Some people love music with lyrics, they love the storytelling aspects of the song and the way the music and the lyrics interact to create energy and emotional experiences. Other people prefer no lyrics at all, instrumental music and ambient music is all they listen to. People in this camp will probably say they prefer instrumental music because it is more imaginative and textured than songs with set parameters. This collision of tastes and preferences has been ongoing for a couple of centuries at least. Here is what the idea of Absolute Music can contribute to the debate.
What is Absolute Music?
Program music is the music most of us imagine when we think about classical music. It’s music that has a concept of some kind. Think of Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) by Antonio Vivaldi, or The Planets by Gustav Holst. In each case there is a leading title and a concept that interacts with the musical composition. In music like this we are taken on a journey by an author, the composer, who attempts to share specific ideas and experiences. Absolute music is different, it steps back from context and leading ideas.
The Spiritualist Debate
According to some artists and philosophers of the early 19th century, these included Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Geothe, Jean Paul Richter and E.T.A Hoffmann, Absolute music was a spiritual proposition. Without words, concepts, and authorial presence, music was capable of transcending language and the human mind; it was more in tune with the higher realms of the cosmos. According to these protagonists music without words and concepts was a more powerful emotional experience, which resonated more closely with reality.
The Formalist Debate
If the spiritualist viewpoints seem a little too ‘absolute’ or even nihilistic for you the formalists might save the day. According to them there is merit in music regardless of whether it has a point or not. Formalists appreciate music for its own sake. They appreciate it’s structure, its technicality, it’s craft. While some formalists tend towards The Absolute, rejecting forms like opera and tone poems, others, such as Richard Wagner could not conceive of a world in which art could exist without meaning.
The debate about whether music has meaning or not continues today, and seems just as contentious as it always was. Contemporary attitudes include those who believe music contains linguistic and cultural significance. As an artform, music is a mode of expression that interacts with individuals and cultures through time, it continually morphes and changes to reflect new ideas and expressions of who we are. There is also a view of Absolute music that even without authorial guidance, a piece of music is always influenced by its creator and cultural context.
Why it’s a Useful Idea
The idea of Absolute music is inevitable in human culture because it points to a reality that exists outside the boundaries and conventions of structure. When music is created and defined by its notes, chords and bars, it can be conceptualised and shared, but it’s only a matter of time before listeners become aware of those structures and look to see what’s behind them. In doing so new possibilities for artistic expression and communication open up – not to mention a greater awareness of reality and form.