If I were to tattoo any phrase on my body, I would probably go with “Specialization is for Insects.” This phrase first appeared in Robert Heinlein’s novel Time Enough for Love, not that I’ve read it. However, the first time I heard this quote was several weeks ago at a talk by David Cope, an artificial intelligence researcher at UC Santa Cruz who is famous for his investigations into the mechanization of the creation of music. From a folk psychological view, it is fairly easy to see why Cope was drawn to this quote. Throughout his career, Cope has crossed boundaries left and right. He has brought musicality to the field of artificial intelligence, and perhaps some logical intelligence to the field of music.
One insight into music that Cope discussed throughout the lecture was the idea that music carries no true emotion. There are no sad note or happy notes. You, the viewer, force your own interpretations and emotions to the music. It is not often that I find a bonafide musician, someone who has spent so much of their life, admitting such a fact. It almost seems heretical. Yet, this idea has one I have (at least implicitly) understood for quite a while. One problem I have with this view of music, that is that of an inherently meaningless entity, is how do you reconcile the contents of lyrics with the belief that music is one grand exercise in reader response? Personally, I believe that Cope listens to so much classical music that his insights into the world are colored by and focused on the instrumental music. I don’t think he mentioned contemporary music in either of the two talks I saw him give.
I think it goes without saying that songs with lyrics do have meaning in them. There is still a large element of reader response. What you bring to the table in conversation with a song is just as important as the lyrical contents thereof. Yet, Rebecca Black’s Friday still has a certain element of nearly immutable meaning. It is about the day Friday. It is about the concept of partying. It is neither about Thursday, nor Saturday (though both of theses days do get a brief shoutout). There is not much else to Friday.
Now we have established that certain genres of music lack meaning, and that certain genres of music gain meaning through the grafting on of lyrics. This brings me to the part of the essay where I defend my baseless opinions. Throughout my life, I have always found all types of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and most contemporary forms of band and/or orchestra music, to be incredibly boring. If I had tickets to Yo-Yo Ma, would I go? Yes. But, grudgingly, and only for the ability to see Yo-Yo Ma and to post pictures on social media. Would his music do much for me? Probably not.
I think there are two types of people in this world. Those who want to impose their own meaning on creative pieces of art, and those who want to be told how to think. I am one of the sheeple who wants to be told how to think. If a song is about a raucous party, I wholeheartedly believe there should be accompanying lyrics expressing this to the audience. I want to be teleported to the party. I want the music to show me around, introduce me to a couple of guests, engage in some trite conversation, and leave. Just like social interactions in real life. I find lyric-less music to be like Jackson Pollack’s paintings. Apparently, Pollack’s paintings are really good. Apparently, they are worth a lot. But really, isn’t art about making the audience feel something? What do I feel when I see paint smatters on a canvas? Not much.
I really wonder whether classical music audience-goers actually enjoy classical music. If so, do they impose their own meanings on the symphony? Is this the main reason why the retirees are the main audience of classical music? Do they have more life experience to pull from, to impose on the music they are listening to? After this meditation on meaning, art, and music, you may be wondering whether I am a robot. I am not a robot. I can impose meaning on pieces of art when I want to. After writing this musing, I am starting think I might just be a hypocritical, motivated-reasoner.
I can think of one group that produces instrumental music I enjoy, Explosions in the Sky. But Explosions in the Sky’s bombastic post-rock, serves a different purpose than the music I listen to on a day-to-day basis. Lyric-less post-rock is what I use to zone out, or to study. I listen to this music when I don’t want to think, when I don’t want to feel. Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place functions as a sounding board, a message of hope to quell my fears, or bouts of sadness.
I’m not sure where this leaves us philosophically. Perhaps, I would summarize it this way. Music with lyrics is a tool of transportation. Like a well-written fiction book, lyrics take us to a fictional place. On the contrary, instrumental music excels a complementing our moods. Instrumental music needs another source of meaning for it’s beauty to be fully actualized, whether that meaning comes from your head, a movie, or another outside source. Maybe orchestra concerts would be more interesting if they had accompanying music videos.