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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Beauty Is In The Hands Of The Player

….while the listener decides the meaning of it all

To sit with your guitar and make music may be your idea of heaven, but are there any other requirements necessary, apart from technique and musicality to reach that exalted state, and to be accepted within the divine threshold? Sheer practise and determination bolted onto talent may be a good starting point but St Peter at the Pearly Gates may be looking for other qualities too, and yes, I am still referring to musical ones.

Music goes further than technique and expression, for the whole, at its very best, is greater than the sum of its parts. It touches our emotions in a way no words can describe and sets free our imaginations since it comes with no images. No description of it is ever adequate, and no two people describe the effect of listening to music in the same way, for the same music can mean completely different things to each of them. In spite of this ambiguity, there is no doubt that music goes from the heart of the player straight to the heart of the listener, whether a meaning is agreed or not - that is, if it has any meaning at all, for Stravinsky said music has none:
I consider that music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or a psychological mood.”
Leonard Bernstein wrote:
“Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own.”
And here he is again, a little more romantic perhaps:
“Music . . . can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.”

We can move our listeners to tears but know not why
So where does all this leave the contemporary guitar-player? We can move our listeners to tears but know not why because our music may have no meaning! Maybe we can all agree that music simply triggers a powerfully emotional response, leaving any meaning for the listener to decide.

But it was not always so. Pythagoras (6th century BC) believed that music was part of a great cosmic significance. Numbers and mathematical proportion governed the laws of the universe. The beauty itself of music was explained by its mathematical divisions into the 4:3:2:1 ratio which underpins the entire edifice of our harmonic language. Music is not just an art but a science. He went further: the entire universe vibrates to a giant harmonic sequence as do the laws of nature. This may all seem quite fantastic, but in recent times the scientist John A. Newlands in his work with atoms and elements discovered properties repeat themselves at every eighth element (referring to their atomic weights). Music repeats its properties at the eighth interval: it is called the octave. Newlands’ scientific discovery is called the law of octaves.

It is but a small step to deduce that if the basic intervals of music that determine the beauty of music are rooted in natural laws, then beauty itself could be the ideal – and so it was for Pythagoras and the ancient Greeks. Following this path we may be a little closer to finding whether there is an inner meaning to music through the pursuit of beauty, nor would we be alone in doing so. The Arabic philosopher Al-Farabi writing more than a thousand years after Pythagoras in the 9th century AD was also convinced of the cosmic significance of music, and of its therapeutic powers too. The Romantic poet John Keats concentrated on the ideal of beauty elevating it to a moral status, thus giving it a psychological spin:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty —that is all”

Back to our guitarist, poised to play, does he need to think of music's inner meaning? No. Does he have to agree with Bernstein or Stravinsky or Pythagoras? No. Does he have to make a thing of beauty (whatever that is) of his playing? Yes. Does he have to create a union of spirits with his listener? Yes. Maybe by these means, and these means alone, he will add that extra dimension to his music that will persuade St Peter to swing open the gates and point him in the direction of enlightenment and eternal bliss.

Read more:

Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971: "Chroniques de ma vie" (1935), reproduced in Morgenstern, "Composers on Music" (Pantheon, 1956)

Leonard Bernstein: 1918-1990: The Joy of Music

Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie: An Anthology of Ancient Writings Which Relate to Pythagoras (570 – c. 495BC)

John A. Newlands 1837-1898: On the Law of Octaves

Al-Farabi 872-951: Meanings Of The Intellect

John Keats 1795-1821: Poem - Ode on a Grecian Urn

Some of these books available from:

London, March 2012

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=1051 .
© 2019.

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