Music and Magic

Look into the history of the connection between literature and sound/music and you’ll find the idea of ‘magic’ has a rich, symbiotic connection within the center of it. One only needs to look at how Shakespeare applies music cues to magical beings within the text of his plays. Look at how the connection of magic and music is inferred within the witches of Macbeth, The fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest’s Ariel. It does indeed hint to a mystical view point of the phenomena of sound. This idea of the connection between art forms and magic first came to my attention from famed comic book writer Alan Moore who notably changed his viewpoint of himself from a ‘writer’ to a ‘magician’, noting the metaphysical ability literature has to create ‘magic’ in one’s mind. He denotes several connections in history, reffering to the reliation magic has with spoken word and literature. While he notes several connections, those of which originate from history’s witch doctors, bards and writers, one of the most poignant and simple examples is most probably the following: In order to create a word, one must first ‘spell’ it. This simple use of the verb ‘spell’ in our language quickly hints to a deeper assoisation we have with our surrondings.

But let’s resist getting lost down a rabbit hole of literature and get back to music.

So, what am I inferring? If literature can be magic, is music – by extenstion – magic? Of course, sound isn’t magic in of itself, it lives within the real world, governed by the law of physics.

Sound is (simply put) vibrations that travel through air and interact with our ears, hence the famous tag line ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream’ because space has no air molecules for the vibrations to travel through. But this explanation tells us nothing really of how our ears work. Our ears are an organ that provide a limited perception of one particular sense: Sound.

Our ears do not give us access to every frequency imaginable. They can allow us to perceive generally between 20Hz and 20,000Hz and this has the capacity to change over time. Our ears can also hear only patterns that repeat themselves more or less often than 20 times per second. You can test this by taking a pack of cards and beginning to run your thumb against them allowing them to slap against each other. Doing this slowly will allow your ear to hear each individual card hit against the one below it however do this in a quick succession and your brain will only be able to perceive a blur of sound.

The idea of our organs having a limited perception of its own source material is not an uncommon thing. Our eyes have a particular field of view and can only see within the light spectrum available to us. So, our ears, like our other organs that provide the senses that objectively shape our perception of the world, have limitations too but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a trick or two up their sleeves. I do not hope to arduously explain the science of the ear, nor do I wish to plunge into the realms of physics and psychoacoustics. There is heaps of literature that can better provide the specifics of the realm of the ear and I instead, wish to focus on mainly how sound is perceived when concerning the process of hearing by this organ and how it shapes our associations with sound in practical and understandable terms.

When thinking about the ear, it’s good to consider its main three sections:

The Outer EarThe Middle Ear The Inner Ear

The Outer Ear

The first part of the ear consists of three important parts.

  • The Pinna/Auricle – Is the name for those external flaps that we commonly refer to as ears. Rarely do we hear someone say that “Jeff has big pinnas” or “Simone has the tiniest auricles I’ve ever seen”. But we usually like to refer to these as simply ‘ears’. They are the only visible part our ears and are not only aesthetically pleasing, they do also provide some use in hearing. When sound travels from different distances, the Pinna is useful in identifying what direction a sound has come from (ie. either left or right). This helps our minds create a mental image of a variety of sounds we are hearing around us. They allow us to know what side of us a car is approaching from when crossing the street, whether someone is sneaking up on us or even to decipher each individual location of all the different instruments in an orchestra. This ability to identify the direction of where a sound originates occurs by how sound waves reflect against the different parts of the Pinna. Since a variety of sounds interact with different sections of the flaps, this allows us to have a better distinction of what direction each of those sounds has come from. In this way it also acts as a sort of funnel or perhaps even an air traffic controller, allowing sound to not simply take a direct route into the Ear Canal but to be guided into our ears. The Pinna essentially collects sound energy passing over a large area of space and funnels it into the Ear Canal and then onto the Eardrum. You can increase this effect by cupping your hand behind the ear, creating a larger space for sound waves to be reflected off of.
  • The Ear Canal/Auditory Meatus –  Is the small funnel that acts as a bridge between the Pinna and the Eardrum. When the Pinna has caught a variety of sound, much like fish in a net, they swim down this small canal and hit against the Eardrum.
  • The Eardrum/Tympanic Membrane – By the time a sound has reached the end of The Outer Ear and before it has moved onto The Middle Ear it interacts with the Eardrum. Fluctuations in pressure formed from when when the sound has been heard, are transmitted down the Ear Canal and are moved toward the Eardrum. Due to the fluctuations in pressure, the Eardrum’s thin membrane cone- like shape vibrates and causes an effect similar to that of a game of chinese whispers, carrying our ear’s representation of sound from The Outer Ear onto the The Middle Ear.

The Middle Ear

This part of the ear lays inside the bone of the skull. The Eardrum almost entirely forms the outer layer or wall of the Middle Ear. At this point the original sound wave is replicated mechanicaly. It consists of two important sections.

