Understanding Music


“Eyes are organs of temptation and the ears the organs of instruction”, said Aristotle.

Music has made big changes throughout the history of this world or maybe big changes happened through music. Though, some may underestimate music and its power.

Mankind used to listen to music, even before he learns to play it. The music of the rain, wind, birds and …

As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, the auditory system is physically much closer to the parts of brain that regulates life, the areas which are the basis of pain, pleasure, motivation and other basis emotions. Correspondingly, understanding music can be a quite personal experience. When one listens to the music, he/she connects it to his/her own experiences, feelings, thoughts, problems, memories, etc. and interprets it accordingly. Music connects us to our deepest feeling and thoughts and helps us to express them. Therefore, it can be the matter of trusting yourself.

Understanding music can be as challenging as understanding anything else, if not more complicated. It can be divided into two holistic categories. First of all, understanding the music theory in the sense of how music is notated, how to read, write and play or sing music, etc. Second of all, understanding the message behind the music and what the composer is trying to express regardless of technical and theoretical aspect of music. When we listen to music, our mind starts analyzing the four elements that the music is made of (rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre and color). Our mind sub-consciously analyses each of these elements separately, and then unifies them all together. What we hear consciously (as an untrained ear) is the unified version.

Music is a language, a language that is extraordinary. It’s the only language that everyone understands (at some extend) and even enjoys more or less, even without learning its rules. As any other language, music has its own alphabet, its own history, literature, etc. Certainly, one would understand music more deeply with music studies/education. But composers didn’t and don’t write music only for the people who have musical education. They had and have a message in their music, and that’s the point. Maybe another difference between serious music and other styles is the message, it’s not just for enjoyment, excitement and fun.

The question is how we understand music without musical education? Sounds are the alphabet of music after all. When we take a closer look, we realize that we are very familiar with different kinds of sounds. For instance, we can tell horror sounds of thunders from gentle sounds of a bird singing on a tree. Correspondingly, these sounds are raw materials and inspirations for a composer. Each sound awakes a specific feeling, emotion and even thought inside us. A composer tries to do his best to awake those feelings and thoughts he has in mind, in the listener/audience.

Could you imagine horror movies without the sound tracks? What awakes that sense of terror in you more, the sound track or the movie? Some may argue that it’s the mixture of the both. But if you start to listen to a scary piece of music, without any sort of preparation, you’ll see that your heart starts to beat faster and … briefly, you’ll feel scared, even without watching a scary movie! You can expand this to any other genre as well…

Ultimately, understanding/perceiving music can really depend on how you understand and interpret the world and people around you and how good you understand yourself. Yet, what can really help us understand music better is to ask ourselves what the composer is trying to say? Not always, we might find a verbal answer to that question but maybe just a feeling. Furthermore, some believe that it’s even wrong to try to explain music, because music starts where we run out of words.

All that has been said applies to serious music more, rather than popular music, although, it might be partly true about pop music as well.

“Through music we’ve learned how to accept each other, communicate with each other, and how to listen and how to agree to disagree sometimes and still get on stage and play a Beethoven symphony absolutely beautifully.”

By Arash A.

Related posts:

Destructive Music

Music and Philosophy

Pop Music and Societal Context


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