Music . . .
can name the unnameable
and communicate the unknowable
For whatever mix of genetic and environmental influences, I have been predominantly an analytic thinker most of my life. That has made me a good organizer, a committed researcher, fairly good at mathematics, not a complete loss in relation to physics. I choose to read articles on economics rather than poetry, political analyses rather than fiction, to write about theories of intelligence rather than the history of art.
The one glaring exception to this rational analysis all my life has been music. It possibly hasn’t saved my life. But I think it has saved my sanity. Or perhaps more accurately, it has added a completely new dimension to my life and consciousness.
The arts – whether it be painting, poetry, sculpture, music, or literature- addresses a reality which is beyond human analysis or reason. The meaning of life, of love, of beauty, of loyalty, of faithfulness, the purpose or at least the usefulness of suffering, of death, or loss can, of course, be discussed philosophically. But the arts are beyond words and can give us a direct experience of their mystery in a way that analysis can’t.
I am not suggesting we don’t need analysis or that it is an inferior source of wisdom compared to the arts. We need analysis to save us from superstition, from unsubstantiated conclusions, even from the arrogance of the certainty that ignorance so often supports.
Nor do all the arts speak equally to everyone. In fact, I think education has failed too many by failing to distinguish between the ability to analyze the arts and to appreciate them. First of all, I think we should be encouraged to discover which arts speak to us personally. Is it music? poetry? painting? Would you rather go to a concert tonight or a museum? Would you rather go through a park dotted with sculpture or sit comfortably reading a great work of literature? And when we look or listen, the first question we should ask is how it speaks to us, not whether we can categorize it as if we were being asked a test question.
For me, the great classical works, especially of Beethoven and Mozart, and paradoxically, folk music, have been my great avenues to this other world of mystery beyond rational analysis. I have also just recently discovered what a difference the conductor can make in my appreciation. I grew up in Ohio and even as a child was taken to listen to George Szell conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. But today, the exuberance and energy of Leonard Bernstein takes me into that other world in a new way. My reserved brother who knows more about music than I do thinks Szell is far better. But I think our different assessments are equally due to differences between us. Bernstein’s exuberance does not speak to him as it does to me but gets in the way and he prefers Szell’s reserve which I personally find just a little inhibiting.
Whatever our particular preferences and whatever art may speak most strongly to us, I think the human psyche needs the arts to reach our fullest wisdom as much as we need food and shelter. And analysis.
Because art is beyond words. It can name the unnameable. And communicate the unknowable.