The Ear as the First Musical Instrument

Music has consistently been at the center of my life. I didn’t become consciously aware of this fact until my mid-teens, and throughout my life I have gradually come to realize that music is, in Joseph Campbell’s words, “my bliss.” This detailed, in-depth, independent study of musical aesthetics has allowed me to take great steps toward making the interdisciplinary connections I’ve sought since deciding to do a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies project, but had not been able to make due to lack of aesthetic terminology and familiarity with various aesthetic philosophies.

It really surprised me, for some reason that is now difficult to understand, to scan the literature of the field and discover that there were so many others for whom music and the other arts were so important as to devote entire books, culminating lifetimes of study and musical experience. Perhaps I was most surprised in realizing that I know so little about what I considered to be my area of expertise. Music has always been my guiding line, but I’ve also prided myself on a fairly self-consistent world-view, which I have developed through years of soul-searching and research. So when I read Bennett Reimer‘s very soundly-argued philosophical argument for a (mostly) sound theory of musical education, I found myself intrigued by the attention to detail and the depth of musical experience that was obviously behind the text.

The Reimer book was, I think, an excellent introduction to my readings in musical aesthetics. It laid out the polar extremes of (a dimension of) aesthetic theory (Referentialism and Absolute Formalism) as well as a middle-ground theory (Absolute Expressionism). So, at the time, I took from this book, if nothing else, a standard by which to orient succeeding aesthetic theories. And this system worked fine for me until I encountered the ideas of Thomas Clifton and Brian Eno. Both Clifton and Eno emphasize the centrality of the listener. See, at the beginning of this Independent Study, I had a solid feeling of music’s fundamental role in the universe. I had already made interdisciplinary connections through the notions of music-as-vibration and of harmony as relationships between vibrations. All experience occurs through relationships, the main relationship being between subject and object, the self and the world, the knower and the known. But, while these relationships are usually considered as opposites, they are by no means mutually exclusive. As relationships, by definition, they imply and give meaning to each other. Music, therefore, has always validated my existence by confirming my creative relationship with the world.

So my problems started when I tried to incorporate the theories of Clifton and Eno into the framework of Reimer. Reimer, you see, doesn’t address improvisation, nor how the listener’s intention plays such an important role in musical experience. But for me and Clifton and Eno, music exists only while someone is hearing it.

I finally found reconciliation in the notion that the ear is the first musical instrument. If we take this statement to be true, then all sorts of implications arise. One is that music occurs in the listening. Yes, there is undoubtedly a certain logical and mathematical beauty in seeing music as formal structure, and it is probably even true, as Diana Raffman argues in her phenomenal book Language, Music and Mind, that our perception process is schema-driven. That is, in perceiving music, we unconsciously abstract it in order to commit it to conscious awareness and memory. But, to quote Raffman, “[a] person deaf from birth cannot know a piece of music.” (40) This is because they have never heard anything; they have never been sensitive to sound.

A second implication of the statement “the ear is the first musical instrument” is that it doesn’t matter who is producing the music– all that matters is that it is being heard. I prefer not to see this as a de-emphasis of the roles of performer and composer that crumbles the traditional musical hierarchy as much as it raises the role of listening itself to an art.

Which leads to a third implication, that listening is itself a creative act. We should not forget that what is noise to one listener may be music to another (and vice versa). I feel that music is brought into existence by the listener’s recognition of sound as music rather than by the composer’s (or performer’s) intention for sound to be music. Remember, the music’s producer doesn’t even enter into the equation. Here is where the listener’s socio-cultural context is taken into account. As Brian Eno says, “Things become artworks not because they contain value, but because we’re prepared to see them as artworks, to allow ourselves to have art experiences from them, before them, to frame them in contexts that confer value on them.” (Kelley, 207) And much of how we experience our world comes from the culture we live in. Thus it is that serious Western music critics generally don’t consider any music other than Western Classical music as art.

A fourth implication is that the listener-as-subject and the music-as-object cannot be separated from one another. It makes no sense at all to hold one as more important than the other or to consider one without the other. What is music, after all? For that matter, what is sound? Alan Watts stated the question as, “how would vibrations in the air be noisy if you didn’t have ears?” This is for me the strongest link to the world, in that “myself,” “music,” and “the world” all become enmeshed in a feedback continuum– that is, what happens in each affects the others. In composing, performing, or listening, as Thomas Clifton says, “music is what I am when I experience it.” (Rao, 297) When this feeling of unity with the world is strongest is in spontaneous “jams” with my band Makak and with various other people. As long as everyone is “on the same wavelength,” and everyone is listening more than playing, it is very easy to fall into this “zone” in which the music plays the musicians.

In conclusion, this independent study has helped me grow by simply exposing me to a wide array of perspectives on music. This growth has strengthened my commitment to continue experimenting with the creative possibilities of music by further deepening both its intellectual and emotional attraction to me. This study has most importantly confirmed that, in pursuing music as a lifestyle, I am on the right path.

Works Cited:

Kelley, Kevin, “Brian Eno: Gossip is Philosophy,” Wired, May 1995, pp. 146-51, 204-9.
Raffman, Diana, Language, Music and Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993, 169 pp.
Rao, Doreen B., “Thomas Clifton”, On the Nature of Musical Experience, Bennett Reimer & Jeffrey Wright, eds., University Press of Colorado, Niwot, Colorado, 1992.
Reimer, Bennett, A Philosophy of Music Education, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970, 173 pp.


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