n my role as a music teacher, I often ask my students the following question:
“What is music made of?”
Despite the seeming simplicity of the question, most students find themselves at a loss to provide an equally simple answer. In the ensuing conversation, we discuss the possibilities: Is music made of sound? Emotion? Notes? Chords? Rhythms? Must it be made by people, or is it part of nature too?
After a few minutes of exploring the idea, I am inevitably led to give my students a more or less textbook answer. I tell them that music is made of the basic elements of rhythm, pitch, and timbre. When the three are put together by a human being: Voila! Music is made.
But of course, I don't really believe that, and I always implore my students not to accept such reductionism either. For, according to this definition, the beeping sound of a large truck backing up (alas, a sound all too familiar to me at this moment, my house being situated next to a years long construction project) is music every bit as much as Beethoven's ninth or the sound of the Balinese Gamelan. This conclusion I refuse to accept, for while some clever person could no doubt sample the repetitive beeping of a truck as an ingredient in a piece of music, the sound itself remains what it is: noise pollution.
Conversely, we might consider the woodpecker who visits the feeder outside my studio window. There is nothing human about her, yet, like all birds, we call the sound into which she invests her whole self a song; she is a singer of music. Even the repetitive thud of her beak against trees and telephone poles reaches our ears as a kind of drumming—it's part of the rhythm of the outdoors.
So does this mean that music is made up of those rhythms, pitches, and timbres which are pleasing to the ear? While this idea certainly had its day in the past, it is no doubt incorrect. As I grudgingly stated before, the massively annoying beep of a truck could be turned into music and, on the flip-side, birds often screech and scream in a way that, in of itself, could not be considered particularly pleasing. In fact, dissonance (an “unpleasing” combination of notes) is at the very heart of the western harmonic system for, without it, there could be no sense of the music moving forward towards resolution, no tension and release.
So, what then makes music? Perhaps the answer lies not in breaking down music into its components and creating restrictive definitions, but in asking another related question. For my students, the question I would then pose is “Why music?”. Why do we create and listen to sound with such devotion, as if it's one of the most important things we could do?
If it is not that we are merely pleased by what we hear and create, where then lies our motivation? Consider once more the woodpecker. What separates the sound of her drilling through wood to look for bugs from the beeping of the truck? Both are sounds generated by repetitive processes undertaken by living beings; both represent a kind of technology at work.
Yet, there seems to me to a be a key difference between the two. When the woodpecker drums, she is not only doing so in harmony with her own nature, but experiencing that nature as an inseparable part of the living world around her. Her drumming is an expression of the essential mystery of nature itself as it becomes manifest through the process of living. She does not make music, she is music.
On the contrary, when I hear the beep of the trucks, I hear a noise which, like so much of the sound generated by humanity these days, serves to sever those who are subject to it, except by special effort, from the experience of both the fullness of their own nature and that of the world; I hear a noise which contributes to an environment of distraction and desensitization, a noise which damages ears and dominates environments.
And yet, on the heels of such a roundly damning indictment of the noises of construction, I must note that the great Sufi poet and sage Rumi first found ecstasy while overwhelmed by the noisy hammering of blacksmiths; in that din he found the music of the spirit; he heard the call of God.
This is not a contradiction. Humans must create, must reshape the materials of nature, must construct, and in doing so must destroy. We must lose ourselves in the rhythms of such activities, just as the woodpecker does in her singing and drumming. One could say it is our nature.
But, unlike the woodpecker, who exists more or less in harmony with her ecosystem, our way is not so straightforward. We humans, who have the burden of analytical self consciousness, are able to choose how we go about creating noise; that is to say, we have moral choices to make about what we do and how we do it, and those choices are based in part on who we believe ourselves to be and what we consider to be our place in the world.
All which we create and all ways in which we behave —our technologies, vocations, languages, systems, beliefs— can bring us closer to the kind of experience which Rumi had; closer to an awareness of Truth, not as a fixed idea but as a dynamic, evolutionary process in which we participate, connected inextricably with the greater cosmos, seen and unseen.
