On Musical Synaesthesia by Rebecca Bogard
The cold brass weighs heavily on my lap, a dead weight to those who have never learned their ABC’s: Airway—the voluminous cavity of the horn full of kinetic potential; Breath—a warm breath filling the once devoid cavity with new life; and Circulation—the pulsing rhythm of sound which resonates from the horn, pacing the heartbeat of all who listen. “Clear!” The electric shock revives me from the monotony of human thought and concern-when am I going to finish writing this paper; what does David Abram’s essay have to do with my life? In this particular moment, it doesn’t matter. Music embodies me, just as it embodies the instrument I now play. It reverberates off the walls, at once striking the senses; my skin tingles and my ears are filled with chords, harmonious and dissonant, all part of the synaesthetic experience which now defines me. The song is Frank Ticheli’s “An American Elegy,” arranged to commemorate “those who lost their lives at Columbine High School in 1999 and in honor of the survivors.” It begins softly, at piano, with a B-flat whole note I will never forget. It ends on the same note, and for a moment, I am suspended between two worlds: one wholly in touch with the animate universe, the other guiding my self-reflexive writing.
In an essay entitled “Animism and the Alphabet,” author and magician David Abram asserts that the development of the phonetic alphabet and hence, practice of writing, has distanced and even separated us from nature. It has enabled, as Abram puts it, “a new sense of autonomy and independence from others, and even from the sensuous surroundings that had earlier been one’s constant interlocutor” (42). The permanency of the written word allows us to return to it time and time again, engendering what Abram frames “a new, profoundly reflexive, sense of self” (42). Abram continues that the alphabet has given us the ability to reflect on concepts entirely distinct from the non-human world. Concepts such as “justice,” “temperance,” and “virtue” operate as their own entities in our literate culture, a foreign notion to the oral cultures of the ancient world (and few remaining in the modern world). Heavy emphasis on mnemonic structures such as song and story characterize the oral culture out of which the literate world arose. Abram pointedly rebukes the common attribution of these cultures as primitive, arguing they are actually rather sophisticated in their creative preservation and transmission of knowledge. About the storytelling function of these cultures, he states:
…these stories affirm human kinship with the multiple forms of the surrounding terrain. They thus indicate the respectful, mutual relations that must be maintained with natural phenomena, the reciprocity that must be practiced in relation to other animals, plants, and the land itself, in order to ensure one’s own health and to preserve the well-being of the human community. (48)
In other words, song and story aren’t just about perpetuating knowledge; they are about communion with nature, a sophisticated phenomenon wherein humanity not only exists, but thrives. And implicit with such intense communion with nature is the consequential ability to empathize, as Abram expresses through the concept of synaesthesia, or “the overlap and intertwining of the senses” (51). He expands, “[t]he diversity of my sensory systems, and their spontaneous convergence in the things that I encounter, ensures this interpenetration or interweaving between my body and other bodies–this magical participation that permits me, at times, to feel what others feel” (53). Feeling what Others feel, particularly non-human Others, is an experience lost to the literate world, now inseparable from “‘the conceit of wisdom’” as Plato comments of written letters in the Phaedrus (qtd. in Abram 43). Abram concludes his essay with a poignant and critical assessment of written language and by proxy, modern culture, with the statement that “…it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb” (56).
But the written word does contain a magic of its own. Commenting on the animate quality of the alphabet, Abram reflects:
As a Zuñi elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even ‘inanimate’ rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the ‘inert’ letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone. (56)
In addition, he states, “Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies” (55). And does not our perception of letters disclose words that fill our minds with “expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies” (55)? Thus, Abram acknowledges, the letters on this page are synaesthetic in their own right. In essence, the potency of the written word lives in its power to distance us from the magic of nature—a synaesthetic experience entirely distinct from the primitive interweaving of souls Abram wistfully recalls.
In many respects, music brings us back to that sense of magic Abram so longingly refers to. The beat of drums still reflects the rhythm of nature. The hum of a clarinet mimics the cicada. The warm tone of low brass is not unlike the soothing song of a mother bear comforting her baby. Abram shares a similar sentiment in the following passage, describing the sounds of animals: “For the audible resonance of beings varies with their material makeup, as the vocal calls of different animals vary with the size and shape of their interior cavities and hollows” (54). Just as the “interior cavities and hollows” of a lion or bird meld the timbre of their songs, so the cavities and hollows of a musical instrument reflect those of the wildlife by which they are inspired. Indeed, there is a familiarity to music that takes us back to the roots of nature. The very names of our modern day instruments still echo these roots. The woodwinds, comprised of reed and wind instruments, capture the essence of earth and wind which gives them their distinct sound. The tone of the brass instruments preserves the strong, smooth character of the natural element from which they are molded. An appreciation of music depends on an appreciation of nature, because without it music would not exist.
