Musical “Lenses”

Prelude in Bb minor, from the Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 J.S. Bach

Improvisation on “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days”

Involuntary B. Peppe

What we listen for in music has changed substantially down through the ages. During Bach’s day (the Baroque era), what marked a good composer was his capacity for ‘invention’ — that is, the variety of things he could do with one idea. Thus for them the ‘fugue’ — an entire piece based one melodic figure (the ‘fugue subject’) — was an iconic form of that age, and that same notion of deeply exploring one idea extended to other forms. Then, about 1750, tastes changed and what was wanted was lots of contrasting ideas (the ‘Classical and Romantic eras). Beethoven is a quintessential example of that — his music turns on a dime from one mood to another radically different one, just to set you up for a body slam with yet another. And then in our own day, arguably 99% of music being composed (apart from film scores) is in the ‘song’ format: verse/chorus, verse/chorus. And there’s ‘rap’: the real action takes place in the lyrics, with a simple musical accompaniment to keep the beat. If you listen to ‘rap’ for its sophisticated musical/harmonic structure and ignore the words, you will entirely miss the point. (Although, personally, the lyrics of most rap music do nothing for me. But at least that’s what to listen for!)

In general, problems arise when we use the lens of one era to listen to music from another. If Bach could have heard Beethoven’s music, I’d expect him to have found it almost incomprehensible. And Bach is pretty tough going for most moderns: we expect verse/chorus, verse/chorus — instead, his music is about teasing out the possibilities of one seed idea introduced at the beginning. The point is that we all apply ‘filters’ to our experience of music, and if we listen to a piece using a filter that is radically different from the filter the composer used to write it in the first place, communication breaks down.

The spectrum of light we can see is quite small, and happens to correspond to the very limited spectrum of sunlight the Earth’s atmosphere allows through: if light were sound, then the known electromagnetic spectrum has a range of about 10 grand pianos sitting cheek to cheek (the block of wood at each end of the keyboard is called the ‘cheek’), but the spectrum of light we can see is just seven notes — just seven semitones. Even “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” needs a range of nine.

In short, our brains are incapable of processing most of what is really going on all around us, so our perceptual apparatus filters out the vast majority of input and only admits the tiny fraction we can manage. We do this with everything. We have to, or brain overload would reduce us all to blubbering puddles of neurons. But it also means that in many ways we are driving through Life with 359 degrees of blind spot.

So although we can’t function without them, it is nevertheless a Really Good Idea to at least be AWARE of the perceptual filters we use, because they profoundly color and limit our experience of Life — and God, for that matter. I think this is one of the main purposes of meditation, and fasting, and retreating into the wilderness — these all disrupt the deeply furrowed ruts of our hearts and minds. So I would argue that taking time out from the reflex norms of our habitual cognitive filters is a major theme of Lent. The alternative is to remain ‘asleep’ in the mistaken notion that our filters truly reflect how Life, the Universe and Everything really is, and remain content in that deep delusion.