  • The Ossicles – Is the collective name for the three parts (each made of bone) that it represents:


  • The Hammer/Malleus – Around 8 millimeters in the typical adult, this bone echoes, literally hammers against the Anvil, replicating the vibrations transferred from the Eardrum from which it is attached to.
  • The Anvil/Incus – Lives in the center of the Ossicles and acts as a bridge between the Hammer and the Stirrup.  
  • The Stirrup/Stapes – The smallest bone in the body, this transfers the vibrations replicated by the Eardrum then transferred through the Hammer and the Anvil finally being repeated once more at this point, vibrating against the Oval Window. It acts almost like a reverse piston, creating waves in the fluid found within the Inner Ear.


The process of The Ossicles plays a vital role in transferring as much sound energy as possible into the Inner Ear. This enables us to hear very faint sounds by essentially amplifying the energy transferred from The Outer Ear to the The Middle Ear and then finally onto The Inner Ear.  

  • The Oval Window/Fenestra Ovalis –  Is located at the end of the Middle Ear marking the beginning of the Inner Ear. It is a thin membrane wall – like structure.


The Inner Ear

Sometimes to referred to as ‘the Labyrinth’, this is the final section of the ear. This part of the ear not only acts in the process of our hearing, it is also part of our balance system. It consists of three important sections although I have omitted The Vestibular (The part of the inner ear that helps us balance) since I wish to only focus on how sound is perceived through this part of our bodies.

  • The Cochlea – Shaped like a snail’s shell, this section of the ear is filled with fluid. The fluid inside the Cochlea receives sound through the form of vibrations which is then transferred onto the Auditory Nerve.  
  • The Auditory Nerve – This acts as a messenger between the Cochlea and the brain, transmitting electrical signals that replicate the mechanical vibrations sent on through by The Middle Ear that first originated from the Eardrum. Made up of somewhere between 20 to 30 thousand nerve fibres that are connected to the Cochlea, these fibres resonate with particular pitches that are heard by the ear. Once the hair fibres resonate, this raw data is sent up into the brain through electrical impulses for the brain to interpret.

So you can see that from this simplified explanation of how our ears process sound there is, as I aforementioned, a chinese whispers- like effect. When we hear a sound, the energy that originally formed it has been replicated and interpreted by a chain of events to represent a part of the world that resides around us.

I wish to look back ever so slightly however to the process of The Inner Ear  which is, to me, one the most important aspects of this idea of music being ‘magic’. The relationship of how our brains interpret the electrical impulses within this section of our ear creates, hints to a very important to how our minds perceive sound.

To understand the phenomena of hearing in a more concrete way, I will refer to the work of Daniel Levitin, record producer turned neuro-scientist, and his book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’.

I quote extensively as his explanation is beautifully explained.

‘The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of a sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological”, I mean that is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves – molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies – do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillations can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to the internal quality we call pitch’

He goes on to say,

‘Newton was the first to point out that light is colorless, and that consequently color has to occur inside our brains. He wrote, “The waves themselves are not colored”. Since his time, we have learned that light waves are characterized by different frequencies of oscillation and when they impinge on the retina of an observer, they set off a chain of neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image that we call color. The essential point here is: What we perceive as color is not made up of color. Although an apple may appear red, its atoms are not themselves red. And similarly, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett points out, heat is not made up of tiny hot things.

A bowl of pudding only has tase when I put it in my mouth – when it is in contact with my tongue. It doesn’t have taste or flavor sitting in my dried, only the potential. Similarly, the walls in my kitchen are not “white” when I leave the room. They still have paint on them, of course but color only occurs when they interact with my eyes.

Sound waves impinge on the eardrums and pinnae (the fleshy parts of your ear), setting off a chain of mechanical and neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image we call pitch. If a tree falls in the forest and one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? (The question first posed by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley). Simply, no – sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present. A suitable measuring device can register the frequency made by the tree falling, but truly it not pitch unless and until it is heard.’  

From what we can see, the phenomena of sound is an illusion. Much like our mental interpretation of the moving images that make up our films and tv shows. We all know that we’re viewing a succession of photographed images shown at great speed, yet to us, within our minds, within our very ability to suspend our disbelief, we are viewing a moving image. I’ll offer perhaps a simpler explanation that hopefully reinforces Daniel Levitin’s point. Imagine Martians have come down to Earth and experienced the sensation of sound. Perhaps to them, for arguments sake, it would be the same way that we interpret heat except their bodies/minds would interpret the information known as ‘sound waves’ as the same feelings we feel when we touch things. Perhaps when a sound was quiet, they would feel colder. Perhaps within this train thought, when a sound was louder, they would feel hotter. A pleasant sound may feel smooth whilst a horrid sound may feel rough.

