“Time renders most individual moments meaningless… but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux.”
Her 1942 book A New Key to Philosophy, the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer defined music as “a laboratory for feeling and time.” But perhaps it is the opposite, too — music may be the most beautiful experiment conducted in the laboratory of time.
In “the wordless beginning,” spacetime itself was crumpled and compacted into that spitball of everythingness we call the singularity. Even if sound could exist then — it did not, of course, because sound is made of matter — it would have existed all at once. Infinite numbers of every possible note would have been ringing at the same time — the antithesis of music. This single point of totality became a line and time suddenly appeared. Suddenly, one moment became distinguishable from another — the strange gift of entropy, which makes it possible to have melody and rhythm, chords and harmonies.
Music — with all the mysterious power by which it “enters one’s ears and dives straight into one’s soul, one’s emotional center” — is made not of notes of sound but of atoms of time. Music is made from time. If time is what we’re made of, it is music in a profound sense.
That — the physics and neuroscience of it, the poetry and unremitting wonder of it — is what the science-enchanted classical violinist Natalie HodgesExplores Uncommon Measure (public library) She says:
Music can shape time. It is, indeed. StructureTime is a multi-layered array of temporal events. Rhythm is at the heart of that arrangement, on every scale: the cycling and patterning of repeated sound or movement and the “measured flow” that that repetition creates. The beat, or the pulse which is repeated at regular intervals and determines the time, keeps the musical time, is the most important rhythm. In music, a beat is no fixed thing — it can quicken into smaller intervals (accelerando) and stretch out into longer ones (decelerando), depending on the character of a given musical moment and the feeling or fancy of the performer — but it does remain periodic, predictable, inexorable. Even at the level of pitch, which is really the speed of a given sound wave’s oscillation, we are really hearing the rhythmic demarcation of time, a tiny heart whirring at a beat of x cycles per second.
There are higher temporal structure in music. Music is not the only thing that repeats. Patterns are what create form.
The detection and anticipation of patterns is how our minds organize time. But although this cognitive function unfolds unconsciously, it is not mechanistic, not robotic, but a vital pulse-beat of our humanity, vibrating with the neural harmonics of emotion, suffused with feeling — for all anticipation is a form of hope and all hope can be shattered or redeemed, taking our hearts along with it. Ever since Pythagoras revolutionized the mathematical structure of music by composing the world’s first algorithm, musicians have been deliberately breaking the buildup of patterns or triumphantly completing them in order to orchestrate an emotional response — the sorrow of unmet hope, the elated relief of its redemption.
Hodges writes with an eye towards the chord progression and its satisfying resolution in a tonic.
Formal and harmonic patterns can be used to link their parts in time. By analyzing the intensities of the previous harmonies, the ear is able to discern the future harmonies. The buildup of cadence after a section of development or variation can also help the ear predict when thematic material will return. This is how a phrase can be made into a rhythmic object.
My native Bulgarian tonal tradition is based on a different pattern than Western music’s twelve-tone scale. A Bulgarian folk song is one of the sounds encoded on the Golden Record, which was a compilation of the only few Earth-sounding sounds. Voyager in humanity’s most poetic reach for making contact with the cosmos.) But while these underlying structures differ across cultures and epochs, music’s reliance on such patterns for its emotional effect is universal. Hodges observes that:
Music from all cultures weaves and tears apart the tapestry that is audible time. Each culture has its own rules. As with our day-to-day experience of time, the musical experience we have of it is structured by patterns of repetition and later their violation.
But musical time is not the same as ordinary time. It exists in that passage. It demonstrates how susceptible time can be to conscious perception.
In a sentiment consonant with Virginia Woolf’s insight into the strange elasticity of clock-time, she adds:
Duration is not time — That is something different entirely, something utterly dependent on our perception… The malleability of our perception of time is the stuff of music itself. The concept of passage, the way we generally conceptualize time — seconds elapse into minutes, today becomes tomorrow — is of getting through from one thing to another. Time is not separated from music. A piece of music is a multidimensional entity, a creation molded from time’s clay.
In a passage that affirms anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderfully apt word-choice for how we become who we are — by “composing a life” — Hodges returns to the elemental matter of music:
Most moments are meaningless or less significant than they were when they first appeared. But it’s only with the passing of time that our lives take on meaning. This meaning, however, is ever changing. As we make up new things and revise them as we go along we order our knowledge of the past.
Music is inherently temporal. Forms are inherently formless. Form gives shape to time or, at the very least, describes how fast we progress through a piece. How do we move forward, backwards or contract; what moments grow and shrink? Likewise, memory — that most universal and yet individual of temporal structures — lends form and shape to experience in biographical time. Concentric, simultanious timescales are what we live in: the history of the past wrapped within the current moment. Memory creates a metonymic connection between them. This melds the past and the present, so our ex-selves can go forward in time.
Echoing the touching defiance at the heart of Auden’s classic hymn of resistance to entropy, Hodges writes:
Implicit in time’s asymmetry, then, is the notion of becoming. The universe is moving toward greater entropy. Its edges are distorted, its dust is collected into corners. This is what distinguishes the future and the past. We think of “becoming” as moving toward something final, evolving into a more perfect and more stable state over time. But, moving ahead in time means that this process has to be affected by the ever-increasing chaos of the universe. If we want to be something, or someone, and change the course of our lives, then we must abandon ourselves to entropy. We will scatter bits of ourselves and add to them, make mess and try to get rid of any old patterns that no longer serve us. Perhaps that instinct to change oneself is an attempt to preemptively embrace the chaos that is coming. It is a sign we are already spinning out of control and it is taking us with it. Soon, nothing will be the same.
A century after Virginia Woolf was staggered in her garden into her timelessly stunning insight that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no ShakespeAre… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself” — Hodges considers the elemental truth pulsating beneath our experience of music and of our very lives:
It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you areThe flow of time. That feeling is also the root of the problem with time. It’s the frightening prospect of being alone in the unique experience we have of time. But isn’t it becauseTime lives within us so that we have the ability to shape and sculpt it into sentences and cadences. girosAnd ochosYou can still stop it. You can also share it.
Complement Uncommon Measure — in which Hodges goes on to examine through the lens of music such facets of our temporal experience as grief and creativity — with some symphonic reflections on Bach and the mystery of aliveness, then revisit Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence in the age of artificial intelligence and two centuries of beloved writers on the singular power of music.
Donating = Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. Every dollar counts.
Subscribe to our newsletter
MarginalianGet a weekly, free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.