Music, Art for the Soul
“The body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art.”
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
In the third book of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer outlines his theory of aesthetics, its place in his metaphysical system, and the structure of aesthetic experience. After systematically going through different art forms, he lands on music as the art form with a peculiar pre-eminence. He writes that:
“[Music’s] effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself…we must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.”1placeholder
A few claims are being made here. First, that music has a more powerful effect on human beings than other art forms. Second, that music is universally understood. Virtually everyone enjoys music, especially compared to other art forms. And finally, that the reason for these facts, the reason for the particular pre-eminence of music, in impact and understanding, has something to do with the nature of the human being, the world, and the peculiar form music takes, as opposed to something like painting or sculpture. I think all of these claims are true. I think the first two are a given, and that we have good reason to accept the third. However, we are not to accept it for the reasons Schopenhauer thought we should (which I will not go over). Instead, I have my own account of why we ought to think this. But first, a brief note on the first two claims.
Is music really universally understood? Is it an exaggeration of Schopenhauer’s to call it a “universal language”? No, it is really not. It has both a historical pedigree that almost no other art has (except perhaps painting) and is universally enjoyed both now and throughout history. Indeed, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, in 2022, the average person listened to music for 20.1 hours per week.2placeholder That is, on average, 2.87 hours a day. What other single activity do we willingly choose to do, for no other reason than our passive enjoyment, for 2.87 hours a day, every day? What other art form boasts such a unique and broad and universal appeal over us? Further, consider how music accompanies other activities and art forms, from movies to TV to theatre to dancing to gatherings to parties to cafes to bars to clubs to concerts to festivals to commuting to advertising to workplaces to the gym to exercise to just being around one’s home, and to social media content. Music permeates people’s lives in a way quite unlike any other artform.
Does music have a particularly potent effect on human beings, more than other art forms? I think the fact of its pre-eminence in our lives would suggest something like this. However, it is also true that other art forms have the capacity to affect us in a similar way. Thus, it cannot simply be its potency that explains its ubiquity. Rather, there must be something unique about its medium, and our interaction with it, that explains its ubiquity. Thus, we are led to ask why music has this special and unique place in our world. This essay is an attempt to answer that question. To answer it, I think we must vindicate Schopenhauer’s third claim. However, to do so, a detour into metaphysics will have to be taken.
We ordinarily think of ourselves as occupying some spatial place in the world. Just as my shower is over there, my bed there, I, am here. In this way, the world might seem to be a loose scattering of objects in their particular places, jostling one another about, undergoing constant spatial modification. This ordinary understanding of things, while often necessary to successfully engage with the world, misses something fundamental about us. We are not only beings in space, but in time too. Of course, this much is obvious. And indeed, it is more than that: we are more temporal than we are spatial. This is one of the many great insights of Bergson, who was constantly reminding us of the precedence the temporal takes over the spatial. If all we are is a spatial object resulting from a long history of physical modification, we would only exist at worst as a single vanishing point and at best as a series of discontinuous moments. But we are not just a series of moments or the product of a process, we are the process itself, and this process unfolds over time. This point will require some defence.
Let me show this with an example. Take any river. If you suppose that what the river is is the collection of water molecules that make it up right now, it would be a different river every time you step into it, even at every moment, because it is constantly changing. Thus, what makes this river this river cannot be the collection of water molecules at some time. Instead, the fact that it is changing in a particular way is the fact by virtue of which it is a river. Think about it: the structured process itself, the constant change it undergoes, this process, not a collection of molecules at some time, is what makes it this river. If it stopped flowing and all the same molecules remained stationary, it would stop being a river, because a river flows. Therefore, a river cannot be identified with a collection of things at some frozen time-slice. It cannot even meaningfully exist in a time-slice. This is because, for it to undergo the process that makes it what it is, its flow, it must be changing. A river cannot be changing in a time-slice, because change must occur over some duration, and a time-slice is duration-less. A river is a process, and for a process to exist, it must be changing over some time. In this sense, a river is essentially a temporal being.