This shows us that the phenomena of hearing is really just a way of our brains interpreting the sound waves around us and our process of hearing is not a literal representation of that information whatsoever. Our minds simply offer a perception of the world around us. They don’t show ‘the real thing’ – they show an illusion, a very useful ‘magic trick’. 
‘This out there and this in me, all this, every – thing, the resultant of inexplicable forces. A chaos whose order is beyond comprehension. Beyond human comprehension.’ – Henry Miller


A diet defined does not define diets.

‘There is really no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’- E.H. Gombrich.

The usefulness of names is often paradoxical. In a time where standardisation and globalisation form the architecture of our daily means, names allow us to communicate and live in this framework through multiple languages with ease. Think about discussing the purchase of a cup of coffee without a strong and established sense of what these things are called and without a codified idea of what currency is at that moment in time. Attempt to dissect how one would possibly re-write such colossal literature as Tolstoy’s War and Peace or even Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’ without the definitive tool and procedure of naming persons and locations. Ponder on surgeons unable to operate without a defined library of names for each of our organs, their inner workings and definitions upon their functions. Without such things as the art of taxonomy, a branch of science concerned with the clarification of objects, we’d severely harm the form of our pragmatic actions and our thoughts that devise them. Names help people a lot.

In a world littered with logos and trademark designs, symbols rely less on subjective underpinnings of love, hate, faith and tradition and instead convey association with more archaic impulses like hunger, thirst or sex. Alongside the democratisation of luxury, the modern consumer reaches toward the world of ‘products’ and ‘branding’. With the ability to purchase luxury goods from high-class companies at affordable prices, companies such as Gucci, Calvin Klein and (Donald) Trump have had a great impact upon the way we live within the 21st century, forming a standard of living widely regarded as greater than our ancestors before us. Meanwhile, as technology itself is becoming far more accessible in its attainability and use in either; the political spectrum with multiple politicians, political figures and movements using online social network platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to share their beliefs; businesses and freelance entrepreneurs easily able to create an online presence and website through sites; or even those who wish to educate with a multitude of one to one lessons via skype or even the free online lectures notably by Yale University and Berklee that seek to enlighten – information of either fact or opinion surrounds us.  We live in very noisy times.

One may feel that within this domain, they are marooned upon an island within the outskirts of the digital sea whilst politicians that used to be photographed with spades alongside communities, now are pictured with smartphones alongside their fans.  

And as more and more people rely on circuit boards and the telephone communication systems to live their daily lives, the means for profit are in many ways becoming more flexible. Companies such as Uber rely on systems of technology not thought possible twenty years ago, creating a marketplace that relies on the flexibility of consumers and its workforce. Uber is as journalist Max Chafkin puts it:

the first company since Google with a service so popular that its name is in regular use as both a noun and a verb—has spawned an entire category of business known as the one-tap economy.’

Businesses that govern modern economics literally have the capability to inform our language. The words we use to mean what we say, our literal meaning of things. More and more we are running towards rules grounded within objectivism and our beacon is often that of large corporations. Copies of copies are formed. Turkish supermen that are amalgamations of their American counterparts, coffee chains that are hybrids of their Italian origins.

With so many manufactured products to choose from, to define oneself with –  it’s hard almost not to feel like a version of Patrick Bateman.

This terrain we’ve created  has the potential to become difficult for the artists of our time. To create originality in such a concrete space of both physical and metaphysical proportions can be a daunting venture. However despite this, a beautiful remark from Nick Sousanis’s graphic novel ‘Unfallenting’ offers up a solution to this conundrum that sums up the balance between this issue perfectly.

While standardization has its uses, conforming to another’s expectations is detrimental – if the shoe doesn’t fit, it’s hard to move freely.’

When you name something, you immediately give that thing an identity. This usually fixes it like a photograph, but like all photographs, they only document the moment in which they were taken. Instead of giving us a fixed, ‘true’ representation of an object they rather give us a perspective of what something was at the immediate time it was captured.

One thinks of Eugene Atget’s incessant photography of Paris. An act, built out of simple circumstance – from the government of the time’s desire to document the city, as well as his own interest in this pursuit, yet ultimately there is a rich and moody stylistic imagery decorating the factual presence of the shots taken. We could of course also look at Robert J. Flaherty’s documentary ‘Nanook of the North’, a film that has been regarded as ‘Culturally, historically and aesthetically significant’  by the library of congress in capturing the life of a Inuk man and his family yet it is widely known to have staged sequences within. Perhaps we could even turn to Turner’s famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament burning alight. Yes, a document of a rare moment that survives through our historical interest but we don’t keep staring at it just because it’s informative.

We could even step back and give ourselves a larger view into the context of history further questioning how we define particular moments of the past. One could look to the vast amount of poetry created throughout the two World Wars and what this tell us about the experiences and ultimately the reality of that period of time. In a collection of  poems from the Second World War collected by the academic Hugh Haughton, he describes the sheer size of the conflict:

The scale, location and technology of the Second World War (also) made it a completely different kind of war. Rather than being fought in a relatively confined theatre, as the First World War was, it was genuinely global…

It is hard to grasp the sheer scale and intensity of the Second World War, or the havoc it wrought across the face of the world.’

