This is the first of a three-part essay I’m writing entitled “Finding the Meaning of Music through Metaphor”. A recent consultation with my music mentor gave way to a more complicated web of ideas, thus stopping me from finishing the essay in order to ponder some more.
Music is movement.
Think of it as a journey that commences at its very first sound. In fact, you can also consider that music begins even before you hear it. Imagine the conductor poised with his baton before giving his orchestra the cue to begin. Or think of your hand on the doorknob, pulling the door open before you make that first step outside. The intention of leaving is there, just as the anticipation of sound is felt even before you hear it.
Once the music starts it’s all about moving, of going somewhere. The destination, however, is never the point of music. It can justify one’s steps taken during the journey but remember that the goal, once reached, marks the end of the trip. So, it is not where one’s going that matters in music; it is how one got there that counts.
When embarking on a journey, our movement makes sense. Our steps are connected: where, when, or how we take our steps are consequences of the ones that came before it; we make our steps anticipating the ones we will take after them. The same goes for music. Its sounds and silences are born of intention and consequences. No matter how haphazard sounds seem to have been woven, they are, each of them, like dots connecting to form a figure, and this formed greater whole is why the destination is trivial. It is merely the last dot one needs to complete the figure. It doesn’t make the figure, just as the last note or chord that signifies the end of music, whether in muted tones or in a grand bang, doesn’t hold the essence of what we just heard.
Music can be analyzed as steps that lead up to its destination; steps that make sense when you look back from where you are. We can explore relationships between these steps and probably come up with patterns that can lead to structure to further make sense of what our ears perceived. Surely we can make sense of our journey once we start walking, but can we find coherence in music while we listen to it, or is analysis a necessity in order for it to be understood? And is making sense the same as having meaning?
My composition mentor, Dr. Ramon Pagayon Santos, and I were just recently talking about his analysis of Nicanor Abelardo‘s kundiman, “Mutya ng Pasig” and were marveling over the late genius’ effortless coupling of words and sounds. I wondered out aloud whether people who listen to his kundimans really hear the tone painting nuances Abelardo so ingeniously infused. He said probably not because it would require a radical shift in how most people listen.
His response points to my first question. Can we make sense of music in its temporal movement? Not all people. Not always. I base these assumptions on the quizzical looks of my students, past and present, whenever I venture into the analysis of musical forms. Granted most of my students are in high school, still their reaction mirror the perplexed adults’, even by music students in my college. It’s true that the manner by which most people listen prevents them from hearing the essential elements that could point to the music’s rationale; but even the most sensitive and discerning of listeners still might fail to grasp it, especially during the first hearing.
Think of your experience during a journey. Although the steps you make are consequences of your intention to get your destination, often you don’t see the sense in them as you walk. Why? Because the thought of reaching your destination propels you forward, leaving you to regard each step as you take them. Isn’t this how we listen, too? Although we don’t know what it is, we know that there’s an end in sight. But even so, one doesn’t listen waiting for the end. We listen from sound to sound, from moment to moment. Music is a temporal art. One needs to experience it while it is being realized, therefore, making concrete sense of it as we listen or experience it for the first time is a challenge.