Does music exist?

Since the advent of analog, broadcast television we’ve been amazed at the possibility of transmitting images from one location to another. We’re told that televised images are broken down into tiny pieces, sent sequentially through waves in the atmosphere, and somehow, miraculously reassembled into coherent images on our television screens. Amazingly, this act of breathtaking wizardry has been tacitly accepted as a mundane aspect of our lives.

A melody, by the same token, comprises a series of single notes, sung one at a time, sounding out through vibrations in the atmosphere, heard one note at a time, and reassembled, incredibly, in the mind of the listener. (A song or symphony is much the same, but rather than one solo note being sounded at any isolated moment in time, there may be a combination of pitches, or “chords.”)

If some unfortunate soul were to lose the capacity for immediate short-term memory, he would lose track of the notes he had just heard. Without any concept of the past, he cannot perceive the melody.

Conversely, one with a diseased mind, who may not be adept at recognizing the repetition of patterns, would not have the capacity to “expect” the next few notes in the melodic line. He could not tap his foot or “groove” to the music, or close his eyes and “feel along with the melody.” One component of listening to music is recognizing patterns, and feeling amusement at how a composer establishes a pattern, and then breaks the pattern through embellishment and variation:

“Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb, Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.”

We “groove” along with our comfortably repeating pattern: little lamb, little lamb, little lamb, and then we get to go along for the ride as the composer daringly varies the pattern with the punch line: whose fleece was white as snow.

Spoken word music (like Joe Frank or some early Dylan) and Rap music are rhythm- and syntax-based, rather than pitch-based music, although we define the patterned phrases as musical compositions just the same. So, we ask, does the song exist as an object in and of itself, or is it rather a concept, an idea that exists solely within the mind?

Music is a function of definition.

There are similar phenomena that we may not define as music.

Long before the dawning of digital cable, in the wee hours, I used to sit and watch TV, mesmerized by televangelists and their showman-like, almost vaudevillian stage manner. My jaw would sometimes hang low in respect of their calculated skill at inspiring ecstasy from a crowd of followers. (I do not intend to offend anyone who follows charismatic leaders. I am strictly speaking about mannerisms here.)

I noticed in the more talented speakers among them (Jimmy Swaggart was really good at this), that they had woven rhythmic patterns into their speeches:

(Moderate energy) I will take up my sins and kneel before the Lord.

(…followed by another few lines of sermon, spoken moderately…)

(Then, Greater energy) I will take up my sins and kneel before the Lord!

(…followed by another few lines of sermon, spoken moderately…)


(…followed by another few lines of sermon, spoken moderately…)


This pattern is like the architecture of a sneeze:

aaah… (level 1 energy)
Aaah… (level 2 energy)
AAAH… (level 3 energy)
CHOOOO!… (A complete, orgasmic climax)

Back when I used to score television sitcoms, I remember the formula written into the show by the writers. The interspersed jokes were written in groups of 3 with increasing intensity: little giggle, medium laugh, hearty guffaw… little giggle, medium laugh, hearty guffaw…etc. This natural pattern was respected and enhanced by the editors, and then exaggerated further by the artificial laugh track mixers. That pattern simply “worked” and was a very successful formula for those shows.

So musical patterns exist even where we would not normally define them as music. This calls to mind the question: “If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?”

If I chant, repeatedly,

I am not a writer, I am not a writer, I am not a writer, I am not a writer,

I can feel a rhythm pattern of strong and weak beats where “I”, “Not” and “Writ” are the strongest accents. I am feeling it like this:

I am NOT a WRIT-er
I am NOT a WRIT-er

This “DOWN-up, DOWN-up, DOWN-up pattern is the same pattern of dualities that we see in our own vital functions within our bodies. For example, our heart must become empty to create a vacuum to suck in the next batch of blood, to then squirt it out through our blood vessels strongly enough to nourish our bodies. It must become empty to become full, to become empty to become full. Of course, our lungs dance the same ageless dance.

The inexplicable phenomenon of music is a performance of patterns that mysteriously sound logical to all humans young and old, rich and poor, intellectual and experiential. But just like our pitifully limited perception of the infinite universe, we can only perceive a very narrow bandwidth of vibrations.

If they occur rapidly enough, we perceive these patterns or “vibrations” as pitches or notes. If noise and silence are alternated at a rate of 20 Hz (that’s a frequency of 20 alternations, or “waves,” per second) we would perceive this as a very low note. Most humans can perceive notes from around 20 Hz to about 16,000 Hz, although some people can hear beyond this range.