His collection, named simply Second World War Poems, holds literature written around the globe during the six year conflict, ranging from men and women of all different ages and walks of life. It offers an insightfully broad outlook of the period. I quote from one poem of many in the collection. The poem below is by Japanese poet Nobuyuki Saga entitled ‘The Myth Of Hiroshima’, translated by Hajime Kajima.

‘What are they looking for,

running to the summit of lost time?

Hundreds of people vaporised instantly,

are walking in mid-air.

‘We didn’t die.’

‘We skipped over death in a flash and became spirits.’

‘Give us a real, human death.’

One man’s shadow among hundreds is branded on stone steps.

‘Why am I imprisoned in stone?’

‘Where did my flesh go, separated from its shadow?’

‘What must I wait for?’

The twentieth century myth is stamped with fire.

Who will free this shadow from this stone?’

Grim imagery combined with a hauntingly dreamlike outlook, though it still informs itself in the same way as our others examples, however scattered they may appear; Reality recorded with the methods of the subjective. Our history devised through the perception of events. 

In solidifying something as objective you’re always at the risk of freezing something in the midst of a progressive moment and then copying it from a single perspective rather than capturing exactly, precisely what it is. I’m not saying our methods of documentation fabricate our view of the world around us but we certainly don’t copy our surroundings down, note for note. Let’s even take the topic of journalism or indeed simply the act of documenting one’s surroundings through written language. John Hollingshead in his book ‘Ragged London’, an investigation into the dark entrenches of poverty surrounding London in 1861, offers a painstakingly accurate and laborious recording of his discoveries however he himself even discusses the limitations of his own work.

‘I have had but one story to tell, and I have told it as faithfully as it could be told. The scale upon which my have been unavoidably planned has imposed a treatment rather broad and superficial, and a rather arbitrary arrangement of districts.’

He goes on to offer solutions to the poverty he has analysed yet even upon his own terms, whilst as necessary such a thing is, his writings can only be  influenced by his limited and subjective outlook. London, of course, has seen change since his time and though similar themes of poverty may still resonate, to look back at all historical texts based on the unreliability of human experience, however sincere or articulate, is foolhardy within it’s own terms to allow us a outlook toward the ‘truth’.

Of course, some things may stay objectively the same but not everything. Photograph any famous landmark you like (Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning tower of Pisa, The Empire State Building) and you’ll still most probably recognise the subject in any photograph you care to look at, but nonetheless not everything in the world is subject to such stability and immediate recognition.

Children grow into adults; trees wither and die; old buildings are torn down and new ones are built upon the rubble. Things can change, morph and move, creating something uncatchable; we can’t cage it because it’s not a fixed thing even if we perceive it to have formed a sense of consistency. Often ‘the undefinable’ has many parts that are always changing their function as well the addition of new parts being formed and tested along the way, and yet not like pieces of a puzzle that once put together form an ultimate ‘realm of the forms’ Platoic idea, it is instead subject to countless perceptions (all a maze of paths pitting ignorance vs education) that don’t necessarily add up to anything in particular.  

Music is one of these things. For the most part it’s because the pleasure and pain of sound is subjective. I suppose what I’m offering is something similar to that of Owen Jones’s definition of the Establishment.

‘Stare at a blank sheet of paper smeared with ink, and you might be able to detect the outlines of an image. But somebody else looking at the same piece of paper may see something very different. What we see reveals more about ourselves than it does about the smear of ink. This exercise, of course, is known as the ‘Rorschach test’ – and the same principle applies when it comes to looking at the Establishment.

In seeking to define something subjective we always find ourselves within it. Music is an abyss and when we look into it, it reflects back like a mirror to who we are at that moment in time. We all have our ignorances and our tastes. We all have our needs and functions for sound. With a wider view, we can easily see that a lot of these needs and functions are relatively the same.

Spoken word, alarms, doorbells, car horns, ringtones, theme tunes, the hum of machinery, background noise, a plane taking off, the boom of fireworks, the cry of a baby, the bark of a dog – we share similar experiences down to the urban environments we inhabit yet there is a still a collision in taste which divides the art of Music into styles/genres, all equally celebrated and berated with respect to social practice. With a tendency to align one’s self with a variety of criteria such as talent, tradition, complexity or even humour (take your pick and add your own if you like), we choose our noise(s) we listen to based on a spectrum of possibilities that are not necessarily always aligned with sound itself.

There is a reason why the band Kiss wear makeup and there is a reason why there was a riot at the premiere of ‘The Rite of Spring’. I doubt it the sole reason is equal temperament’s interpretation of the alignment of rhythm and harmony.

