In 1949, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was 13 years old and living on an airbase with his family in West Germany. It was the year of the Berlin blockade and the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb. In October, Stockhausen wrote a short essay called “The Art of Music,” in which he said that music had five enemies: “the primacy of melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm and form.”
He meant that these things were holding music back: not viable anymore. Stockhausen’s belief was that music could move past them and become something new. The five enemies became a watchword for avant-garde composers for decades.
Writing about music is different from writing about other subjects because when you write about music you are writing about sound rather than sense. So your readers cannot know whether you are right or wrong until they hear what you have to say. This makes it easy to be misunderstood, which is why some critics avoid writing about music unless they can record it as well as write.
But Stockhausen’s point wasn’t really a matter of opinion; it was a matter of new technology (new at least for composing music). Before recorded sound, all music—all art—was made by
Music is a very old art form, with the oldest original instrument still playable being the chichira from Peru. It is also an art that has been created and enjoyed by people all over the world. However, it is one of the more controversial forms of art. Many people enjoy listening to music and find it a relaxing distraction, while others may feel that music causes them to lose focus or even become angered. The fact that some individuals feel strongly about music can be explained by sociologist’s like Emile Durkheim and Charles Cooley who explain how humans need to maintain a sense of cohesion within their societies.
The arts are essential in the process of integrating our personalities and our group affiliations. Artistic expression brings these two worlds together. Music is capable of doing so because it touches on both sides of the human mind: the rational side as well as the emotional side. Music can be explained in terms of science and technology, for example, but at the same time it can invigorate us emotionally. Even though there are many different types of music (classical, rock, country) they all have this ability to unite humanity through an expressive medium that is composed by both rational and emotional mindsets.
Most pop songs are about love. But there are some things you can’t say in a pop song, or at least not elegantly. One of them is this: I’m so glad to be in love with you, but right now I’m feeling really bad about myself. How could I ever deserve you?
In order to write a pop song as great as that one, you have to have a whole philosophy of life worked out. You have to have thought hard about the meaning of life and the nature of love. And even then it’s hard to get all those thoughts into fewer than twenty-four words, which is what the Beach Boys managed to do:
I’d be safe and happy if I knew that love was real
I’d see everything with different eyes
The way that I feel—it isn’t hard to understand
And then again, Brian Wilson never had a chance to say anything like this on an album by the Beach Boys:
I don’t know how God is on his throne
All my friends are gone, it’s just my wife and me
There’s nobody else who’d want the place we’ve got up there
But he did write something very like it for “God Only Knows.” He wrote that song for the
In the early nineteen-sixties, before I had ever taken a class in art, music, or psychology, I was standing in my college dorm room, listening to a new record by The Beatles.
My roommate walked in. “You listen to that stuff?” he said. “What do you hear in it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just . . . different.”
“Of course it is,” he said, and went back to his room.
He was right and wrong. It was different; but was that all I heard? Or was there something more? That question has stuck with me over the years as I have learned a little about art and psychology and tried to figure out why people see things differently.
What’s straight is not always obvious. What’s obvious is not always straight. And what seems like a good idea at the time can lead you into both of those traps—sometimes at the same time.
You can’t understand art if you don’t understand music. Art is not a thing, it’s a process. The way you make art is by making something and then changing it in order to make a new thing that you could never make just by making the old thing.
The process of making art is always the same: first you create something, then you destroy some of it to create something new. This applies to science as well as art: Newton created physics by destroying Aristotelian physics. But in science this destructive part is usually left out of the story. The reason for this is simple: the destructive part isn’t interesting. It’s just grinding work, and there are no good stories about grinding work.
The process of creating an op art painting is more interesting than the resulting painting because it has more parts – more decisions and more ways they can go wrong – so it provides more opportunities for stories.
Consider the pattern shown to the left. It is called “Composition (In White and Black)”. If you stare at it for a while, you will see that it seems to be made out of random black and white blobs. But if you look carefully, you’ll also see that it contains a perfect circle.
What? How can something be both random and orderly? How can something contain both a circle and not contain a circle? That’s impossible! The brain doesn’t work like that! I’m not sure what the brain does work like, but whatever it is, this isn’t it.
It doesn’t matter how long you stare at the pattern; you won’t find the circle. You can turn the picture upside down or inside out, or cut out a little piece and tape it over another part of the picture; no matter what you do, there will still be no trace of a circle anywhere in the picture. Yet there really is one there.
If you still don’t believe me, there’s an even more convincing example:
It looks exactly like that one, except that now there’s a hole in the center instead of a dot. Again, there is absolutely nothing in the picture that could possibly suggest this to you. If someone
Many people are now familiar with the optical illusion known as the Hermann grid. Place a small mark in the center of a grid of parallel lines, and it appears as if there are two marks, one to the left of the other. The effect is actually even more impressive when you view it on a computer screen, because you can alter the width of the lines by altering their spacing; this is called “variable-width grating” or “op art.”
Hermann grid illusions have been used since the early twentieth century to study perceptual grouping, but they were slow to be appreciated. The reason was simple: they were at first hard to create. In order to get straight lines with perfect symmetry, Hermann grids required special printing equipment–a skill that was rare until recently.
The advent of desktop publishing has changed all that. Now you can make your own Hermann grid simply by pasting together text in Microsoft Word. If you want to see for yourself how this works (and I recommend that you do), click here .