While very large objects, such as mountains, may vibrate at extremely low frequencies (some say once every 30 days or so) our finite spectrum of perception couldn’t come close to hearing this extraordinarily low pitch. The earth has an oscillation cycle ranging between .8 and 5.8 years! (Seismologists describe this oscillation as the so-called “normal mode” of the Earth that arises due to gravitational coupling between the mantle and inner core.) Now that’s a LOOOOOOW note.

There’s a symphony going on that we cannot perceive. We cannot even imagine what level of being could perceive this Universal Song, yet we are deeply woven into this dance of vibrations.

Our narrow spectrum of perceived music is limited further by prejudice

Within the tiny perceivable spectrum of sound that we define as music, we further filter our experience with the inevitable psychological associations we bring to listening. Phrases such as “I love Jazz” or “I like Hop-hop” or “I hate Schoenberg” are as common as “I like sushi.” We bring our own baggage to the listening booth and thus we are often unable to hear the pure expressions of the artist.

What music was playing a lot during the time of your life when you had your first romance? What was popular when you were a child? What feelings come up for you when you hear it now? Do we ever really listen with a “beginner’s mind?” Often meditation instruction begins with pure listening: listen to the sound of a bird outside without conjuring a bird; the passing traffic without visualizing cars. Just sound, nothing more.

But our experience of musical expression is both limited by and dependent upon, no less, our state of mind as a receiving vessel for these waves of sound. Our extra-musical mind (along with it’s past associations) dictates what we visualize when we hear Gangsta Rap, a Mozart piano concerto, or a Leonard Cohen dirge.

A classical music lover in India would attend an evening-long concert with a studied knowledge of Indian Ragas (or Rags). These musical “modes” are associated with certain times of day and other traditions, and contain specific musical characteristics. The soloist might introduce the raga of the evening with melodic fragments of just a few notes here and there, separated by silence, to build anticipation in the listeners, and to playfully tease them to guess just what Raga he will delight them with for the next 90 minutes. It’s “name that tune” during the extended introduction, and then the listeners enjoy the soloist’s complex development of this Raga. These are educated listeners.

When I hear the Philharmonic perform Sibelius’ 2nd Symphony, I feel as though all humanity has attained a peak of expression in a crowning moment of symphonic achievement. I’m awed by the architecture of the symphony, which I’ve taken in, one note at a time (or one “chord” at a time) and re-assembled in my own mind. (There is a certain preciousness about that experience. Perhaps I am also prejudiced, in my love of the music.) If we’re to make sense of this long symphony, we must be experienced or “skilled” in thematic development and symphonic structure, if even subconsciously.

These highly complex musical languages are ultimately no more remarkable than very sparse, solo performances by expressive artists of any genre. Zen Shakuhachi soloists communicate a universe of subtleties, rendering the notes themselves almost secondary to their highly refined expression. Here, the infinitesimal gradations of timbre are understated rather than built up, but are stunning nonetheless. A skilled player will use breath itself as an instrumental color, bending the air with the natural grace of Japanese calligraphy. Again, an uninitiated listener might miss much of the intention of the musician.

These personal and cultural differences make even more precious the moments when somehow, as listeners, we comprehend the natural syntax of a musical phrase and there is a shared experience. These passing moments when we “get it,” and we feel “aaah…” – this connection is the real phenomenon.

So why do my young children feel sad when they hear a mournful melody? Why are they moved to dance when the rhythms perk up? There is much research regarding the innate versus learned effects of music, and results are always a bit murky. Studies have shown quick music in major keys to be generally associated with happiness, while slower music in minor keys with sadness, even in many isolated cultures. Just as Schoenberg’s 12-tone serialist system failed to become accepted by both listeners and composers, it has been revealed that certain natural musical tendencies are inevitable. As it is, however, the ratio of learned versus innate is impossible to accurately measure. So we’re dealing with some very complex phenomena as part of our daily lives, unquestioned.

Listening with a “beginners mind.”

It would not be fruitful to attempt to escape our personal “viewpoint” as a listener. Rather, we can use insight into our conditioning as a tool, or an inspiration for contemplation, another window into our consciousness. We can acknowledge our prejudices, or associations, and simply continue listening.

The moment of connection with the musical energy is a pure, spontaneous moment. The many years of disciplined mastery of the musician or composer becomes, ultimately, an abandoned vehicle. The musician, the instrument, the vibrating waves, the air, the eardrum, and the listener all become interwoven in this delicate, momentary interplay.

The primal, unexplained motivation to make music, and the ability to transmit the architecture of a song from person to person is nothing short of mind-boggling. Especially since we don’t even really know just what this phenomenon is, this interplay that we have given the name “music.”

Information on composer Steven Chesne’s “Music for Introspection” recordings with the Luminous World Orchestra can be found at: The film, TV, and concert hall music of Steven Chesne is covered in detail at