Ando on Music as an Art Form

From Andy Eppler's book "New Reason New Way: How my skepticism changed my art"

Music is unique in the world of art. It’s also universal to humanity. It’s one of those rare and beautiful things that we all have in common. What makes music so potent? My theory is as follows.

Music is the only art form that happens in your mind. Music is created when a sentient being produces purposeful sound waves using some kind of medium such as an instrument or vocal cords. Sound waves are invisible and intangible but when interpreted inside the brain patterns are recognized and can be experienced as music. All other art forms happen outside of the brain in a physical medium and are relayed to the brain by sight. Music is non-visual and can be freely associated in the mind with either positive or negative connotations. As a musical artist, I have found the intangible nature of music to be very frustrating. A painter, for instance, gets done with a painting and then they can hang it on the wall to look at. They can touch it. They can say, “Look what I made!”. The painter’s product is able to be seen by others, touched by others, experienced in the physical world by the whole world. The musician must recreate the art each time it is to be experienced. The musician has to either play you the song in person or record the experience for playback later.

There are also time restraints. A sculpture is carried to your brain through your vision and your brain automatically sees it and interprets it. You can walk away and still think about the sculpture later even after only a few moments of seeing it. Music requires time. Music must build a pattern in your mind and because it isn’t being processed visually but rather audibly it takes longer. A sculpture can build a recognizable pattern in your mind in a second such as a sculpture of a human figure. It’s recognizable in an instant and you automatically associate things with it. This gives the artist a chance to switch the pattern and infer meaning by contrast or sameness like swapping the head of the statue with that of a bird. The visual enters your brain and you have an immediate reaction to it. Further, the sculpture can have a name that cements the intent of the artist in the mind of the viewer such as “Bird Brain”.

Now think about music. One of the most recognizable styles of music in the world is American blues and of that style the most common and recognizable pattern is what is called the twelve bar blues. It’s basically every blues song you’ve ever heard. You know it instinctively within seconds of hearing it and definitely by the time the singer starts up you will know what to expect. Even this most commonly recognizable pattern in this art form still takes a few seconds to sink into your brain and if you have never heard the blues before it could take a minute or more before you are comfortable in the blues pattern (or chord progression). 

Music is a slave to time. If you don’t give music the time it needs to build a pattern you can’t experience the music. The sculpture and painting get their patterns across immediately along with any pattern switch that the artist may have made. Music, conversely, has to build each layer of pattern over time before any pattern switch can really be made. Like a song that starts out bluesy but changes into a more jazzy feel. The artist must first establish the pattern of the blues before it’s interesting to make a pattern switch. The artist must lead you to an expectation and then either meet that expectation or defy it.

This time component of music mixed with this intangible nature of music requires a different level of commitment in order to have the intended experience. The listener has to devote considerable resources of attention and therefore the art is often more personal. Music can even trigger visuals in the mind of the listener and since the visuals are produced by the mind it deepens and personalizes the experience. I think this is why music is so universal to humanity and why it’s so important to personal and social development. Not everyone has a favorite painter but most everyone has a favorite band. 

Music is frustratingly intangible and immensely powerful and while all art forms are potent in their own ways music has always had my heart and held my interest. It’s an invisible alchemy, which can brew up potions that lift the spirit and challenge the mind.

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