Music is a hard thing to study or talk about for one big reason: it can’t stop moving. Aside from film, visual art tends to stand still, allowing the viewer some control over the experience. But music moves forward, relentlessly, thwarting our attempts to get a firm grip.
Suppose you tell a friend that you went to the Van Gogh exhibit at MOMA yesterday, and she asks, “How long was the exhibit?” The question doesn’t really make sense. At best, you’ll take it to mean, “How long does it take to go through?” That depends. Your answer could be six minutes, an hour, or all day. There isn’t a set duration for visual art.
But if you say, “I went to hear a Brahms concert yesterday,” and she asks how long the concert was, it’s a sensible question. Two hours, 43 minutes.
The difference is a critical one. At the Van Gogh exhibit, you could look at each painting for three minutes or skip entire rooms. Stand and gawk at “The Starry Night” for hours. Get in close for a look at one brushstroke. Step back, cross your arms pretentiously, and you can see the whole thing at once. You can compare one part to another, move your eye left and right and left again, top to bottom, leave the room for a potty break and come right back to looking at the waves crashing on the shore.
Stare at those waves for 20 minutes if you want. Realize they’re not waves. Compare background to foreground. Time is not a constraint.
Now on to the concert. The first piece begins. At any given moment you are experiencing only a fraction of the entire piece, one moment in time, and as soon as it happens it is gone, replaced by another and another in a sequence you cannot change. You can’t move your ears from left to right and back again at will, and you certainly can’t step back and look at the whole piece at once.
You also can’t stand up and yell, “Stop! Hold it right there so I can really listen to that moment!” Even if concert security doesn’t drag you out, holding one moment of the music destroys it. All you would hear is the chord at that moment, no rhythm, no meter, no tempo. All the elements of time, so crucial to making music what it is, are fatally suspended. You might as well try to understand the processes of the human body by saying, “Hold that heartbeat and breathing still for a few minutes.”
“If you take a cat apart to see how it works,” said Douglas Adams, “the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.”
Visual art transmits meaning with shape and color distributed through space. Music transmits meaning with pitch and (tone) color distributed through time. This is the heart of the difference between music and visual art, and the heart of the difference in what each can and cannot do. The thing that makes music hard to study also gives it a certain advantage over visual art in capturing and recalling lived emotional experience. Like life, music flows.
Life unfolds, one moment after another. Plans are made, expectations built up, then they are fulfilled, or delayed, or dashed on the rocks, over time. The fact that music shares that critical element with life itself—that it unfolds gradually—is key to understanding its power to move us.