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Lyrics compromise musical divinity

April 25, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Lyrics compromise music’s special metaphysical status.

To accept this, you first need to accept that music has a special metaphysical status—that is, in comparison to other art forms. By metaphysical, I am referring to the posited reality outside of human sensory-perception. Here is the argument for the metaphysical capacities of instrumental music:

(1)[1] Representational art forms cannot transcend the phenomenal world.

(2)[2] Instrumental music has the unique capacity to communicate the non-representational.

(3)[1,2] Music is unique in its ability to transcend the phenomenal world.

(4) [4] Transcendence of the phenomenal world entails the metaphysical realm.

(5) [1,2,4] Music has a special metaphysical property.

If you were not so charitable as to accept my line of reasoning point-blank, here is some context.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was a German philosopher who built his philosophical tradition around a doctrine of pessimism, in which the world, as we know it, is a condition that we ought to try and escape. His thinking most holistically unfolded in the text “The World as Will and Representation” (1818), from which I’ll be drawing heavily. According to Schopenhauer, the world exists bifurcated: There is the world as representation, the phenomenal world and the world as Will.

The world as Will is the true and fundamental state of reality, whereas the world as representation is the world which we beings can perceive only through sensory impressions. Further, the Will is everything and everywhere—omnipotent and omnipresent. Human beings and, for example, tables alike are all just embodied functions of the undergirding Will. In short, all that exists is Will as underlying reality while the mind and phenomenal world are actors in our sensory-available reality.

What’s key to understanding Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music is that he believed it the human project to access this world as Will, or at least contact it momentarily. He comes to realize, however, that our existences are far too entrenched in the insatiable willing (desire for more) endemic to the human condition to succeed in such a transcendence. At the level of the mind, objects individuate, per the “principium individuationis.” I am Ava. The desk is the desk. The banana is the banana. Once everything is at the level of the Will, individuation ceases. All is one. According to Schopenhauer, music is endowed with this temporarily uniting force, offering direct functions of the Will—pure human emotion—to its listeners. He states, “We could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied Will” (“The World as Will and Representation,” 263). That is, just as the Will is the latent potential for divinity and oneness underlying the phenomenal world, music is too. The crux of defending his belief lies in the distinction between representational and nonrepresentational art forms.

Schopenhauer draws a distinction between allegorical and non-allegorical music—essentially, representational and non-representational music. Representational music refers to things that occur in our phenomenal and individuated world: “We fall back into knowledge governed by the principle of sufficient reason; we now no longer know the Idea, but the individual thing, the link of a chain to which we also belong” (Schopenhauer, 198). Non-representational music is the artform which has the potential to offer some sort of special metaphysical comfort to its listeners.

Unlike visual art, which Schopenhauer argues represents Platonic (ideal) Forms which are, in turn, directly related to the Will, non-representational music bypasses this translation and simply expresses the inner nature of things. In short, non-allegorical music does not express phenomena. For example, a painting might depict two lovers embracing one another, representative of the Idea of Love. Now, take, for example, a movie score which engenders the presented phenomenal world with enhanced significance. An orchestra of lilting strings during a particularly passionate scene in some romance film doesn’t represent Love or objectify the emotion; the music expresses Love itself. Music is a direct function of the Will, and the Will is metaphysical truth or the momentary true nature of an individual: “Music, if regarded as an expression of the world, is in the highest degree a universal language” (Schopenhauer, 262).

That is all to say, don’t degrade your music-listening experience. Or, at the very least, don’t consider music with lyrics and instrumental music as the same artform. Just as a museum is not a good way to quench your urge to see a play, a Neil Young tune is not a good way to commune with the divine.

Of course, this argument really only has weight if you are at all sympathetic to the idea of the metaphysical. If your dualist days are behind you, then you can really pay no mind. Though there is a sense in which one could understand the special nature of non-representational art forms regardless of whether they speak directly to the “soul” or not. As beings submerged in what often feels like a deep associative sludge, I find it a mite freeing to engage with something that exists at least a little bit removed from the web of meaning.


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