Words and Music—Two Sides of the Sense of Hearing

By Ooi Kee Beng

March 2023 EDITORIAL
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MUSIC HAS ALWAYS been a phenomenon to savour for the great thinkers. One can sense how these master craftsmen of words relished being stumped when it came to analysing music. Compared to how eloquent they could be about almost anything else, they were simply at a loss for words when describing music. Why has that been the case?

Largely, their contemplations on Music would (1) ascribe divine functions to it; (2) relate it to words the way ultraviolet and infrared relates to the visible colour spectrum, i.e. as something that lies beyond the obvious and expressible; or (3) situate it in the realm of daily existential ecstasy and sensory integration in the human being. As suggested above, being lost for words, they were prone to wax lyrical about Music instead, and so these categories are not easily separable.

We have St. Augustine avowing that “To sing is to pray twice." Then we have thinkers like Hans Christian Andersen who thought that “Where words fail, music speaks”; Leo Tolstoy who claimed that “Music is the shorthand of emotion”; Heinrich Heine who realised that “When words leave off, music begins”; and Victor Hugo who asserted that “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent."

Other worthies I should mention who praised Music are Plato, whose relevant lines on the subject include “Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul”; Confucius declaring that “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without”; Albert Einstein saying that “The most joy in my life has come to me from my violin”; and the inimitable Friedrich Nietzsche proclaiming that “Without Music, life would be a mistake."

For good measure, let me recall the author Maya Angelou intimating to us that “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness”; and also Aldous Huxley revealing that “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." [I am aware of over-referencing the European tradition here, but they do serve my purpose well enough in this context.]

The Five Senses

But what is it that envelops Music with Mystic?  Instead of conjuring notions of transcendence, of wordlessness, let me conjecture on the third point mentioned above, and consider Music within the realm of concrete experiencing of the five human senses.

Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue and Skin; responding and corresponding to the impulses of Light, Sound, Smell, Taste and Pressure to move our senses of Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting and Touching.

For starters, we should agree that separating our five senses discursively may have been necessary, but that very innovation probably dissected the human mind into segments, alienating us from ourselves.

First off, we can consider the senses as receptors—the external acts upon us, and we see, hear, smell, taste and feel Reality, albeit organised into five sensory discourses. What do we then do with this information? The nervous system gets into the act; instincts and the brain get into the act; memory, culture and habits get into the act.

When we then reverse the process, when we act upon the world or communicate, the use of smell and taste seem less impactful than sight, sound and touch. What I mean is, we can be seen, heard or touched more easily than we can be tasted or smelled. We can signal to gain visible attention, we can make noises for audial contact, and we can move or touch objects to achieve changes.

Language developed, first, for the ears through the sounds we make with our throats, then also for the eyes when we learned to draw or write. Language as a means of communication and as a keeper of knowledge was thus generated—thanks to guttural sounds, and then sight. But sounds do not have to be structured into language. We could use our throat to make noises that did not have to become Words. Further inspired by the racket we could make through touch interactions with the physical world, we learned to sort sounds and silences. We could create rhythms and filter noises for impact. We could order sounds that went beyond—or before—Words.

We could make Music!

Words and Music seem, therefore, to me to be related in that the former relies more on sound and sight, while the latter relies more on sound and touch. Words celebrate the Brain; Music celebrates the Body.

Music is mystical when we consider it from the point of view of Words. If we look at Words from the point of view of Music, Words no longer stand in a position superior to Music. Instead, the two appear side by side, as essentially different forms of communication.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com