The element of time gives music an advantage in reflecting emotional experience

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Music is a hard thing to study or even talk about because it can’t stop moving. Aside from film, visual art tends to stand still, giving the viewer some control over the experience. But music moves forward relentlessly, thwarting any attempts to get a firm grip.

Imagine telling a friend that you attended a Frida Kahlo exhibit yesterday. She asks how long it was. It’s hard to know what she means. How long does it take to go through the exhibit, maybe? Your answer could be six minutes, an hour, or all day, depending on how much time you spend at each painting. There isn’t usually a set duration for visual art—set dimensions in space, yes, but not in time.

But if you say, “I went to a Radiohead concert yesterday,” and she asks how long the concert was, that’s a sensible question. Two hours and five minutes.

The difference is critical. At the Kahlo exhibit, you could look at each painting for three minutes or skip entire rooms. Stand and look at “Roots, 1943” for hours. Get in close for a look at one brushstroke. Step back, cross your arms, and you can see the whole thing at once. Compare one part to another, move your eyes left and right and left again, top to bottom, go to the restroom, and come right back to look at the mountains in the background.

Roots, 1943—Frida Kahlo

Stare at those mountains for 20 minutes if you want. Decide they’re not mountains…they’re waves. Compare background to foreground. Time is not a constraint.

Now on to the concert. The first song starts. At any given moment you’re experiencing just a fraction of the whole thing, one moment in time, and as soon as it happens it’s 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, and you certainly can’t step back and look at the whole song at once.

You also can’t stand up and yell, “Stop! Hold it right there so I can really listen to that spot!” Holding one moment of the music destroys it. All you’d 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 expresses meaning with shape and color distributed through space. Music expresses 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 an advantage in capturing lived emotional experience. Like life, music flows.

The thing that makes music hard to study also gives it an advantage in capturing lived emotional experience. Like life, music flows.

And like lived experience, music changes over time. It can start in one place, in one emotional frame, and gradually or suddenly shift to another one. It can start simple and become complex, then suddenly drop to silence. And that silence can feel like terror or loneliness…or relief. It can go from peaceful consonance to tearing dissonance, from aimless wheel-spinning to purposeful forward motion.

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 feature with life itself—that it unfolds over time—is key to understanding its unique power to move us.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...