Monthly Archives: March 2015

In his first Duino Elegy, poet Rainer Maria Rilke declares that “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear”.

Music can be sheer terror. “Why do you like this? It’s just noise!” the detractors say as we hold firm in our musical love.

Perhaps we like this kind of chaotic and terrifying music because it is, as Rilke writes, at the threshold of beauty and abomination. Walking this tightrope, we can’t help but admire the musical feats which balance so gracefully.


When I describe some music that I like, I describe it as having violence within it. There is a rage in music that can be cathartic.

That is one of things that makes music so beautiful. Music doesn’t directly hurt anyone. Music can be violent without projecting that aggression onto another human being.

It’s as if music projects this rage into the world for it to dissolve and whither away…as it should.

Transcription and arranging is translating. Sometimes it’s awkward to translate from piano music to guitar like taking German poetry and putting it into English.

But the act of doing it, no matter how successful, opens our horizons. It let’s us examine how a composer’s music works in our language, like reading foreign literature in English.

We can appreciate a writer much more when we can read his works. Can’t the same be said for music?

We like to think there are two ways of listening to music. Either there is active listening like when we’re at a concert or passive listening like when we put music in the background to study.

And yet it isn’t that simple…

Take Erik Satie’s attempt to create music made for passive listening, his furniture music: music which repetitively lulled in the background. There is one recorded instance when he performed them during a concert intermission, everyone sat to pay attention anyway. The audience took Satie’s passive music to be actively listened.

Why not talk about passive listening at concerts while we’re at it? We’ve all done it. Dozing off just happens and conundrums confront our cortex: “Did I turn off the oven?” “I wonder what I could be doing instead of being here. Becky invited me to go drinking…” The music that was meant to be actively listened is now mixed together with passive listening.

You could probably come up with more examples. The point is that how we listen to music isn’t as easy to define. Passive and active listening are like Yin and Yang: where one appears the other is always there.

Music is cryptology, no?

Compositions are put into code. This code is cracked by the performer who deciphers the notes on the page into the music on her piano whose white and black keys are another cipher. The music then floats into the soul and ears of the listener who decodes the sound to receive inspiration and meaning which circumvents to the composer and the performer.

Every stage, from composer to listener, is a cryptologist.

Music is a code that we want and need to crack. Our humanity not only demands it but thrives on it.

Even if we read a lot, it doesn’t mean we’re getting smarter. Shallow understanding with a touch of forgetfulness can make every book we read stay with us shorter.

Could the same be said with music? Even if we learn a lot of pieces, does it mean we’re improving?

How terrifying!

We consistently perform, write music, learn music, set up events, practice, and the like of music activities.

Sometimes it’s alright to take a break. Whether it’s for a day or a couple weeks (perhaps not that long for playing your instrument!), our mind needs a chance to refuel and to observe and reflect on what we’ve been doing.

The thing is, however, making sure that our posture emphasizes doing rather than resting.