And therein lies at least part of the answer as to why we make music. For in the making of and listening to musical sound, we can open ourselves beyond the limitations of thought and touch the very fabric of our selves—our undefinable essence that is the wellspring from which ours and all consciousness flows. We can become, for a time, aligned with our own nature, much like the woodpecker.
And, like the woodpecker, whose entire form was shaped by countless generations of evolution to more perfectly serve its function, we must use the knowledge, craft, technology and insight created by countless generations of culture to help us make the music which illuminates us. Our cultural inheritance is as much a part of our own being as the beak is part of the woodpecker's. As Alan Lomax said, “Human beings are 99 percent culture.”
So, back to the initial question, what is music made of? Rhythm, pitch, and timbre of course! But only insofar as rhythm, pitch, and timbre are animated by consciousness, by life, and by culture. And as consciousness, life and culture are not phenomena fixed in time, but rather dynamic processes whose existence is revelaed only through the unfolding of events, we must add another element to our list: that of change.
his is where the ancient Chinese text, the I Ching, or Classic of Changes, finally enters our discussion, for as the title indicates, change is the subject matter with which this enigmatic book is chiefly concerned. Let us become briefly acquainted with the work before resuming our discussion of music.
The I Ching is the most ancient of Chinese philosophical texts, with a history spanning over 2,500 years. It describes change as the fundamental mode of the cosmos; it is is the process through which all things come into being, exist for a time, then cease to exist. This process is driven by the dynamic interplay of opposites, represented as yin (dark, negative) and yang (light, positive).
Each of the 64 brief chapters of the text are centered around symbols called hexagrams. Comprised of a stack of six horizontal lines, each of which is either solid (yang) or broken (yin), the hexagrams are symbolic representations of essential moments in the universal process of change.
The text itself enumerates the meaning of the hexagrams in mysterious and poetical language which foreshadows the philosophy of Taoist and Zen Buddhist thought. Traditionally, people have consulted the text as an aid in decision making and to gain insight into their own situation. By tossing coins, dividing piles of yarrow stalks, or by randomly opening the book, people locate those hexagrams which speak to their situation in life.
Let us look at an example of a hexagram and its commentary. This selection from Chapter 36 of the I Ching (as translated by David Hinton) is laid out in the same way as the other chapters of the book.
When illumination is blackened, move inexhaustible through difficulty
and you'll find wild bounty.
Sun and moon sinking all vast illumination below the earth: that is
Illumination Blackened. Inside that illumination at the grain of things,
outside all tender assent yielding and devoted as a river: let that carry
you through the inception-thicket of vast troubles. That's how Emperor
Wen did it.
Move inexhaustible through difficulty and you'll find wild bounty. When
illumination is darkened over, it can still center your purpose at the
hinge of things, even if your troubles lie deep within. That's how Lord
Winnow did it.
Earth (Yielding, Devoted)
Fire (Radiance, Beauty)
Sun and moon sinking all vast illumination below the earth: that is
Illumination Blackened. Using it, the noble-minded guide the people.
And they use the darkness to abide in illumination itself.
Enigmatic imagery notwithstanding, this is a moment in the process of change to which I imagine we can all relate—for not only does the earth face away from the sun every night, but so too does every human life suffer moments of darkness wherein illumination seems trapped under immovable layers of dirt.
And, insofar as enigmatic imagery is concerned, as one becomes more familiar with the text, recurring concepts such as wild bounty, the grain of things, yielding and devoted as a river, and inception-thicket become familiar philosophical terms which, if never defined as if etched in stone, take on the rhetorical purpose of sending the mind delving for meaning into the mysterious process of change. In addition, David Hinton provides an excellent index which gives explanations and history of these and many other terms (including who such characters as Lord Winnow and Emperor Wen were).
In this chapter, as in most others, the hexagram and its title are followed by both explanation and advice. We are given clues to what Illumination Blackened means on a large scale and advice on how to proceed should we find our own illumination to be blackened. Indeed, this and other chapters do not seem to make any fundamental distinction between the experience of the internal world of the human being and the external world of nature.
