Music and the Soul (A Sandbox Where Plato, Nietzsche and Yiruma Can Play Nice)

Yiruma's Music for the Soul

Yiruma: Music for the Soul

Music and Reason

It is with mild interest that I have been following the recent movement by the BC Humanist Association to restrict organizations like the Gideons from distributing religious literature in public schools. While I wish that an organization that professes to be for “free thought and tolerance” would instead advocate for the dissemination of more literature (why not make a host of religious texts, along with seminal atheistic works available, so that our youth can peruse the options and freely choose for themselves?), this is not the avenue I wish to explore today. Rather, it is with this debate in the background that I was reminded once more, this week, of the power of music.

Beethoven is credited with saying that, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” Myself, an ardent music lover but theoretical neophyte, I could not agree more. I understand agnosticism—I believe there is much in life to be uncertain of—however, as long as there is music in the world, I cannot fathom dogmatic atheism.

 As a thinking person of faith, I have often wrestled with the big questions posed by a spiritual worldview. Having weighed the evidence, I feel that the existence of the divine comes out on top; nonetheless, I respect those (some much brighter than myself) who have weighed the evidence differently and come out on the other side. But this post is not about me, a philosophical light-weight, justifying or apologizing for my spiritual belief.

You see, there are times in my life when all of the arguments, measures and equations; the suppositions, pre-suppositions and propositions become meaningless. There are moments when a cold chill takes me and, like Emily Dickinson, I find that “no fire can ever warm me;” moments when I am compelled to close my eyes and just feel, even though others may be watching; times when tears come unbidden, smiles without reason, and sighs and laughter without cause. These are moments when I draw a deep breath and I know that life is a gift. Music is one of the prime catalysts of these moments—moments when I can even find occasion to sympathize with Friedrich Nietzsche (“without music, life would be an error”).

Music and Imagination

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. – Plato

I have a tendency to spend much of life living in my head. For a spiritual person of my background, I am uncharacteristically rationalistic and even humanistic. This has its benefits and its costs. Music frees me from this matrix. It bypasses my mind and speaks, not only to my emotions, but to the pre-cognitive faculty of my imagination.

When we walk into a room we do not have to consciously think, “Oh look, an armchair,” to know there is a chair in the corner of the room. Similarly, we do not have to see all four corners of a room to know, upon entering, that the room has four corners. This pre-cognitive function of the mind is the imagination. Using background knowledge, past experience, as well as present cues, the pre-cognitive mind renders the reality around us. This frees our conscious mind from having to inventory every element of every room we walk into. Sometimes—like when walking down stairs in the dark we imagine more stairs than actually exist and find ourselves stumbling—our imagination renders our surroundings in opposition to reality. While the imagination can be consciously shaped by filtering the experiences we expose ourselves to, it cannot be rationalized into action.

Final Fantasy VI was probably my first "artistic experience." From Amano's artwork (sampled above), to Uematsu's opening masterpiece "Terra's Theme" this game haunted me.

Final Fantasy VI was probably my first “artistic experience.” From Amano’s artwork (sampled above), to Uematsu’s opening masterpiece “Terra’s Theme” this game haunted me.

Why Art Matters

This is why art is so important. Art bypasses conscious thought and affects us on a pre-cognitive level (it also affects us on the cognitive level when we meditate on and discuss it, but that is another topic). Art shapes us and it has the power to elevates us. It also has the potential to numb us.

This week I enjoyed Roberta Ahmanson’s Q Talk, “The Christian’s Responsibility for Art,” wherein she notes the power of art, when purposefully used, to enhance life and worship. She specifically notes how art can elevate our sight (turning it heavenward) in such a way that it elevates our actions in the present. She also invokes the negative power of art, unfortunately targeting video gaming (citing statistics on addiction, etc.). While I wish she could have taken a more nuanced approach to the gaming topic, she rightly hones in on the responsibility of the consumer to consciously consider what art he or she is experiencing and how that experience shapes his or her imagination.

A poignant shot from the end of StarCraft II's storymode.

A poignant shot from the end of StarCraft II’s storymode.

Confession: I have played close to 2000 games of Starcraft II. Blizzard Entertainment has incorporated some tremendous art values into this game; yet, when I consider the effect of my myriad SCII marathon sessions, I must admit that I cannot claim it is to elevate my imagination—though my initial experience of the game’s story mode would be a different topic. Does this make it wrong for me to play SCII? I don’t think so. But it does highlight these sessions as moments in which my experience of art misses the high mark of its potential.

How Music Elevates

This week I was introduced to Yiruma (the stage name of South Korean concert pianist, Lee Ru-ma). Sitting at my desk after rising for work at 4:45 am for the millionth time this year, I found myself shivering with tears in my eyes, thanking God for the world He made, as I listened to Yiruma’s “River Flows in You.”

Works like Yiruma’s “River,” (also, video game compositions like Nobuo Uematsu’s “Terra’s Theme,” or Yatsunori Mitsuda’s “Time’s Scar”)  are examples of how serious musicians are bridging the gap between classical and pop music. Songs like these are often thought of as “classical” by listeners like me who are more accustomed to popular fare; however, the incorporation of repetition and slowly-evolving patterns make it more akin to the verse/chorus/bridge progressions of popular music. Whatever your musical sensibilities, many young listeners are finding that this music speaks a language their imaginations can understand, while also evoking an awareness of beauty that transcends what their minds know.

Let us be more conscious of our consumption. Let us seek elevation of our artistic sensibilities, while understanding that music is not merely sensual, but also spiritual. Let us use our minds and welcome the power of reason, while knowing that reason has its limits and that art can help us to trascend these. Finally, let us see music, and art generally, as an avenue for exploring the extra-cognitive and shaping the pre-cognitive while realizing that music is not an end in itself. It may help us to sense and reach for the divine, but it is not, in itself, divinity.


2 responses to “Music and the Soul (A Sandbox Where Plato, Nietzsche and Yiruma Can Play Nice)

  1. Great post. I agree that art can enhance our experience and move us beyond what is rational. It has always surprised someone like me – a rational, unartistic, left-brain (or is it right-brain) person who spends very little of life “living in my head” – that a piece of music or a painting can so move me.

    • Yeah, human reason is a powerful thing, but I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe that it will ever be able to explain everything about us and the universe. I love the way that art–and music especially–confounds the mind. I believe that it points to the fact that there is so much reality out there that we cannot empircally test or see. I also love how music is able to speak to all people. One does not need training, or any other pre-requisite to be moved by art–ironic, that something about which people can be so snobbish is also such a great leveller. Thanks for reading.

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