Westin Tiggard Olgilvy
(Originally published on 6 September 2006)
What is music? A simple question, yet one never satisfactorily answered. Perhaps the better question is: Why is music? As with existence itself, why should music be? The usual materialist explanations offer no insight, as expected.
The most the materialist can offer is vague phrases such as “music soothes the soul.” As if the soul were something perfectly explained within the materialist handbook. But music, proceeds the materialist, is a development of the species, serving some “survival instinct” (whatever that may be). Yet no coherent case can be made for any Darwinist interpretation of music, as the relative absence of the subject in evolutionist literature amply illustrates. Exactly what function could music serve to “propagate the species”?
After all, one could easily imagine a species without music. Did music help in “conquering the environment” (such is the standard martial diction of the materialist). If so, how? Yet another question which leads to silence. The same silence as the mysteriously missing “fossil record.”
It is true that armies have marched into battle with the pounding of drums and the cry of the trumpets, but it is equally true that music is predominately a non-warring phenomenon. Music is found mostly in non-bellicose social situations, especially the private life, or experience, of the individual. Indeed, the importance of music for the individual argues against any collectivist interpretation.
The collectivist interpretation fails of its own in any case from the outset, since all collectivities–societies and communities–are made of individuals. There is no such thing as a society without the individuals who comprise it. In some fashion, then, we must look to the individual human being and his experience for the answer to our question: What is music? For every collective use of music there can be adduced millions of individual uses which the collective can not answer.
MacDonald King Aston’s words, from his song, Bottom of the Well, spring to mind here: “You are the singer, you are the song.” One thinks also of Wallace Stevens, who asked the musician to “give back to us what once you gave/The imagination that we spurned and crave.” (To the One of Fictive Music) If music is ultimately, as it is and must be, an individual experience, what then does it mean to an individual?
To ask this question is to first ask the nature of music. Music, like speech, is sound. But it is sound organised (again, like speech). Music is metrical. Its metre, as well as its sound, must mean something to the individual person. But how does the metricality of music come to mean something to the individual person? The answer is startlingly simple. A person is metrical as well.
Experience itself is measured. Relations of space and time are governed and measured by the mind. They are, in fact, formal laws of thought, and not given external entities “out there.” From this fact, which I present here without argument, it seems to me that music, whatever it may be, is a precondition of thought itself. Thought, of course, belongs only to human experience and to the individual. Thus, music is part of what it means to be human. We could no more do without music than we could do without thought.
Music gives to experience a necessary context. That context is the Holy. As all human beings, even the basest atheist, apprehend a context larger than the self, so music embodies that larger context.
It is impertinent, however, to speak of music as God, for God transcends His creation, and music is of the created. Yet music sings its Creator, and even brings us into relation with that Creator. One thinks of the phrase “music of the spheres,” as understood by Pythagoras. A sound and a measurement of the noumenal. The chanting of monks down the centuries, then, takes on more significance than mere noise. The chants are music, and music is holy and of the Holy.
Music connects man to his Creator. Music is an instauration, establishing the nexus between the Creator and the created, and a theriac for the This World weariness pandemic to the created. Exactly how this nexus works we can not say, any more than we could specify the exact nature of the Creator. The tongue can not taste itself nor can the sea drown itself. Yet the sacrality of music is beyond doubt, as any one who has ever listened to J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C Minor could attest. Bach’s Toccata is more than sound and metrics; it is God Himself.
Thus it may be the case that we can never know exactly what music is any more than we can know exactly what God is. For music is an expression of the Holy, and the Holy, howsoever dimly conceived by the misguided child of the Enlightenment, is part of what it means to be human, part of all that is.
Music is, at the very least, the vox Dei and the voces angeli eius. In this we are not deceived. If you are the singer and the song, the song is God’s, as indeed you are.
The highest forms of music are, therefore, God speaking to us and through us.
Let the materialist have his matter, then, for it is of no matter. What matters is all of creation, and creation sings itself as it sings its Creator. Music is the logos.
Westin Tiggard Olgilvy was born in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, to Dr. Furman T. Olgilvy and Emily Delight Olgilvy. A scholar and writer, Olgilvy is best known for his “Life of Sidney Lanier,” an exhaustive study of the musicological basis of Lanier’s poetry. In addition, Olgilvy translated all of Plato into ancient Greek.