We are also temporal beings in precisely this sense. We are not the particular cells that make up our body in some moment, but rather the complicated formal regulatory process of matter-energy exchange that we do with our environment to keep ourselves alive. If we lost all of the cells that make us up at one time, it would still be us. Indeed, precisely this happens over the course of several years, every several years. But if we stopped going through this complicated process of change that unfolds through time, we would cease to exist as ourselves because we would cease to function as the beings that we are. (We would be dead!) Thus, we are essentially temporal beings. There is no meaningful sense in which we could properly be said to exist at all within a single time-slice. This is because this ceaseless but regulated change must occur over some duration, because without duration there cannot be change, and, we are that change. This structured temporal organisation of ours might rightly be called our form or soul. However, I cannot vindicate my claim that we are more temporal than we are spatial until I show that the process that makes us what we are not only essentially exists in time but is also essentially directed in time.
Not only is our organisation a process that must exist in time, but it is also directed in time. It is directed from the past and towards the future. This may seem a trivial point, but it is not. As I noted, we are a complicated process of constant, ceaseless change. This means that our most basic engagement with the world is through constant action, through the particular unfolding of ourselves in time. And always at every point in time this action is (1) directed towards some future end and (2) mediated by our past. Thus, this action is fundamentally directed in time, it is both future-directed and past-retaining. I will now flesh out this idea.
The future-directedness of action is simply that every action acts towards some end. End is meant in the broadest sense here; it is any future state of affairs whatsoever. For example, my action of walking towards work is directed towards the end of getting to work. The action of writing a master’s thesis is directed (partially) toward getting a master’s degree. However, this also includes even the most trivial of conscious actions, like the action of scratching an itch, whose end is to stop feeling an itch. We are always acting towards the future in this way, and we are never acting towards the past. Even a retreat into memory, into some past, is an action with the end of bringing about the future state of affairs where one is recollecting that past.
Indeed, even unconscious, or instinctual actions are end-directed in this way, even if their end is less complex or even trivial. For example, we may be anxious about completing some task and without knowing it be putting it off or conveniently forgetting that we have to do it. While not normally considered actions, even bodily processes like breathing and salivating have this future-directedness, with the end of maintaining the functioning of our bodies as we advance into the future. We breathe so we can breathe again. Thus, all action, even the most trivial, unconscious, or instinctive, in some way expects or works toward some future state of affairs.
We perhaps ordinarily draw a line between such kinds of end-directedness because of how we experience them. In our more complex ends, we experience them as objects being approached by us as we act towards them. We experience them as coming about if we move our bodies and act in a certain way. In our more basic instinctual or unconscious ends, we experience them not as approaching objects, but as the grounds by which we consciously act towards these objects. For example, take my walking to work. The end of getting to work is experienced as being approached due to my action. However, my actual walking is experienced not as individual or possible action, but as a means toward the end of getting to work. It is not object, but grounds, for action. Ditto for all the other bodily processes regulating my being, most of which are not experienced at all. Nevertheless, in both cases, the action and its end are future-directed. I call the future-directedness of our temporal being our anticipation. Action, and thus our entire being as it unfolds in time, is anticipatory, whether it is the conscious anticipation involved in planning and undertaking projects or the anticipation involved with our most basic bodily processes.
The past-retaining aspect of our action is that aspect that factors the history of our being into the present. This is a slightly more obscure aspect of our action, but it is of even more fundamental importance. The way in which we carry the past with us can be broken up into two categories. The first is habit, and the second is memory. (However, it will turn out, like with anticipation, such categories are ultimately abstractions from a single movement of past-retention.)
Habit describes the way in which the repetition of similar actions upon or around similar objects makes possible a more skilful performance of similar actions, upon or around similar objects, in the future. This could include complex actions like playing the violin, juggling, riding a bike, or performing surgery, which all get more and more automatic the more we do them. But even the mostly unconscious structures of our body habituate themselves to their environment in this way. For example, our basic motor skills, moving out of the way of oncoming obstacles, manipulating objects with our hands, or being familiar with the layout of certain environments. All of this habituates the body into being a certain way, into more competently responding to one’s ever-changing and renewing environment. Even bodily processes like our immune system or specific muscles are habituated to perform similar actions by repeatedly being exposed to similar stimuli over time. As we get sick or lift weights, for example, individual aspects of our body are actually taking on habits, even though we do not usually call it that. Thus, taken to its limit, habit in my sense includes both what you might ordinarily consider ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ responses to similar stimuli. That is, it includes the things we ordinarily call habits, our routines and skills, and all the other ways in which our body is adapted to navigate its environment.
