It’s often difficult to extrapolate on why we like certain kinds of music more than others. There seems to be an almost inexplicable link between ears, mind, and heart, in which we feel kinship with one artist or style and are totally turned off by others. Because a lot of us don’t know how the brain really works when it comes to music, and who really knows how appropriate our reactions to music are within the confines of physical science.
When I first agreed to do this piece, I actually read the headline wrong and thought of the line between those who appreciate music and who understand sound. This is a much less abstract approach as there are many who understand the science of vibration and sound who do not appreciate music at all. Not a very thin line at all. But when it is presented as this, one must think farther outside the box, as there are many people who appreciate the sound of music but don’t really understand it. After taking several theory classes and even trying to compose my own music, I still don’t know if even I really understand it.
I did a study a year or so ago on the connection between music and emotion, namely memory, empowerment, and nostalgia. There were tons of scientific terms, like “cerebellum” and “musical frisson,” and for the most part I understood it, yet there was never a totality of scientific reason for our emotional connection to music. I think the abstract ways in which music affects us—individually and also in the collective sense—are often the most interesting and inspiring. People try to assign meaning to art all the time, assigning some sort of relative value to it instead of just letting it happen. I am fairly certain I am also guilty of this, as I often write album reviews, expressing my own interpretations and criticism. Am I an expert? Of course not. I just listen to a lot of music, I recognize the way it makes me feel, and sometimes I express it in writing. I don’t claim to understand music, because beyond theory, who really can? The artist is the only one who knows the true meaning of their art.
Art is created on impulse. We feel a twinge of inspiration: sound patterns in the crunching of leaves beneath our feet give us an idea for some percussion; a crooked cobblestone on a street may be that perfect photograph; an envelope slips from a drawer and we feel compelled to write a tear-stained poem on the back because it reminds of us something. Art is feeling in its only true physical form. When we like it, we feel a compatible sense of joy. When it rubs us the wrong way, we are deterred. I feel like today we are so inundated with knowledge and experience that we feel we have to understand everything. Everything needs to be picked apart, probed, analyzed. Maybe the only way to understand anything truly is just to experience it plainly, in our own minds.
Music can only be understood in this way. Sure there are literal meanings in lyrics, and numerical values assigned to certain waves and tones and vibrations that create the actual sound and structure of a piece, but it is also so much more than that. It’s entirely experiential. It’s why we like to listen to depressing music when we’re sad and happy music when driving down a sunny highway. It’s why hearing a band at a late night dance club is so much different than seeing them play in late afternoon at a music festival located on a sprawling Tennessee farm. It connects with us in such a way that our bodies and our minds tune our hearing of music to coincide with our other senses and thoughts and feelings. Music is so in tune with our experiences that it can summon powerful emotions and invoke memories long since lost to the sea of time.
So is there a thin line between appreciating sound and understanding music? Perhaps in a literal sense. But to me, they are one in the same, as we can only truly understand music if we appreciate it just as it is, in that moment, at that time, tuning itself with the feelings we are feeling, and letting it gently carry us away into another world of our own invention.