The Mystery of Music

The debates may be old, but they're not tired. They rage on with a virulence that suggests there's plenty of life in these old dogs yet. Online forums and Letters to the Editor are filled with them: objectivist vs subjectivist, engineer vs audiophile, double-bind vs doubly blind. The divisions may be artificial or downright specious—false dichotomies perfectly set up for cheap shots—but that doesn't dissuade people from drawing sides, driving stakes into the ground, and firing off volley after volley of accusation and retaliation.

Anyone who has observed or engaged in these debates while maintaining a modicum of detachment has discovered that they rarely go anywhere. Whether it's assertions that aftermarket power cables can't possibly make a difference or that amplifiers all sound alike, those who adhere to such positions continue to assert them no matter what others observe and report as their experience. The debates begin to sound disturbingly similar to debates over abortion vs choice, evolution vs "intelligent design," or any issue in which one side claims to have God on its side. Don't dare try to suggest that you can hear things that engineers do not know how to measure, let alone that it's possible to accept Darwin's science and believe in God.

As a musician who writes both music criticism and reviews of audiophile equipment, I've found my observations the subject of contention on more than one occasion. For two entire months, posters to several online forums obsessed over my Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity review of the Marigo Signature 3-D Mat. Claiming that the manufacturer's explanation of how the mat improves the sound of CDs made no scientific sense, posters resorted to outright dismissal and personal attack. What was most interesting was that the very few times someone actually tried the mat and reported hearing a difference, the naysayers, none of whom was willing to try the thing out, ignored such observations and made an even greater ruckus.

Insight into why some people steadfastly claim that others cannot possibly hear what they report hearing, and that only "objective" tests can reveal sonic truths, recently came via the words of the late Virgil Thomson, the composer-critic whose observations about music and musical performance are considered among the most cogent ever written by an American. Picking up Thomson's The State of Music, a book first published in 1939, I read:

"Every profession is a secret society. The musical profession is more secret than most, on account of the nature of music itself. No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated....

"Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is. It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called 'musical.' And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders."

Might Thomson be describing the chasm of miscomprehension that exists within the high-end kingdom? Is it possible that those who claim that some of us cannot possibly hear what we are hearing themselves lack the facility to comprehend what we're hearing in the first place? After all, if some people can't remember sounds, let alone connect them in their heads, why should they put any value on a reviewer's assertion that one CD player is more "musical" than another?

The 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz wrote that an artist is "Someone who can pour light into a cup, then raise it to quench the thirst for truth." A wonderful analogy, to be sure. But what happens if someone prefers to drink a different brew, or isn't thirsty to begin with? What happens if this person prefers Snapple to champagne, or hip-hop to Handel? You could bring him or her the most powerful, highly rated class-A monoblocks listed in Stereophile's "Recommended Components," and all this person would care about is if the circuit makes the neighbor's dog bark like crazy when they play Eminem or 50 Cent.

It seems that for some people, music registers only as rhythm and/or sensation. How can one possibly convey the microtonal shadings and microdynamics that some high-end designers do their darndest to bring to the fore if such qualities register zilch on a listener's Richter scale of audiophile epiphanies? How does someone who can't get enough of the way baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau rounds off the last phrase of Schubert's "Der Lindenbaum" share their ecstasy felt to someone who is far more interested in which subwoofer best conveys the sound of Apollo Gazillion crashing into the surface of the moon?

Take that simplest of compliments from listener to artist: "Your phrasing is so musical." I've encountered countless people who have no idea what that means. A critic can write all sorts of descriptive phrases: "The sound seems to flow effortlessly, like clear water in a stream," or "It's as though Brubeck wrote that passage with this saxophonist in mind." But what do such words mean to someone like my adult niece Laura, who trusted me enough to ask, "How can you feel different emotions when you listen to music? To me it all sounds the same."

Recently, while writing an article about the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, I spoke with Joan Panetti, a pianist-composer on the faculty of Yale University. Panetti believes that when Mozart wrote for piano, he intended to convey the colors of the different instruments he heard in his head. When she performs Mozart piano sonatas, for example, she will play one passage as though it's written for trombone, and another as though Mozart meant it to sound like an entire string quartet. What do such efforts mean to someone who tells you that Panetti doesn't know what she's talking about because music is composed of sounds, not colors?

I have begun to accept that some people cannot make sense of the assertion that Sarah Vaughan's voice and Hilary Hahn's violin touch my heart and revitalize my spirit more when reproduced by amplifier A than by amplifier B. Some people will continue to think that such observations are audiophile gibberish simply because they lack the ability to hear what is being described, and can't verify emotional import and colors from measurements.

What to do? To paraphrase the parable, render under Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and enjoy the music that is the elixir of the gods. For those who receive music as color and emotion, equipment exists that can convey those properties. For those who experience music mainly as sensation, other equipment may suffice. For many, it matters naught that MP3s sound constricted, or that Bose speakers are not the most amazing little things on the planet.