Habit is an essentially temporal structure of our existence because it presupposes that we can repeat some action. To repeat some action, it must have occurred before now – it must have occurred in the past. And given that habit actually changes our constitution as a being in the present, it is in this sense that we can be said to be past-retaining: we carry into the present, and into our anticipation of the future, our past action. Indeed, it is precisely the way in which habit, in this broad sense, is inscribed into our bodies that leads us to anticipate the unfolding of the future at all. And we primarily do so in a way conformable to those habits, conformable to the past. Thus, anticipation is partially determined by habits, by the past.
Memory describes the way in which we consciously recall past occurrences of our life in order to guide us in the present. This differs from habit only in degree, but it is still of a relatively different character. In recalling, we consciously plunge into our past, rather than unconsciously repeating it, and retrieve some aspect of it for use. As a simple example, if someone asks you: “what did you have for dinner last night?” You must actually think back and recall what you had. However, the real significance of memory is not that it can answer trivial questions about daily activity, but that it makes possible our long-term plans, project, goals, and creative endeavours. But why would we think this? As noted, what we ordinarily call habits are basically mechanical, they serve to mechanise our actions as well as possible to skilfully respond to one’s environment. Habits are essentially mechanisms of repetition, to habituate is to repeat the past. However, memory is not like this. It is still a past-retaining activity, but it is not structured to repeat the past. Rather, it is structured to create something new, using the past.
Take the simple example of being asked what you had for dinner last night. You do not draw on the past here to repeat it – to eat dinner again – you call on the past to tell someone about it, a wholly new action which has never happened before (in precisely this way). Similarly, in order to begin a new project, perhaps a writing project such as this one, you must recall and draw together many threads of your past thinking. But just because you draw these from your past, does not mean that what you do with them is a repetition of it. Instead, you are taking elements of the past in order to act in a way that you have never acted before. Memory is not a mere collection of the past, but a re-collection of it. In this way, memory has a kind of creative potential to it. It is what allows us to break free of mere mechanism, the mere repetition of the past through habit, and into the novel creation of the new. It allows us to freely pursue our projects.
If you doubt this, ask yourself what action would be possible at all without memory. To even stand up and turn on the light, your initial intention (now in the past) must be retained (but not repeated) in order so that it can be transformed into the action of turning on the light (which is different to the intention). And all your past experience turning on lights is implicitly guiding you here too. Thus, this creative potential is not the exceptional use of memory, but the rule. Extend this upwards to grander projects, the trajectory of one’s life, and it only becomes more central. This is because the more complex goals get, the more one must consciously draw on memory, one’s actual past intentions and actions, to achieve them. In order to decide whether you would like to go to university or get a job straight after high school, you drew upon your entire past, consciously or unconsciously, to forge a future that was utterly different from that past. Without this past-retention you would have nothing to draw on, and literally could not decide, could not choose. Even if you stood up to do something as simple as turning on the light, but your connection to the past was somehow severed, you could not finish what you started. In fact, you could neither finish nor start anything at all.
It follows that without these past-retaining aspects of our temporal structure, habit and memory, the anticipatory aspect of our action would not even be possible. This is because, for us to anticipate something, for our being to be future-directed, we must either consciously (memory) or unconsciously (habit) re-call, or, be re-calling, the past.
What we are re-calling in anticipation is, first, the conscious beliefs about how our higher-order goals are consummated. These are based on our memory, our retention of past experiences, intentions, goals, and actions. These could be small actions like turning on light switches, walking to work, or driving to an old friend’s place. They could be large actions with long and indeterminate trajectories, like planning a holiday or working (over years) towards one’s ideal job. In either case, our past is directing us into the future through memory. Second, to re-call is also to retain the lower-order or unconscious motor skills that will get us to our novel goals. These are based on our habits, the unconscious memory of the past. These motor skills form the basic ground of all our higher-order projects and goals because they determine the actions our body can actually take towards achieving such abstract goals. Once again, this is essentially a re-collection of the past directing us into the future. It may appear as though these habits are a mere collection of the past, as they essentially try to repeat it. However, even every time a violinist picks up their instrument, which they have thoroughly integrated into their body, or even when we breathe each new breath, we do so in an essentially new situation.
