To Infinity and Beyond

To Infinity and Beyond

This post comes to you courtesy of Alex Gardner, whose thoughts last week on the fleeting nature of musical time (and, in particular, its urgency for compositional clarity) got my brain-motor running. Per Adorno, time is the problem of music: The way we choose to fill that time—nay, e’en to conceive of it—will necessarily define, to a great extent, who we are as composers.

Baltimore composer William Kleinsasser remarked once that it’s within a composer’s capability only to set up certain possible aesthetic encounters for an audience within a given period of time. Naturally there’s no shortage of strategies when it comes to constructing and deploying these possible aesthetic encounters: In the comments area of
Alex’s post, we identified just one axis along which these strategies might be situated—clarity versus ambiguity. One composer’s approach is to minimize noise, so to speak, by sharpening and refining the piece’s content; another’s is to maximize signal by cramming the piece’s attic full of junk.

We could have a lengthy conversation about these two contrasting means to lay a musical minefield—or about any other contrasting means framed by some other imagined dimension of music besides the one I mentioned above. The possibilities really are endless, which to me is a bit daunting: The more I think about what can happen in a piece of music, and about how many different ways there are to formulate and rationalize and structure and challenge and critique and embrace and magnify and problematize and thematize and reify these things, the less sure I can be that anyone else is liable to apprehend music the same way I do—or, for that matter, that I’ll apprehend a piece the same way one day as I do the next. As I’ve said before, I think that the actual substance of a piece of music (itself a construction) accounts for a much-overestimated slice of a listener’s experience when hearing it. There’s an infinity of ways to listen to music, sure—but this is just a simplified way of saying that there’s an infinity of ways to talk about listening to music, and to think about the infinity of ways of talking about music, and to talk about the infinity of those ways of thinking about the infinity of those ways of talking about music.

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2 thoughts on “To Infinity and Beyond

  1. mclaren

    The science of psychoacoustics and the science of cognitive neuroscience say you’re wrong. Auditory experience is not infinitely subjective. One of the greatest follies of the 20th and 21st century is the fantastic delusion that humans are blank slates with no innate hardwired auditory-cognitive responses to music. For a debunking of the general blank slate fantasy, see Stephen Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, or, for the musical version,

    A good place to start? The 1998 essay “A Universe of Universals” by Leonard B. Meyer, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. XVI, Number 1, Winter 1998, pp. 3-25. From there, you could move on to David Huron’s award-winning article “Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice-leading from Perceptual Principles,” Music Perception, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2001, pp. 1-64.

    Other references you might want to look into to dispel the clouds of woolly-headed modernist musical gibberish doled out by the trainload in grad school include Music Cognition by W. J. Dowling, 1986; Psychoacoustics: Facts and Models by Fastl & Zwicker, 2006; Hearing: Physiological Acoustics, Neural Coding, and Psychoacoustics by W. Lawrence Gulick, 1989 (one of my personal favorites); A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Lerdahl & Jackendoff, 1983; Language and Music as Cognitive Systems by Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohmeier, John A. Hawkins and Ian Cross, 2012; and, although heinously expensive at $80 used, well worth the money: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music by Isabelle Peretz and Robert J. Zatorre, 2003.

    After studying the papers of Bruno Repp, you can test yourself by explaining the perceptual properties of the music of Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt and Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elliott Carter and John Cage as a necessary and inevitable result of their ignorance and disregard of the basic hierarchical grouping principles laid out by Lerdahl & Jackendoff and the gestalt laws of perception. For extra credit, try using Ramsey theory to disconfirm alleged “analyses” of such modernist compositions. Once you can manage that, you’ve learned the elementary rudiments of modern cognitive neuroscience as it applies to psychoacoustics and psychomusicology.

    At that point, it will no longer be possible to write fuzzy-wuzzy essays in which a piece of music can be asserted to be anything to anyone, and in which “There’s an infinity of ways to listen to music, sure—but this is just a simplified way of saying that there’s an infinity of ways to talk about listening to music…” Just as there are not an infinity of ways of meaningfully talking about literature (as, for example, it makes no sense to speak of the scene in Huckleberry Finn in which Huck kills and eats Jim: Noam Chomsky has proven that linguistic constructions are hardwired, far from infinite, follow universal patterns worldwide and throughout history, and in fact are quite limited by comparison with the possible number of linguistic permutations) there are not an infinity of ways of meaningfully talking about music. In fact, human musical perception and cognition follows well-known hardwired neurocognitive pathways established by the evolution of the mammalian brain.

    The number of ways of meaningfully talking about music remain tiny compared to the space of possibilities. Likewise, the number of ways of organizing sound which can be perceived as organized form a microscopically small subset when compared with the much larger realm of numerological conjurations so pointlessly and so ignorantly utilized by the musical high modernists.


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