Music is dumb

I just finished reading an essay called “The Music Itself: Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Vision,” and one part that stood out to me was writer Edward Said’s assertion that “music is fundamentally dumb.”

The statement reads like a hot take perfect for Twitter, but Said makes a good point: “despite its fertile syntactic and expressive possibilities, music does not encode reference, or ideas, or hypotheses discursively, the way language does.” Interesting, isn’t it?

Said’s explanation reminds me of a similar observation made by another critic A.O. Scott, who posits that “a piece of music makes no obvious argument, tells no literal story, soars above politics and history in an ether where logic and feeling coexist interchangeably.”

Both Said and Scott are specifically talking about instrumental music, or music that has no vocal/verbal embellishments and has therefore no possible reference from which the listener can glean an explicit message. I assume “dumbness” in this regard refers to the supposedly inherent vacuity — instrumental music can make us feel things but, in and of itself, it is incapable of articulation unlike other textual or visual media.

Said however leads the discussion to another important aspect of music — that of performance. Music does not exist in a void after all; it is not appreciated through a vacuum and it is made to be performed. Said’s essay is about one specific performer, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who is acclaimed for his exceptional skills and for going “well beyond the act of performing itself.”

Said opines that even if music is fundamentally dumb, a musician can always challenge this intrinsic dumbness just as Gould did:

“If this might mean controlling the performance space to the extent of articulating, taking over his environment (by dressing and appearing to be against the grain), conducting the orchestra despite a conductor’s presence, humming over and above the piano’s sound, talking and writing as if to extend the piano’s reach into verbal language via a whole slew of essays, interviews, record jacket notes, then Gould did so enthusiastically, like a mischievous, unstoppably talkative little prodigy.”

The best musicians are therefore those who reach beyond the box (of traditional performance) and whose out-of-the-box actions are still derived from the music itself. Gould in particular is best known for his interpretations of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, a composer from the Baroque era who is revered up to this day for his contrapuntal compositions.

The word contrapuntal pertains to a specific concept in music called a counterpoint, which happens when two or more independent melodic lines are woven together to create harmony. One basic example is the round, which is like when kids sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in unison but in separate staggered timing.

Said also describes the counterpoint as the “total ordering of sound” that births “horizontal, rather than vertical, music.” In Bach’s contrapuntal pieces as described by Said, the melodies are equal on the same lines and are sinuously spliced. Said implies that this horizontal form is clearly superior to other 19th century pieces that employ only one major melody with a heavy harmonic mass droning underneath.

Gould himself chose to play and to master Bach’s pieces. His preference for Bach’s highly polyphonic works was also complemented by his dislike for middle-period Beethoven and Mozart, which were apparently too “fashionable and too instrument-specific.”

Facts like these are admittedly meaningless for dimwits like me whose knowledge of classical music is cursory at best. It is however refreshing to learn that classical musicians also actively choose which works to perform, and that the making of such a decision is already a statement on its own. Said writes that by favoring contrapuntal pieces, Gould has mastered a technique that embodies and promotes the “simultaneity of voices, preternatural control of resources, [and] endless inventiveness.”

The counterpoint is indeed conceptually rife with radical potential (equality! inclusivity!). Said even extended its application to literary theory when he introduced the concept of “contrapuntal reading” in a completely different essay.

Unfortunately I am not well-read enough to even take a stab at explaining what contrapuntal reading is. Music is fundamentally dumb and so am I, and reading an essay on music criticism just reminded me of my own inability to cull sharp and critically-sound observations about music, classical or otherwise.


The featured image is from Don Hunstein and the Glenn Gould Foundation.

I read two major sources: Edward Said’s Music at the Limits (2008) and A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism (2016).

I should also mention that I have no formal education on either music or literary theory, so please feel free to correct me if anything in this post is even remotely incorrect. I also strongly recommend you to listen to the album “Bach: The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988.” The 1981 remastered version is available on Spotify and I swear it’s *chef’s kiss*.

Lastly, please continue to stay safe. Ang gulo-gulo na ng mundo so mag-ingat na lang tayong lahat hangga’t kaya, huhuhu.

1 thought on “Music is dumb”

  1. but then i truly enjoy the ‘dumbness’ of music as you explain it. i do not care much about the lyrics of the song, and my wife sometimes berates me for humming the tune without knowing what the song’s story is all about.

    Like

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