But musical synaesthesia, just as the synaesthesia of nature, is more than a corporeal experience; it is very much an emotional experience as well—the cathartic power of nature and music (in its reflection of nature) personified through raw human emotion. In this sense, synaesthesia, or the “intertwining of the senses” is closely tied to emotion. Nothing can compare to the organic experience of live music seeping into your skin, raising the hair on your arms. The frequency and wavelength of a sound wave emanating from a trumpet or French horn possesses the fundamentally unique quality of embracing listeners’ senses holistically—this is to say, through body and mind. Numerous studies have undertaken the science behind music and emotion, and while results have exhibited a relatively weak link, the ineluctable conclusion is that the two are indeed connected. One study, entitled Perception of Six Basic Emotions in Music (2010), demonstrates that people can perceive several distinct emotions from music, including happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear (Mohn, Argstatter, and Wilker 503). Recent research seeks to explain physiological reactions in response to music, possibly lending scientific validity to the hair-raising experience felt by so many. Facial expressions and even “chills down the spine,” among other reactions, have been measured and analyzed in response to music (Zbikowski 41). And in fact, it is this animate energy which so beautifully allows us to express emotion through music in the first place.
Further illustrating this effect, as well as the chasm between nature and the alphabet, is an essay by Rutgers University Professor Richard E. Miller, entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Questioning the relevance of the literate arts, Miller reflects on the actions of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, criminal masterminds of the 1999 Columbine shooting incident. Of the two, he writes, “They read, they wrote, they talked. And at the end of the process, they tried to kill everyone they could” (Miller 423). In essence, he posits, “reading and writing have no magically transformative powers” (423). They cannot, in and of themselves, “protect [us] from the violent changes our culture is undergoing” (423). Violent cultural changes that, I would argue, signal our further retreat from the synaesthesia of nature—that is to say, the intertwining of senses which procure in us the power of catharsis. But if this healing power cannot be found in literacy, it certainly resides in music. Recalling the melodies and harmonies of An American Elegy brings tears to my eyes, as it surely unites those who experience the same release—the same connection to humanity, and by origin, nature—inherent to the language of music. And it is this cyclical relationship between nature, music, and human emotion which ultimately distinguishes it from the alphabet: our “chiasm with the inked marks upon the page” (Abram 56).
This being said, I have a hard time accepting the fate that writing is an irrelevant art, that writing is incapable of reflecting nature and its gift of synaesthesia, of catharsis. Could music be the link between nature and literacy, and if so, is there a way to combine the organic experience of live music with the world of literacy? How can we use music to bring out the animate quality of the alphabet, and in turn, the animate quality of nature through our writing? Although it may be impossible to return to nature in the most primitive sense, I would dare to say that a return to synaesthesia, or catharsis of nature, is more than possible through music and the written word.
The link between music and literacy is strong, offering an ever-expanding body of supportive research. Studies have shown positive correlation between a child’s ability to discriminate pitch and his/her level of phonic awareness (Lamb & Gregory 19-27). Other studies have linked the neural functions used to decipher music with those used to decipher words (Chappell 46). In the classroom, research has demonstrated that listening to music may increase focus and even creativity (Scott 174). And supportive teacher testimonials prove that the link between music and literacy is more than a scientific one; it’s also a practical one. In an article entitled “Writing to Music,” fourth-grade language arts teacher Linda G. Scott writes about her experience incorporating music in the classroom. While listening to music—everything from instrumental recordings to a live musician—Scott had her students write stories about their experience, concluding that their “ability to combine words with music was amazing” (Scott 174). Bridging music and the literate arts, Scott’s experiment certainly grants hope to a reanimation of the written word.