Recall if you will our woodpecker; she acts in unity with nature, she is an expression of it. Recall as well that the human being appears to have a choice as to the matter of their cooperation with nature, both their own and that of the world around them, whereas the woodpecker does not.
This seems to me to be a key part of the purpose of the I Ching: it demonstrates the essential unity of the nature of the human being with that of the entire cosmos. It does this by revealing how that singular nature unfolds through the dynamic process of change. It advises us on how to see each moment of change clearly in order that we might experience it with our full awareness and move through it with harmony.
This all might seem a bit dry. In a discussion about music, which after all this article purports to be, should not passion, emotion, and soul be central themes?
Yes, of course they should. And though the I Ching, rarely, if ever, discusses emotion outright, it speaks very closely, almost uncannily, to every just about every inner state a person could experience. It does this not by taking on the impossible task of defining every human feeling and psychological state, but by inviting the reader, through poetry, imagery, and elusive bits of philosophy, to project their own emotional state of being into the universal moment of change they are reading about.
I chose the hexagram Illumination Blackened to illustrate this point. The metaphorical imagery of light trapped under ground could speak to a hundred thousand subtle shades of human emotion begotten of a hundred thousand different situations. And yet the briefest of explanations given in the text speaks to all hundred thousand and more.
In western literature, we might simply call illumination blackened darkness: an archetypal energy with which all heroes and villains must grapple in every story. Imagine now however reading a story in which there are no heroes and villains but yourself, in which there is no plot but that of your own life, and in which all of the archetypal energies that drive that story remain.
That is, to me, what reading the I Ching is like. Is not listening to a piece of music much the same? Does not the musician, in creating sounds which they resonate with deeply, create something that, in so doing, transcends the particulars of their own situation and speaks to something more universal? Is the musician not, in a sense, creating their own hexagram, their own musical chapter of the I Ching, in which one or many essential movements of nature are revealed through change?
It is the navigation of change which gives music both its meaning and its emotional power. Pop songs move from verse to chorus and back again; it's the juxtaposition of those parts that makes the song. Sonatas establish comfortable themes before departing on far reaching harmonic explorations from which the opening theme must be seamlessly returned to. Ragas and Maqams develop over time, continually growing and expanding until their essence is realized by a performer in total unity with the music.
In all instances above, and indeed in all other musical scenarios which come to mind, the quality of the experience is judged on the ability of the composer, performer, and improviser to draw the listener in, to take them on a journey, to captivate and compel them in a way which speaks deeply to who they are. They must be led through the changes, even the extreme ones, in a way that is somehow true, somehow authentic.
And it is not only the overarching structures of music to which change applies; every detail, be it technical, emotional or spiritual, of how we perceive and perform music is a matter of change; for music is a phenomena which starts in silence, is driven to life by the dynamic interaction of opposites —loud and soft, high and low, fast and slow, expanding and contracting— and fades once more into silence (sound familiar?). The composer, performer, improviser, and audience are all intimate participants in this process.
And yet we do have a choice. Music does not have to be a matter of unity between human consciousness and the nature of the cosmos. We can just make distracting noises which keep us from the potential discomfort of embracing all levels of experience, from accepting, for instance, that our illumination is blackened. But if we do accept it and enter deeply our experience, is that not the birth place of hope?
That last was my own—from what I gather, hope does not play a key role in the I Ching. Perhaps it is an altogether modern notion. But then again, perhaps not, for the I Ching has ever been a book that people consult that they might thrive, that they might find illumination. And so too has ever been the case with music.
In conclusion, I will leave you with a piece of music which came to me when my own illumination was blackened. In composing and performing it, I attempted to use the darkness to abide in illumination itself, and I found my purpose centered at the hinge of things, though my troubles lay deep within. That is after all how Lord Winnow did it (who?!). It is my hope that, as this music unfurls to your ears, it does much the same for you.