A Laboratory for Feeling and Time: Pioneering Philosopher Susanne Langer on What Gives Music Its Power and How It Illuminates the Other Arts
“Music is ‘significant form,’ and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object… Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.”
By Maria Popova
“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts… and the most sensual,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music. Aldous Huxley, in his immensely poetic reflection on why music moves us so, recounted “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense” as he listened to Beethoven in the dark. This sensorial splendor of music is what Helen Keller, deaf and blind, articulated in her exultation upon “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand.
I thought about all of this recently — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt about it — as I listened, with my whole being, to a friend perform music that seemed to emanate from her whole being. I wondered what it is about music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetizing us to the present yet containing within itself all that ever was and ever will be — a place where the symbolic and the real, the abstract and the acutely alive, converge into something larger.
That peculiar property of music may have been what prompted Susanne Langer (December 20, 1895–July 17, 1985), one of the first professional women philosophers, to call music an “unconsummated symbol” in her trailblazing 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, in which she concluded that “music is our myth of the inner life.”
Langer revisited the subject a quarter century later in her final work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (public library), exploring what makes music different from all other forms of creative expression and how, paradoxically, understanding the source of its power illuminates the other arts.
Music, like language, is an articulate form. Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e. its internal structure is given to our perception.
And yet music, Langer argues, is not quite a language, as it has frequently been called (although the two worked in tandem to help us evolve.) Unlike language, where words function as its primary forms of fixed meaning and association, music allows us to fill its forms with our own meaning. She considers this singular role of meaning in music:
Music has import, and this import is the pattern of sentience — the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known.
Let us therefore call the significance of music its “vital import” instead of “meaning,” using “vital” not as a vague laudatory term, but as a qualifying adjective restricting the relevance of “import” to the dynamism of subjective experience.
With this lens, Langer offers a sublimely compact and insightful definition of what music is, how it differs from language, and what it does in and for us:
Music is “significant form,” and its significance is that of a symbol, a highly articulated sensuous object, which by virtue of its dynamic structure can express the forms of vital experience which language is peculiarly unfit to convey. Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import.
Langer goes on to propose a special theory of music based on the idea of “significant form,” which she suggests can be generalized to illuminate the function and symbolic essence of all the arts. She writes:
What is “created” in a work of art? More than people generally realize when they speak of “being creative,” or refer to the characters in a novel as the author’s “creations.” More than a delightful combination of sensory elements; far more than any reflection or “interpretation” of objects, people, events — the figments that artists use in their demiurgic work, and that have made some aestheticians refer to such works as “re-creation” rather than genuine creation. But an object that already exists — a vase of flowers, a living person — cannot be re-created. It would have to be destroyed to be re-created. Besides, a picture is neither a person nor a vase of flowers. It is an image, created for the first time out of things that are not imaginal, but quite realistic — canvas or paper, and paints or carbon or ink.
What, then, is being created when music is made? An image of time, argues Langer two decades before the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky defined cinema as “sculpting in time.” Langer writes:
The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. Like its elements, however, this duration is not an actual phenomenon. It is not a period — ten minutes or a half hour, some fraction of a day — but is something radically different form the time in which our public and practical life proceeds. It is completely incommensurable with the progress of common affairs. Musical duration is an image of what might be termed “lived” or “experienced” time — the passage of life that we feel as expectations become “now,” and “now” turns into inalterable fact. Such passage is measurable only in terms of sensibilities, tensions, and emotions; and it has not merely a different measure, but an altogether different structure from practical or scientific time.
The semblance of this vital, experiential time is the primary illusion of music. All music creates an order of virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other — always and only to each other, for nothing else exists there.
Writing shortly before musician extraordinaire Nina Simone’s meditation on our experience of time, Langer adds:
Virtual time is as separate from the sequence of actual happenings as virtual space from actual space. In the first place, it is entirely perceptible, through the agency of a single sense — hearing. There is no supplementing of one sort of experience by another. This alone makes it something quite different from our “common-sense” version of time, which is even more composite, heterogeneous, and fragmentary than our similar sense of space. Inward tensions and outward changes, heartbeats and clocks, daylight and routines and weariness furnish various incoherent temporal data, which we coordinate for practical purposes by letting the clock predominate. But music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it — organize, fill, and shape it, all alone. It creates an image of time measured by the motion of forms that seem to give it substance, yet a substance that consists entirely of sound, so it is transitoriness itself. Music makes time audible, and its forms and continuity sensible.
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling is a revelatory read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with some of humanity’s greatest writers — including Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Friedrich Nietzsche — on the power of music, then revisit Langer on the purpose of art and how abstract thinking gives rise to human emotion.
Published May 24, 2017