or not) music in our heads (which is a space of sorts, but an uncharted one)? Or is this just a semantic differentiation?

At 6:41 PM , Blogger Tripp Hudgins said...

Why are we limiting the experience of music to the cerebral? More than my brain matter experiences music.

At 9:25 AM , Blogger meeegan said...

We're not, Tripp. I put up this post to explain something I wrote in the comments about the last post. There, I mentioned that space is not ALWAYS required in order to experience music. That's a weird thing to say, so I figured it deserved a post of its own and an effort at explanation. Make sense?

At 1:08 PM , Blogger Tripp Hudgins said...

Ah! Now I get it. Sorry.

Have a great Thanksgiving. Meeeeegan.

At 3:14 PM , Blogger meeegan said...

You too!


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