In the lecture series ‘The Unanswered Question’ Leonard Bernstein famously took his audience along a ride of analysis, predominantly focusing on the history of Western art music, to find out what this mysterious object is. He failed to answer it because the question itself is flawed.

Perhaps ‘The Unanswerable Question’ would suffice?

Since the age of enlightenment we’ve continually tried to define the world around us  but we can clearly see that many things simply are not one constant. We still focus on asking questions which intend to force out one solid answer yet contradictions lurk in every corner and instead of trying to straighten them out like tangled leads perhaps it’s best to realise they’re not supposed to plug into anything at all; they just might happen to. Coincidence has no intentions.

We only know what Music is by what we and our ancestors have known it to be. In a way, it’s like an adaptation of a Shakespearian play. We take the script at hand as gospel as we assume it to be correct and follow the instructions as best as we can. The product is most possibly pleasurable (but not necessarily to everyone) and from that origin we birth that thorny debate of what is good and bad. It would be unwise to forget that we have always relied on the fickleness of memory to perform arrangements of sound and even in terms of documented music in the form of musical scores, we can never be sure that we have either the access to all before us or the ability to perform it as priorly intended.

By simply adhering to define a theory of something by what we’ve found from the past can be detrimental. Felix Martin, macroeconomist and fund manager, in his book ‘Money – the unauthorised biography’ explains the misinterpretation of the literal definition of money through the large quantities of coinage discovered that has survived from past centuries. By deconstructing common myths found in economics, he describes Money as a ‘Social Technology’ rather than a bartering system based on physical materials ‘ie coins or notes’. Physical things themselves are not money, rather the social contract itself enables.

‘Coins are made of durable metals – and very often of imperishable metals, such as gold or silver, which do not rust or corrode. As a result, they tend to survive the ravages of time better than most other things. What is more, coins are valuable. As a result, there has always been a tendency for them to be squirrelled away in buried or hidden hoards – the better to be discovered decades, centuries, or even millennia later by the enterprising historian or numismatist. The problem is that in no field so much as the history of money is an approach fixated upon what physically survives likely to lead us into error.’

Speaking of how likely we are to misinterpret the meaning of Money by what we’ve discovered to be Money in the past is an important thing to acknowledge. The definitions devised from the history of Money are as much as flawed as how we define Music from what we know of its history. By only defining Music by scores, manuscripts and texts articulating techniques of creation, we create a flawed outlook of what Music is.

We fail to acknowledge our own ignorance when thinking in this context, therefore constantly seeking to fixate the present in a hazy view of the past.  

The interpretation is the key here, our interpretation of what we know something to be or not to be. To assume that what we know to be ‘Music’ is in fact all that ‘Music’ is, can and does limit it’s possibilities. Borrowing and developing ancient forms of documentation, technology and social practice, we can see that we’ve not always made Music for one unifying reason and nor will we continue to.

As much as we try to define what Music is, it is indeed not a concrete thing – nor has it ever been and I believe it has more to do with how we use sound rather than exactly what the sound itself is. New Music has a symbiotic relationship with the birth of new social practices. The Be- Bop era was born out of a countercultural attack against the popular  Jazz of the time in an effort to intellectualise and push the genre into new ground; The Punk Era punched its way into existence through a means of extrapolating popular culture and re-immersing into a DIY process beyond simply the creation and restrictions of Music; Hip – Hop was birthed through massive leaps in technology and the appropriation of records replayed and reimagined in a very particular part of the world that allowed the formation of a new social construct that was, through the context of its time, formatted into a marketable means. These social reasons for creating a distinctive sound at any point of time will always inform the choices of notes and sounds that musicians will ultimately choose or want to make. I don’t think it works the other way round. 

Sound and culture are locked in a dance, that doesn’t necessarily move backwards or forwards down a  pathway, but they certainly aren’t staying still. They unpredictably flow against each other, forming movements that we either focus on or not. It’s also dependent on what we like to attract our attention to. In dissecting the parts of Music that we feel must be separated, we have to look at what measurements we’re working with as well as the point of the endeavour itself.

Projects such as The Art Council’s scheme ‘Metrics’ attempts to investigate this idea by quizzing audiences  on a broad schema designed to capture and refine the topic of excellence within the arts.

Below is what they define are their core qualities and how they investigate them with different groups.

‘The core quality metrics

Self, peer and public:

  • Concept: it was an interesting idea
  • Presentation: it was well produced and presented
  • Distinctiveness: it was different from things I’ve experienced before
  • Challenge: it was thought-provoking
  • Captivation: it was absorbing and held my attention
  • Enthusiasm: I would come to something like this again
  • Local impact: it is important that it’s happening here
  • Relevance: it has something to say about the world in which we live
  • Rigour: it was well thought through and put together

Self and peer only:

  • Originality: it was ground-breaking
  • Risk: the artists/curators really challenged themselves
  • Excellence: it is one of the best examples of its type that I have seen’

Of course these surveys which have planned to be researched over a 10 year span can and will show a calculation of the participants feelings towards a subjective schema. However even results that may be taken as objective and noteworthy data can only allow a spectrum of opinions that have been congregated and correlated into a system that gives a 21st century definition of excellence within the arts. The information itself cannot tell you what it is, just a measurement against what people believe it to currently be. It will be perhaps more of a collage than a photograph but the metaphor still applies.