Thus, we might say: to be past-retaining is to be future-directed because the retention of the past is just that thing that directs us into the future. Thus, our future-directedness, our anticipation, is not something wholly different from our past-retention, our habit and memory, it just is the total way in which the past is actually retained in us. Rather than it being two movements directed in time, one backwards and one forwards, it is really only one movement that, at the same time as it moves forward, it brings with it an entire past.
Habit is a much stronger determinant of this anticipation, at least as far as our everyday action goes. Most of our anticipatory comportment and our beliefs about possible action come from the totality of our automatic and co-ordinated motor skills, our habits (whether ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’). In this sense, we can be said to in-habit the world. This process can never fully be stopped; even in our sleep we in-habit the world. For this reason, it is our most basic or primordial engagement with the world. Relatively little of this everyday comportment comes from memory because memory involves what we ordinarily call thinking, which we simply cannot do in a focused way for too long a period of time. It requires us to stop almost all other action (it is very hard to think about two different things at once). However, it is memory, and therefore this thinking, that is at play in steering our everyday in-habitation. It steers us in a way that contributes toward our long-term plans and goals – towards the creative project that is our life. Thus, while anticipation is also mediated by memory, it is mediated in a much more indeterminate and generative way than by habit. It directs us towards the creation of utterly new, desired, realities – the fulfilment of our novel projects – which are qualitatively very different from the past, even though they utilise it. This is in contrast to habit’s repetition of the same, the impulse towards the creation of qualitatively similar realities.
Now that I have established the temporally directed structure of our existence, I think this structure can shed some light on the experience of art. Take for example, painting. There are two things to note that bear on my discussion: (1) a painting is not a temporal being, at least not in the structured and directed way we are, and (2) it is a medium almost entirely dedicated to appealing to one’s visual presentation of the world. Due to this, its enjoyment is limited to a particularly small region of our temporal being. I take these points in turn.
On the first, there is little about the experience of a painting that necessarily occurs over time, though there is some. You might inspect the details of this or that corner over some time, especially if it is large or peculiarly detailed, only to come back to viewing the whole piece as a more complete work. You might stare at it for a while and become entranced by it. You might feel its presence looming over you in a room. This process of acquainting yourself with the work is a temporal process, enjoying a painting is still something we must do over time (as we do with everything), but the painting itself is not. In fact, there is a meaningful sense in which a painting could be said to exist in a temporal time-slice. Indeed, we ideally want, and sometimes pay extraordinary amounts of money, to prevent a painting from changing and therefore losing itself to time at all. Thus, rather than being constituted by time, as we are, a painting is fighting time. In this way, a painting differs from us structurally. We are essentially an activity or process that is directed in time, while a painting need not be active nor directed. It is closer to what we ordinarily call an ‘object’, rather than a process. For this reason, we cannot wholly integrate ourselves with it, we must partially subject ourselves to it. It requires us to draw ourselves out of our most primordial activity and to interface with it as an object. It will be clearer what this means when I discuss music.
On the second, a painting is mostly only there to appeal to a single sense, sight. Sight, as a bodily function, is a faculty that presents to us features of the world as vectors of possible action. In seeing a person walking toward us, we know to walk around them (lest we hit them). In seeing a puddle, we know to jump over it (lest we swamp our shoes). In this sense, sight is presentational because its function is to present features of the world to us. Painting, as an art form, is a utilisation of this function, as it creates an object devoid of suggested action beyond the prolongation of its presentation to us. However, beyond this visual presentation, it has little to offer to the rest of the body in time. Indeed, the physicality of enjoying a painting is such that it can only be enjoyed insofar as we are basically standing still with our eyes fixed on it, our entire orientation is turned towards it. While still an activity in itself, it is anathema to our ordinary functioning and requires us to curb our instincts to move and act, in favour of stopping and (merely) focusing. This is all to say, painting often really only engages us at the level of thought, as it needs our explicit attention, but not nearly as much to our in-habitation, to that habitual layer of our existence.
(I should clarify that these features are not to the detriment of painting as an artform, nor to its great aesthetic value. It is only a comment on its relatively simple temporal structure and its necessary mode of consumption, relative to our bodies. If we were structured differently, painting could even have been as ubiquitous as music. I choose painting specifically only because it serves as a useful contrast class to bring out what I think is distinctive about music, not because I think it is diminished by my analysis.)
