Home
Up
Evolution and the Anthropic Principle
Richard Dawkins vs Ken Wilber
Where Am I
The Cheshire Cat
I Could Have Been a Contender
What I Wish Id Said
Keeping Up with the World
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Power of Fog
Naming the Unnamed
Layers
Principles in Art
Spirit and Matter
The Enlightenment Conundrum
On Believing
Water? What Water?
Retro
Telling Stories 2
I believe in Rainbows
Whom Can We Believe
Patterns by Paul Simon and Douglas Hofstadter
Copyright Inheritance
Broad Minded
Beliefs Part Two
A Long drawn-out solstice
The Quest for, and the Illusion of, Certainty
To the Ends of the Earth
Astonishment
The Meaning Of Life
We Hold These Truths
There are Beliefs
Music and Language
Circular Thinking
Runaway World
Deep Playmate
An Alchemy of Telling
Habits
Cultural Genes
The Joy of Science
The Conundrum of Human Nature
No, The Computer Isn't Smarter than I Am!
A Rant on Religion
The West Wing Turning Right?
The Geometry of Spring
Music as Language
What is Art
Beauty and Spirit
You Don't Understand Us
The New God of Probability
Gene Hackman as President
Being Lifted Out of the Ordinary
The Head and the Heart
Pay Attention!
Music Poetry and Meaning
On Seeking Truth
Perceptions and Reality
The Marriage Bond
Taboo is a Right
Copyright versus Copyleft
Who
Analogue
Commitment
Cycles of Transcendence
Prejudice
Ego and Self
The Big Picture
Perspective
Mindfulness as Larger Mind
Assignment
The Power of Words
Meteors
The State of the Union
Click
Conversations
Intuition
Out of My Mind
Family Thoughts
One Life
Telling Stories
Small World
Bigger Realities
What Comes Next
Humor as a Higher Level of Consciousness
Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong
Emotional Resonance
Extraordinary Respect
Insight Meditation
Us and Them
Paradox and Paradigm
To Reach
I Don't Know
Don the Romantic
The Guy in the Blue Saab
The Sound of Silence
Eating is an Intimate Act
Evolution of Spirit
On Cloning and Other . . .
Creativity and Psychic Phenomena
Magic in My Life
My Difficulty with Aaron
Mindful & Mystic
Taste of Irony
Music Appreciation
Levels of Consciousness

Music, Poetry and Meaning

Some program notes to Dubussy’s "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" said, "The relationship of music to poetry (at least philosophically) was never closer than in France in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The great symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s attested poetic purpose was ‘to use words in such harmonious combinations as will suggest to the reader a mood or a condition which is not mentioned in the text, but is nevertheless paramount in the poet’s mind at the moment of composition.’ Mallarmé sought to duplicate, through poetry, the effects of music, to do what music did better than any other art, express the inexpressible."

Dubussy’s Prelude was based on Mallarmé’s poem of the same name, and seemed to be an illustration of that statement. Indeed, the poet, upon hearing the music, lavished praise on Dubussy’s artistry in expanding the emotion and description of his poem.

"Expressing the inexpressible" seems almost an oxymoron. And yet on a subtle level it makes sense. We make a big thing of language and the ability of words to define, to point out, to suggest an idea or a feeling, and yet most of us have known times when words simply were not adequate to their task. Meaning is not perfectly communicated by mere words, however eloquent the words might seem.

Music touches us on a different level, bypassing our left-brain literal sense. In a way, it seems to reach to a deeper place where words cannot go. Still, we try. As Mallarmé describes his own attempts, sometimes the effect is not contained in the literal meaning of the words so much as in unspoken suggestion.

I think one has to learn how to close one’s literal eyes in order to appreciate such poetry. Personally, I tend to stumble too much on the furniture of the words, and lose the deeper meaning of poetry. Much as I’d like to sense the music in, say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, I find myself looking under rocks for something more concrete.

It’s easier for me to grasp meanings in the lyrics of songs. Perhaps the music guides me. An example of this is Paul Simon’s 1966 song "Dangling Conversation:"  Audio clip of this verse.

It’s a still-life water color,
Of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.

The images are mostly concrete, and they do culminate in a scene and a mood. But more, they get under our literal translation if we can let them, to suggest tragedy itself. A relationship, frozen and lifeless. Once you sense this, you read or hear the lyrics in a different way. You’re inside feeling the loss, rather than outside merely observing its surface. For me, it’s the dead monotony of the music that does it, arousing something already inside me that can resonate with the words.

I most often feel these particular lyrics when I’m disappointed or lonely. Perhaps those people who never feel that deadness (and I guess there are those) might not "get" this song at all, and might hear it as simply maudlin. If one plays the melody of this song on a piano, it comes across as simplistic. The monotony is broken only in mid-stanza, where the singer raises his voice to wail briefly, only to fall back once more to the deadness. Hopelessness is the underlying theme, both in the music and the words.

To the poetically sophisticated, this may be a poor example; there are volumes of better poetry better equipped to reach under our defenses and lay bare our emotions. Poetry is a language consisting not only of words but of rhythm and other figurative and structural components, each of which contributes to the "real" meaning. Putting poetry to music might be to some people like attaching training wheels to a bicycle—it merely delays the development of necessary skills.

The same thing might be said from the musician’s point of view. Another familiar example: One needs to know only the rough outline of the story to be moved deeply by the final scene of Madame Butterfly, even if the words themselves are sung in Italian (perhaps especially so). The emotional power is in the music.

My guess is that few people are born with an ear for either music or poetry. Meaning comes from context, not just the context of the work of art but the context within the hearer.

Many years ago a lover sent me an audio tape, in which she read poetry to me, interspersed with bits of more-or-less popular music. We had been separated for several months, and missed each other. At the end of one reading (I’ve forgotten the text), she inserted an excerpt from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, a rock band. I’d never heard the music before, not yet having been exposed to much rock. The excerpt was a section of drum solo, beginning with single strikes of drumsticks on the rim of the drumhead, then proceeding into a ten-minute crescendo of wild drum, keyboard and vocals. Her intent may have been simply, "Here’s an interesting piece." The effect on me, however, was powerful. To this day (thirty-five years later), hearing that drum solo still raises the hair on my arms. Audio clip of the solo.

Why? I’m not sure. It had to do with context—the context that existed in my own mind and heart, coupled with the context of the audio program, coupled with the context of our relationship and our current separation.

Not long ago I found in a used music store a special album of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, in which was collected several versions of the music, both studio-produced and live performances. In the middle of the live performances that tap, tap, tap of the drumsticks on the rim of the drumhead brought immediate cheers from the audiences—cheers that continued for minutes until drowned out by the building music. So it wasn’t just me who responded to that solo. But I’ll never forget that audio tape, or that woman, or that roller-coaster relationship.

Meaning, perhaps, is imprinted in our souls, or hearts, or wherever it is that deep feelings are stored. Experiences that go there most readily are apt to slip past our verbal filters, even if on the surface they involve words. It may not even be a place, for we don’t have words to denote accurately what it is. All we can say for certain is that it is. There’s no one alive who has not responded to something experienced—music or poetry or a glance from a stranger—that simply could not be explained in words.

Somehow, one just feels, with poet Robert Frost, who "took the road less traveled by,"--acknowledging his own unique collection of filters--to see more clearly " . . . and that has made all the difference."

Notes: 1. For all the lyrics to Paul Simon's The Dangling Conversation, click here.

2. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" translates to "In The Garden of Eden." (for whatever that's worth.)

May 6, 2004

Comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail, please.
(And mention the title of the essay, too)