And indeed, among all of the evidence, Scott’s is particularly influential, tapping not just into the impact of music on literacy, but especially the synaesthetic writing experience that is possible through music. Perhaps the most exciting evidence to this end comes from TED Talks through a presentation by Benjamin Zander aptly entitled “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” Convinced that “classical music is for everybody,” Zander invites his audience into an intimate experience, unlocking one of the art form’s most unique and powerful qualities: the story. While playing a prelude by Chopin, Zander asks the audience to think of someone they love, someone they have lost. True to his prediction, the moment he lifts his hands from the piano, silence fills the room, a million stories racing through every mind and heart. Zander continues, sharing the story of a young boy who approached him after a presentation, relating:
“You know, I’ve never listened to classical music in my life, but when you played that shopping [Chopin] piece … ” (Laughter) He said, “My brother was shot last year and I didn’t cry for him. But last night, when you played that piece, he was the one I was thinking about. And I felt the tears streaming down my face. And you know, it felt really good to cry for my brother.”
What the young boy experienced was “direct” and “prereflective,” “inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic…” (Abram 55); what he experienced was cathartic: a vivid personal story relived through music. A story energized by music and, significantly, the possibility of a synaesthetic writing experience revitalized.
Although the young boy in Zander’s experience did not write his story down, the ingredients were all present—the synaesthesia, or “interpenetration or interweaving between my body and other bodies” (Abram 53) that allowed him to connect with his brother—to weave his story into a written animation of nature itself. So the communion of song and story rejuvenates the hope of a return to nature. Music’s many positive effects in the writing classroom are well researched. However, in most models, music is peripheral—that is, music is the background noise against which students write whatever they please. But if song and story are to accomplish such a return to nature, music must be at the forefront of the writing experience. The success of Scott’s experiment or Zander’s presentation is a direct reflection of this. Scott’s students wrote about what they heard: the music. Zander’s audience relived their stories through the music. In each, the story was secondary.
Experiencing nature through music is at the heart of the synaesthetic writing experience. Allowing the dissonant chords to pluck at our heart strings, or the warm tone of a mother bear to remind us of our childhood, all the while connecting pencil to paper—this is the alphabet of Abram’s longing. And Richard E. Miller concurs: “If we want to make an argument for the humanities, what we have to do is start producing compositions that are beautiful, that are compelling, that pay attention to the auditory detail of the experience” (“This is How We Dream Part 2”). It is a hands-on approach, a writing-in-the-music-classroom approach, which will bring the alphabet back to life. To let music weave our stories is an art form wholly in touch with the synaesthesia, or catharsis, of nature. Indeed, the communion of song and story is the closest we may ever get to that communion with nature wherein humanity not only exists, but thrives.
The ringing of harmonies seems not to buzz in my ears, but in my heart. It brings me to a place entirely distinct from the cinder block walls of the band room, pulling me into an embrace with nature itself. That B-flat whole note brings a smile to my eyes as I think of my family, my story, and at last, the possibility of a beautiful composition. It renews my senses, and all at once, the dead weight of the horn is brought back to life.
Abram, David. “Animism and the Alphabet.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2011. 24-69. Print.
Chappell, Jon. “GENERAL MUSIC: The Link between Music and Literacy.” Teaching Music 15.5 (2008): 46. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.
Darrow, Alice-Ann. “Music and Literacy.” General Music Today 21.2 (2008): 32-34. Sage Publications. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.
Lamb, Susannah J., and Andrew H. Gregory. “The Relationship between Music and Reading in Beginning Readers.” Educational Psychology 13.1 (1993): 19-27. Web. 27 Aug. 2012.
Miller, Richard E. “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 9th ed. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2011. 418-456. Print.
Mohn, Christine, Heike Argstatter, and Friedrich-Wilhelm Wilker. “Perception of Six Basic Emotions in Music.” Psychology of Music 39 (2010): 503-17. Sage Publications. Web. 14 Aug. 2012.
Scott, Linda G. “Writing to Music.” The Reading Teacher 50.2 (1996): 173-74. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 25 Aug. 2012.
This Is How We Dream Part 2. Dir. Richard E. Miller. YouTube. 15 Jan. 2009. Web. Aug. 2012.
Zander, Benjamin. “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. TED Conferences LLC, June 2008. Web. Aug. 2012.
Zbikowski, Lawrence M. “Music, Emotion, Analysis.” Music Analysis 29.1-3 (2010): 37-60. Wiley Online Library. Web. 14 Aug. 2012.
Rebecca Bogard is a secondary education major in integrated language arts and communication at the University of Cincinnati. She said of her essay: “The concept of musical synaesthesia came to me as I was trying to define a moment where I felt like a reader or writer. Unfortunately, nothing really stuck out in my mind–that is, until I thought about music. Music is the ultimate literacy experience, painting a story through notes and phrases–it is the writing experience I have never had, and it gave me the idea to explore its power as a vehicle to transform our writing.”
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