Though, when talking about discerning differences of styles and genres and when reflecting on progression in Music we can’t forget that the feeling of newness sometimes can be born out of an ignorance to what came before us. And upon this thought, this ignorance, it would be foolhardy to ignore the apathy toward Music itself. Some people simply don’t care and why should they? Glorification is in the eye of the beholder(s) and recognising a sense of beauty does not create a concrete equation for understanding, only the illusion of validity.

We can’t forget how ignorant we can be and have been as a species. We believed the Earth was flat, we believed the Earth was the centre of the universe, we murdered countless woman in the pursuit of ‘witches’, we recommended smoking as medicine, we systematically pushed down woman’s sexual desires as the medical condition known as ‘hysteria’, we believed a whole race of peoples where beneath us and thus could be sold into slavery. Alongside these examples, we need only to look at the hugely significant research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky with their distinctions of System 1 (instinct,gut) and 2 (reasoning, intelligence).

‘For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs. Considering how little we know, the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous…’

We can’t forget the limitations that our own minds provide. It’s not beyond reason to see that we’re not above believing that just because something appears to us in a particular form that is in fact exactly what it is. Music can and does fit into this thinking therefore limiting its possibilities. This isn’t always a bad thing but it doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to stretch out of our comfort zone.

Some may argue that through points of view based in nature we can discover exactly what Music is. Unfortunately this is often debatable and many struggle to remember they’re using a very specific and sophisticated language that has been dissected, embellished and changed through years of development to discuss a knowledge of sound derived from a perception built in the 21st century.

Nature is itself an extremely vague, clay – like topic and I would not wish to build an argument in such foggy terrain. If you analyse arguments based within nature in the past, you can easily finding worrying conclusions formed under such a broad topic. Just look at the Nazi party’s use of the topic of nature in the sense of Germany’s own mythic, historical folklore to establish a misplaced pride in genealogy and ultimately further racist agendas. Or the abolishment of the Creoles of colour who lost their position in a matter of a day due to the American government’s belief of the natural order of their race.  

We can even look to neuroscientist Stanislas Dehane’s remark that ‘..innumeracy maybe our normal human condition’ when discussing the considerable effort to understand multiplication with greater numbers and when this idea is placed alongside philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s belief that, when theorising upon man’s assumption of eternal truths established through language, logic and mathematics, states ‘Logic, too, rests on assumptions that do not correspond to anything in the real world, eg. on the assumption of the equality of things…So it is with mathematics, which would certainly not have originated if it had known from the beginning that there is no straight line in nature’ we can see that the subject of nature is equivocal and easily twisted to one’s own ends.

One may also look to Dan Gardner’s thoughts in his book ‘Risk’ too. Within the Chapter ‘The Chemistry of Fear’ where he discusses the modern world’s revulsion toward ‘chemicals’ formed out of common misunderstanding.

‘The synthetic chemicals in our bodies that disturb people are typically found only in these almost indescribably minute quantities. They are traces, mere whispers, like the radioactive uranium we consume all our lives in blissful ignorance of its benign presence. It’s true that many of these chemicals can cause cancer and other horrible effects but the science on which these conclusion are based on almost never involves these sorts of traces.’

These examples may seem scattered, unrelated but what they show is that the way we live, work and perceive the world is not in any concrete way ‘natural’ – it’s far more complicated than that. With a subject so utterly misunderstood, I have no wish to explore it’s subjectivism to find definitions in Music.

I shall not attempt answer the whys (?) of Music either. It really is not my concern nor in my interest. I doubt even if this sort of ‘knowing’ was possible that it would be much use. Despite the amount of neurological research that seems to try uncover this, the ideas seem, to me at least, limited by the small pool of music and musical activity they draw form. The same could possibly be said for recent research into letter – colour synaesthesia learned through training. It seems only to provide the information that we can force correlation between subjective senses of colour against symbols that happen to represent language. There is no inherent meaning discovered, just simply a learnt one with no means apart from the ones, we ourselves, devise. Even when looking at the history of an art form like typography we can find cultural laws and styles learnt and distorted. David Jury in his book ‘About Face’ cites the example of the Blackletter type face (also known as Gothic, Textura, Farktur and Old English). With it’s origins first cited in Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, its use evolved beyond religious contexts. Jury writes about it’s modern day uses:

‘..blackletter typefaces tend to be used as newspaper mastheads, legal documents and organically produced foods. However, because of its German origins and Hitler’s insistence on its use during the Thirties and Forties as the ‘true German’ typeface, it can be designed to take on other, more disturbing connotations.’