Music has the opposite of these features. Music is (1) essentially temporally directed and structured, in the same way that we are. And (2), it can be enjoyed by the whole body, by our entire temporal being.
On the first. The possibility of creating and experiencing music at all is contingent upon it occurring over some duration. Not even a single note could be heard over a single duration-less time-slice. Thus, even a single note can only exist as a process in time. But more importantly, music must not only exist in time but further, the most basic elements of it, those elements that make it good, have an essential temporal directedness. Take the ideas of melody and rhythm.
Melody must not only occur over time in the trivial additive sense that the notes must be temporally posterior to one another (because otherwise they would all be played at once, resulting in a discordant mess), but also in a more profound multiplicative sense. When notes are played side-by-side with one another in time, they do not merely sound alongside one another in such a way that each new note pleases the hearer by itself. Instead, their allure is due to the particular way in which they relate to the notes previous to them, by the way in which the new note follows from the previous notes, the way in which the new resolves the old, and the way in which they culminate together to form a whole. Thus, melody is given essentially by its relation in time to the past. The way that we experience this past is through our re-collection of that past in the present. And since our present perceptions are thoroughly impregnated by this past as anticipation, especially the immediate past, some melody sounds good insofar as the present sounds seem to follow from the past. In fact, without memory, melody would not be enjoyable at all. Memory makes possible the experience of succession and progression, the very conditions for melody.
Something similar is true for rhythm. Rhythm not only must occur over time in the trivial additive sense that the beats played must be temporally posterior to one another. It too has a multiplicative effect that makes it enjoyable. Like melody, its impact relies on the fact that we remember what has gone before. But unlike melody, rhythm is essentially repetitive, to an extent that melody is often not (but can be). Thus, its multiplicative effect lies not merely in our memory of the immediate past, but also in our determinate anticipation of the immediate future as similar to what has come before. In listening to a song unfold over time, we are conditioned by the beat to consistently expect the next beat, giving us satisfaction when it comes. Dancing, tapping your foot, nodding your head, or clapping along to music presupposes this anticipation, because if we did not expect the next beat to arrive at the same (or similar) intervals, we would not already be halfway through our next action, the next movement, tap, nod, or clap.
Now, it would be wrong to fully exclude melody from also being supplemented by anticipation in this way, just as it was wrong earlier to exclude memory from conditioning our own higher-order anticipation, the more indeterminate steering of ourselves in thought. We also anticipate the melody to unfold in a certain way that is in concord with that which has come before. However, our experience of it is of a much more indeterminate character than that of rhythm. Rhythm sets up a concrete anticipation of repetition, predominantly of short phrases, whereas melody is more generative. We are open to a lot more novelty, and even when there is repetition, it is usually of longer phrases. The word ‘resolve’ even implies a kind of mystery; we do not know how the melody will resolve itself, we only anticipate that it will (even when it does not), which is quite different from the constancy of our rhythmic anticipation. This distinction in music, between rhythm and melody, perfectly mirrors the distinction in our own being, between our in-habitation and thinking. The perfect combination (for a specific occasion) of being grounded in rhythmic repetition, mirroring our habits, and melodic novelty, mirroring our memory, is what makes listening to music so great. And you can analyse different kinds of music along these lines. Here are a few examples.
Western classical music is mostly melodic, relying on novelty and generation, even though it is structured and repeats phrases. This means that properly enjoying it often requires a lot of thought as we need to pay attention to the way in which it evolves. It is not grounded in as much repetition. This is perhaps why it is often performed in quiet concert halls that allow, and demand, the listener to pay full attention to it. It also means that when our minds do wander, it is a lot less like we are listening to it at all. This is also perhaps why it is not listened to as much as other genres.3placeholder Because, if I am right, melody engages us at the level of thought and does not trigger the determinate anticipation that allows us to engage more passively, and we are not always in a position to listen with the kind of active attention that it requires to really enjoy it.
Reggae, on the other hand, aims to be mostly rhythmic, mostly repetitive, in an almost hypnotic way. It needs little conscious attention to draw us in and to begin enjoying it, and good reggae will keep you there with interesting melodic variations overlying its essential repetition. It is for this reason that reggae works so well, for example, as background music for a gathering. It plays without drawing us too much away from our thoughts and our environment, allowing us to listen at the same time as we do. Nor should this surprise us if I am right because repetition engages us primarily at the level of our in-habitation, thus not requiring as much thought.
