On Music

Adapted from Robin Maconie, The Way of Music, Aural Training for the Internet Generation, The Scarecrow Press, Maryland, US., 2007.

That music exists at all reflects a human preference for sounds of a musical nature, for reasons of perception (that musical sounds are easier to hear and process) and also for aesthetic reasons (conveying an awareness of the supernatural and the sublime). Mendelssohn declared music to be superior to language, for the reason that it is pure feeling uncontaminated by thought. To Socrates and the school of Pythagoras, for whom musical instruments were devices for calculating mathematical ratios, music transcended all other forms of experience because only in music is there possibility of complete agreement, for example, as to what constitutes a pitch.

Although a musical instrument cannot speak, a song without words or an aria for a solo instrument liberates the meaning of a poem from the mechanics of delivering a text. Italian composers of the 16th century were the first to discover the potential of purely instrumental music for expression, untethered to the regulation of a text, sacred or secular.

Where a musical instrument is coupled with singing, it behaves like a voice, but one with exceptional powers of extended range, greater tone control, the ability to play rapid complicated passages and so on. To hear musical instruments as extended voices is to appreciate the range and precision advantage they have over the human voice, advantages arising in part from their freedom of the text. Indeed, after the emancipation of the voice in the age of Monteverdi (when the first operas launched a new and deliberately naturalistic vocal style), the next level as it were, was to extend the human voice to emulate an instrument. We hear the result very clearly in the heroic solos of Vivaldi (“Lauda Jerusalem”), in Handel (“The trumpet shall sound” from The Messiah), Mozart (the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute), and elsewhere.

Then, there is the castrato, the male voice that was at much maligned but yet revered as having the power of an adult male but the high pitch, intensity and purity of tone of a trumpet. The last genuine castrato died in 1921, but the fashion for male solo voice singing in the soprano range returned in pop music, in the vocal style of soloists like Freddie Mercury of the band Queen. His was the voice of a timbre and intensity that complemented the sound of an electric guitar at the upper extreme of range.

The idea of voice and instrument fulfilling and completing each other is perfectly embodied in the traditional singer-songwriter who accompanies himself or herself on acoustic guitar. This lyric tradition can be traced through the lute songs of the 16th century, via the traveling minstrels of the Middle Ages, to the Greek lyric and epic poetry, even to the time of King David and his lyre. When the singer is also the accompanist, the instrument offers precision of intonation, against which the voice may be heard. It adds emphasis and intensifies the underlying emotions. The voice, however, has the dimensions of language, the figures of speech to trigger a cascade of associations in the minds of a listening audience.

How does one describe the experience of music, whether it is a song with or without words? The totality of a musical experience in terms of what an audience hears is complicated beyond words, not because the experience is beyond human comprehension but because merely language is inadequate to the task.


“Lauda Jerusalem” (Antonio Vivaldi). Chœur de Chambre de Namur, Les Agrémens, Leonardo García Alarcón, Mariana Flores, Maria Soledad de la Rosa. https://youtu.be/Q8YejN_nqZk (6.09 minutes).

“The trumpet Shall Sound” (from The Messiah by George Frederick Handel). Alastair Miles, Cambridge Brandenburg Consort. https://youtu.be/CYTQ6gpcuYA (9 minutes).\

“Queen of the Night” aria (from The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Soprano Diana Damrau with Dorothea Röschmann as Pamina at the Royal Opera House. https://youtu.be/YuBeBjqKSGQ (3.01 minutes).

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