As we can see, through time, meanings are swayed and through our awareness whether educated about the source of origin and its transformations or not, we still find a variety of cataloged meanings across the world which in of themselves have no worth; no context; no interpretation; no definition.

So when creating in our time, seeking to market a define product, we must remember it’s only a version, a facet of whatever type of art we’re selling. We’ve never been so aware of our past and with this new awareness perhaps instead of forcing a clear definition of something down our throats to find out what something is, it may be better to use the huge view of history we have to instead show us all the incalculable things something can be.

Film Music = Classical Music?

In conversation, I usually find a strange idea that has fed itself into the public consciousness. It seems that people feel there is a strong connection in what they hear played in cinemas and the historical canon of Western Art music.

But are the two linked?

Well, of course. With an ever growing awareness and production of multicultural platforms within society, fiercely intertwined through the ‘magic’ of the internet, it would be impossible to argue that the past hasn’t at all affected the present and won’t affect the future. It seems everything has been caught within its web.

Indeed the history of film music is derived certainly from the classical canon. If we push down our lens onto its history we would struggle to see any originality at all. Performers usually drew from ‘Fake books’ rather than original material. From these books performers could draw specific pieces from the classical canon to fit the mood of a scene and play accordingly to the pace of the film as a guide.

As we fast forward in time we begin to see a different agenda in film through the advancement of ‘the talkies’ from silent cinema, and with this, the relationship of music (not just the notion of it but the process of creation, its use, the way it was captured) appears to change.

When we reach out and grasp for composers easily in the public’s ears (at this moment in time) we now tend to find composers who defy this idea of unoriginality. Composers like Bernard Hermann, Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone, John Williams or Hans Zimmer are viewed as easily recognisable for their own unique sound. We don’t associate them with those who copy and paste (even though arguably to an extent, they themselves have done so). They have an identity that we can grasp as they usually have an extensive working relationship with specific directors.

Hermann with Hitchcock; Elfman with Burton; Williams with Spielberg; Zimmer with Nolan and now Morricone seems to have found Tarantino. It is the combination of a specific aesthetic with a specific sound to create a specific style in cinema. The mixture of image and music sharing two perspectives and disciplines to create a united point of view in story telling. These styles scream out despite the genre they are pertaining. When you watch a Western by Tarantino, it is not simply just a Western and if you watch a piece of Science fiction by Nolan it is simply not just Science Fiction.

However despite this sense of originality, this is of course lost with the notion of popularity. Copy cats are bred and weave together notes from the ‘new sound’ to create a tapestry of cliche. From this I feel we begin to find where the confusion pops up. An original take on music derived from a blend of styles becomes itself a starting point for people to draw upon. A style of music within itself.

What once was something new becomes overused and recycled until it transforms the status quo. From this new found clay, we form it into something noticeable and pudge it together with the rest of the statue already formed but the more we add, the uglier it looks.

We don’t quite recognise it anymore. It doesn’t make sense.

All the composers I have mentioned above have had their music performed by orchestras – large ensembles formed of instruments that we associate with the ‘classical repertoire’. Their music is played in concert halls that attempt to replicate the art form’s original settings – forming a tradition in not only a repertoire of sound but of cultural norms too.

These actions, these instruments, when performed together in context, can evoke a time before us and a sound that literally represents our musical history but that doesn’t mean that through their mere use they produce ‘classical music’. None of these composers are strictly ‘classical’ nor are they ‘electronica’ or ‘jazz’ or ‘reggae’ or any other label you may care to think of. When it comes down to it, they are not beacons of style: they’re people.

The point is, film music isn’t classical music but it can fit the mold if we so wish. Of course its origins lie within its history but this doesn’t solely inform film music’s boundaries – the limits are down to the filmmaker’s intentions, the composer’s abilities, the technology available, the project’s time scale, their financial limitations etc – not within the understanding of a historical framework. Though the music itself should not, and clearly is not, restricted to be played in cinemas. Orchestras regularly hold film music events – which I feel is where we can pinpoint a sense of confusion.

It’s a difficult point to argue that the majority  of John William’s popular output isn’t classical music, or at least writing with the techniques of the canon, especially as it’s found to be performed regularly in concert halls. Though the ultimate use of music doesn’t tell us at all what category of style/genre we shove it in nor should it inform the limits of its use. We regularly hear Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ or ‘Firebird Suite’ , Wagner’s overture to ‘Tristan und Isolde’ and music from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Nutcracker’ played out of their original contexts.

To suggest that somehow music from films can’t be played out of context by orchestras, as is done with ballet and operas, is ridiculous. There is little weight to arguments bound in a sense of traditionalism, especially when it’s caught in contradiction. But where does this leave us? Is now John Williams a classical composer and therefore all his music classical music? No. He’s John Williams and he sometimes writes ‘classical music’ which is used in movies. When music finds multiple functions we should not seek prohibition, we should enlighten ourselves to its possibilities.