Of course, it should be noted that these very general characteristics of classical and reggae, as I have described them, do not exclude particular pieces from engaging us in precisely the opposite way I lay out, I am just making a general point about the tendencies within the genre and how we interact with those tendencies.
‘Rock’ is too broad a genre to analyse clearly through this distinction, but you can see how it could go one way (Jimi Hendrix), or the other (James Brown), and anywhere in between. In electronic music, the genius of a good house or techno set is that the transition between rhythms is imperceptible enough so as not to throw off our anticipatory movements, thus remaining, like any good rhythm, repetitive and danceable, engaging us at the level of habits. But it is also generative enough, i.e., melodic enough, such that we do not get bored, such that it progresses in a way that is novel, but follows from what has been. A good set is a journey made up of ordered phases, each following into the next, mirroring our own life, which is itself rhythmically grounded but melodically guided action.
As a final example, afrobeat, and Fela Kuti most of all, is really, to my ears, the perfect marriage of these two tendencies. Perhaps this is betraying my (mere) preference for rhythm (or perhaps groove), but his music has both a driving, primal repetition and an exploratory melody providing spontaneous direction to keep you riveted. “No Agreement” is a great example of this, though almost anything from his oeuvre with demonstrate this exquisite marriage between the tendencies. Others will, of course, have their own preferences as to how they like these tendencies to be combined, and in what contexts. But this all being said, hopefully it is clear that music and its elements are essentially temporal, and, as I have been suggesting, is structured so as to mirror our own temporal being, as an interplay of repetition and novelty, habit and memory.
The second feature of music, in contrast to other art forms, is that it can be enjoyed by the whole body. This is primarily because it is a sound, rather than a sight. Sound is still presentational in the sense that sight is. It is a faculty that grasps features of the world as vectors of possible action. And music, as an art form, is still simply a utilisation of that function. However, sound differs from sight due to the relative backseat the presentation of space takes to the presentation of time. Due to how coarsely the character of space is presented to us in sound relative to its temporal character, its temporal aspect comes to the forefront. (It has been thought that sight is not temporal at all, but this would be wrong. All senses are essentially temporal if we pay them the right attention, not least because our entire being is. It is just that the peculiar character of sight makes this harder to recognise.) This means that the way music integrates with our being is somewhat different to other artforms.
Painting required us to turn away from our natural bodily instincts to move, act, and get comfortable, in order so that we could observe it, and pay attention. In other words, it demands of us a particular bodily orientation both with regards to our spatial position relative to it and the kind of attention it requires. The physicality of music is entirely different. It, for the most part, requires no particular bodily comportment at all to enjoy it, especially not anything unnatural or painful, like standing around for hours on the concrete floor. You can listen to music while sitting down, lying down, walking, running, talking, working and so on. Nor does it necessarily require our full attention in the same way. Rather, our experience of music is compatible with vastly different levels of thought as it does not merely engage us that level. We can be deeply absorbed in some activity while we enjoy music that barely registers consciously but that has our body moving along with it. We can be enjoying music that complements our activity when it is noticed, like while driving, running, or while watching a movie, without it being the primary locus of attention. And we can even pay full attention to it, letting ourselves be taken in by it entirely, just like with other artforms. This is all to say that music appeals to our temporal structure not only as thinking beings, but also as beings who in-habit a world. Thus, rather than necessarily pulling us away from those activities that make up our life, calling us merely to think as other art forms do, music supplements our entire life, our entire being.
Music even encourages or makes possible movements that can be invigorating, healthy, or even sources of ecstasy. Namely, it calls us to dance. We have whole industries implicitly centred around music’s hold over our bodies in this way, not merely as thinking things, but as creatures of habit as well. No other artform can boast such a feature. This is why even film will never quite have the same effect. Even though it too is essentially temporal, it still requires a partial subjection of our bodies to its mode of consumption, just as we saw painting did earlier. Music does not make demands on the body because music is as the body always already was. I close with a recapitulation and summary of what exactly this means.
I will now make explicit what is only implicit in the previous few sections: the peculiar pre-eminence of music, its powerful effect, universal appeal, and unique accessibility, is due to its temporal structure reflecting our own temporal structure. More specifically, our entire temporal structure, rather than just part of it. Most of what I will say here has already been said, but I hope to gather and consolidate all of the previous threads here into one place.
Let’s briefly retrace the steps made so far to make this clearer. We saw that our temporal structure is such that we are a ceaselessly changing but regulated movement that, for it to exist at all, must exist in time. This is our soul, which just is this regulated process, which just is our self. We saw next that the movement or activity of our soul not only must exist in time but is also essentially directed in time. This is because the structure of our action is such that we are both future-directed and past-retaining. However, we saw that this directedness is not two movements, future and past, but one, past into future. We are a single movement that is always drawing from the past and acting toward the future. This is because to be future-directed at all (as we are), we must be past-retaining. Thus, our future-directedness just is our total past-retention. It is in this sense that our temporal directedness is a kind of re-collection because it collects the past into the present, in order to act into the future, in order to create something new.
This re-collection has two general, though interconnected, characteristics. First, it contains our in-habitation, which is our unconscious re-collection of the past through habit (and remember that this is meant in a very broad sense). In-habitation is characterised by the simplicity and determinacy of its desired ends because it uses the past to create something qualitatively like it. It is essentially repetitive. This in-habitation is a kind of lower-order action but is also constitutive of most of our actual activity. It does not seem like this because its aspects are experienced not as the objects and ends of our everyday life, but as grounds for those objects and ends. Our in-habitation is omni-present to us, but only recognisable with deep reflection on our everyday life. Second, it contains our thinking, which is our conscious re-collection of the past through memory. Thinking is characterised by its complexity and indeterminacy of desired outcomes because it uses the past to create something qualitatively unlike it. It is essentially creative. This thinking is the higher-order action that both provides and steers us toward our plans, projects, and goals. It is this thinking that provides and creates a self-conscious coherence to the trajectory of our life.
Now, through our analysis of music, we saw that it too must exist and be directed in time. We saw that it, too, is future-directed and past-retaining. We saw that it, too, is characterised by an interplay between a tendency to repetition and a tendency to novelty.
Repetition in music, especially that of rhythm, mirrors the repetition of habit and constancy provided by our basic sensorimotor control. Just as habit demarcates a relatively constant world that grounds our projects in a relatively well-defined (though not completely static) matrix of bodily possibility, so does the constancy of rhythm demarcate and ground the musical exploration overlaying it in a well-defined (though sometimes shifting) matrix of musical possibility. On the other hand, the novelty in music, and especially in melody, mirrors the novelty of the higher order thinking we do. This thinking gathers up the past and steers us towards the completion of projects and goals that bear little resemblance to, but still utilise, the past. Both our thinking and the melody in music are just this resolution of the past through the creation of the new, the creation of qualitative novelty through the re-collection of the past. And it is this novelty that furthers our development, keeps us interesting, and creates (or seeks to create) a coherent and meaningful arc of our being, just as melody develops, makes interesting, and creates a novel coherence in the being of music.
For the above reasons, music is a metaphysical companion to us. We are both essentially an organised activity, or process, that is directed in time. However, it is not only this, as arguably novels, films, and paintings have this feature. It is also that the soul of music unfolds structurally at two levels: as an interplay between repetition and novelty, corresponding to our own development in time as an interplay between habit and memory, our own repetition and novelty. For this reason, we are able to integrate ourselves entirely with each other, not merely in a focused intellectual sense that most other artwork requires, but in a full-bodied unconscious sense too. This means music can become not so much an external object that we encounter and think about, but a fellow creature in-habiting and pondering the world alongside us. In other words, we both have the same kind of soul. This is why it is such a perfect accompaniment to so many different kinds of human action (when other works of art are themselves a single human activity). Given that our souls are the ones making this music, its historical pedigree, and its omnipresence in our lives, that music is structured like us, really should come as no surprise.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World is Will and Representation. Translated by E.F.J Payne. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. 256.
International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Engaging with Music 2022. London, United Kingdom: International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 2023. 7.
According to the IFPI report “classical/opera” was the sixth most listened to genre globally in 2022, after pop, rock, hip-hop/rap, dance/electronic, and latin.