Though the performance of film music isn’t the only issue we have.

I think more confusion has festered through perhaps what one may call a new style of instrumental music that is used frequently in modern films. It’s like some kind of postmodern jumbo pot and sometimes has more in common with sound design than our preconceived notion of music. Phrases like ‘electronic orchestral hybrid’ have become definitions which have risen to popularity but I wonder how useful they are. They appear to neglect a deeper sense of identity in composition with the intent of trying to fit everything under the umbrella rather than just letting it rain. Though without an easy definition, will large audiences ever gather to hear the noise? (Cue the Ragnarok -like debates of artists and promoters here).

I remember attending a masterclass with the bass player/composer Steve Lawson (You can find a link to his website at the bottom of this article). He mentioned something  interesting about how he defined his own music. Steve creates music through the use of his bass as well as using a series of pedals that he uses to loop material. He creates layers of ambient sound in his work, all through the use of his bass, that he builds upon to create full pieces of music. He needed a phrase to help people understand what he was doing and the market for ‘Solo Bass music’ isn’t exactly a big one. He decided to go down a different tact and looked at how he could define his music in another way so his audience could understand it in another way too.

He chose to define his music as ‘Film Music’. In many ways it certainly is not. He’s not writing for film and if film music were indeed to be classical music, then he is certainly doing something very wrong. Over recent years, a type of music has formed that finds itself in film. It’s atmospheric and usually is prided on not being noticed underneath the dialogue and action on screen. I’ve often heard people say the best  film music is the music you don’t notice. It doesn’t overtake the scene. This idea is new and of course not gospel. Danny Elfman in the 2015 Hollywood reporter composers round table rebuts interviewer Kevin Cassidy as he tries to make a distinction between Rock and Film music.

Kevin Cassidy tries to make a differentiation between Rock Music which he defines as ‘Loud and Front of center…. it’s supposed to grab you’ and Film Music  as ‘..the opposite’. Elfman disagrees.

‘No I wouldn’t agree with that… if you look at the last 75 years of film music there is a lot that would counter that, that’s a contemporary thing that I’ve heard very frequently.’

Elfman continues to explain that rather such an idea has more to do with the particular needs of individual films rather than a hard and fast rule. He discusses the history of film music that intrigued his ears as a child citing Bernard Hermann as an influence. Explaining ‘I noticed every note’, he makes a distinction between this idea being far less than a fact and more of a modern trend. His contemporaries appear to agree with him too and really so should you – that’s the most important point here.

Steve Lawson noticed this trend of ‘background ambient sound’ meaning ‘film music’ being set. This music formed heavily (but not exclusively) from a blend of electronica and orchestral sounds found itself being called ‘film music’. In a way it’s both useless and useful. Steve noticed it and used it to his advantage. Instead of film music literally meaning ‘Music created for Film’, it has found itself becoming much more of a sound within itself, a style of music in of itself. Now this perceived formula that spacious, droning music always equals film music or that orchestras always play classical music is not helpful and just wrong.  Yes, it is likely that you’ll find these sounds in films or concert halls but this is just a commonality cloaked in perception of tradition – it’s temporary, not consistent.

Sometimes when we seek to define things in art we forget that they’re formed in reality. Film and music are both created through people, ideas and creativity but also through money. Capitalism doesn’t define art but it does shape how we interact with it. If things are popular and sell money – they’ll probably crop up a lot and stuff is a lot easier to sell if it’s easy to understand. They’ll be promoted and shape the architecture of the time within the life cycle of that particular trend. Our idea of film music is momentary – not finite.

And though we live in a ‘portfolio culture’ where you have 5 seconds to sell something ultimately the thing we need to realise is that there is no such thing as ‘Film Music’ rather ‘Music written for Film’ or even ‘Music that happened to be used in a film'(even if that idea doesn’t come naturally to us or even it’s not financially sane in these times). Of course in a world of shorthands, slang and texting such a niche problem as making sure you acknowledge that there is no one unified idea of film music in general conversation isn’t something you should worry about – please don’t think I’m asking you to act on this. Worry about paying the rent or feeding the cat or making sure you share this article to all your friends and family and tell them how great it is. All the important things.

But if there is something I would want a reader to take away from this, it would perhaps to be curious of the way we/you think/talk about the music you like. Let’s try not seeing things coming down a tunnel, starting where others have stopped. Try seeing it all like one huge canvas covered in paint. All the colours you can possibly imagine are mixing in with each other but you can trace them all back to their place of origin if you so wish. The point isn’t always where they come from or where they are going, rather sometimes there’s more fun to be had in what we choose to focus in on and what we choose to bring as an audience.

Also, don’t forget to check out Steve Lawson and music below!