Musings on Music, continued

Trying to put my finger on the fascination of music

Philippe Vandenbroeck
13 min readJan 23, 2024
A fraction of my music-oriented antilibrary. A sandbox to indulge in my intellectual interests in music. Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck

The train of thought that began with the reading of Jos Kesselsbook has rumbled on for the past few days. I would like to further develop here the ideas I proposed in my previous Medium post.

The question that Jos Kessels poses in his book Taal geven aan muziek (“Giving Language to Music”) is how we can get closer to the mystery of music. In essence, he suggests that we develop an imaginative practice that allows us to transform an acoustic signal into stories that have meaning for us, while at the same time revealing something of the essential core of music. I disagree with Kessels on a number of key points, which I briefly summarise below. I should also point out that I make all these statements as a listener, i.e. as an amateur, not as a trained musician or scientist.

  • In my opinion, the hypothesis that music is a language is neither justified nor necessary. I explain below how we can understand the fascination of music from different perspectives without assuming its language-like nature. It also follows that music does not need to be “explained” in order to have “meaning” for us.
  • I think that the musical experience is no different from other aesthetic experiences, such as those associated with attention and resonance through contact with the visual arts, the written and spoken word, and communion with nature.
  • I think that grafting an imaginative practice onto a musical experience is a very valuable suggestion. It can be enriching. But it does not always have to be in a narrative mode. Secondly, this practice is separate from the so-called “essence” of the musical experience. This experience is opaque and not linguistically recoverable. Finally, I don’t think that this practice necessarily has to be connected to our own biography. It is a choice to take the practice of imagination in this or that direction, but I think it can be morally more satisfying to cultivate a transpersonal and non-ego bound imagination.

These are, in a nutshell, the arguments I made in my previous Medium piece against Jos Kessels’ argument. Here I take the same argument further and turn it on its head. If we cannot approach the essence of music in a linguistic, narrative way, what are we left with? I see five modes of musical experience that can explain why we find music so valuable and that do not make unwarranted claims about the essence of music. I will explain these briefly and then describe six personal, emblematic musical experiences. These are experiences from the last 40 years that, for one reason or another, have stayed with me. I will explore why they made such a strong impression.

But first, the five basic modes of musical experience.

  • First of all, music is a physical phenomenon, or rather, in relation to our bodies, a biophysical phenomenon. It is sound waves that transmit energy through the movement of atoms and molecules. And since our bodies are largely made up of water, we are very receptive to this energy. Cultural conditioning plays into the affective nature of the musical experience — pleasant or disturbing, healing or stressful.
  • In my previous post I emphasised the aesthetic dimension of the musical experience. Music is experienced as “moving sound forms”, a dynamic sculpture of sound that sets body and mind in resonance. It is not a linguistic but a pre-cognitive, multi-sensory experience. It may seem abstract, but it is familiar to anyone who has experienced the invigorating effect of rhythm, colour, texture in music, visual art or nature. This experience in itself, in its opacity, can have great meaning for us.
  • Music today is largely enjoyed in solitude, in the private confines of headphones or the car radio. But traditionally it has also had an important social dimension in the collective experience or participation in the musical experience. Anthropologically, we can relate this to the importance of ritual in community building. Ethologically, we can perhaps draw a parallel with the biological processes of ritualisation in animal communication. Anyone who has been to a concert or festival will confirm that the social setting in which we experience music can contribute significantly to its fascination and meaning.
  • Here I leave the direct physical and mental experience of the sound signal and engage with music asynchronously, on a meta-level so to speak. Let me call this an intellectual dimension of making sense of music. Anyone who read the few paragraphs I devoted to listening to Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in my previous Medium piece will have noticed that my appreciation is partly due to the kind of intellectual puzzles I like to engage in. My long experience of listening, and my wide reading, enable me to recognise conceptual patterns across experiences. For example, a harmonic fingerprint of composer X that I recognise in composer Y working 150 years later, or a biographical detail that might be meaningfully (to me) related to what I have heard. It may also be more longitudinal music-historical patterns that pique my interest, or resonances across art forms (the musical structure of a symphony and the stylistic features of a particular style of painting, for example). It has nothing to do with the essence of the music, of course. For me, it is simply a playful way of articulating my fascination and celebrating my enjoyment of ideas.
  • Finally, there is a way of dealing with musical experience that I would call generative. Here we finally enter the territory that Jos Kessels covers in his book. There we read almost nothing about the four modes already mentioned. In this generative mode we actively engage with the music. We allow it to set us in motion through a practice of imagination. The practice of storytelling that Kessels describes in his book is a good, if very idiosyncratic, example of this. We can begin to ‘amplify’ relationships with music in many ways, with the intention of learning, creating, building our social networks, through these secondary, experimental experiences. The dividends of this process can be material, psychological and moral. Mind you, this does not require us to “explain” music. In a later post, I would like to discuss the various forms of imagination that can be activated by this process. Indeed, this forms the backbone of my ongoing doctoral research on urban transformation.

My argument is eschewing metaphysics and yet offers considerable scope for very sophisticated forms of sensory, intellectual and relational enjoyment. I would also like to hypothesise that there is very likely a recursive relationship between these modes. It’s not a matter of either this or that mode, but a progressive enrichment of the musical experience whereby ‘higher’ modes (such as the generative) give context and meaning to ‘lower’ modes (such as the biophysical). I acknowledge that one might dispute the particular way in which I ranked the modes.

Picture taken, printed and hand-painted by me. In some way there is music in this image. It reverberates with chords that I’m not able to pinpoint in the musical continuum. Music is generative for me, it spills over into and colours many aspects of my life.

I will now briefly outline six key musical experiences and relate them to the modes of experience outlined above. Obviously, my main source of musical pleasure is what is traditionally called classical music. I have been an avid listener for over forty years and have spent thousands of hours in concert halls. The experiences I outline below are emblematic because they have always stayed with me and go beyond the exciting concert experience of which I have been privileged to enjoy many. There is more to my musical treasure chest than these six experiences. I could have chosen differently.

  • In the late 1980s I was studying for my first academic degree in agronomy. At the end of my third year, I had to sit an exam in soil science. The professor grilled me relentlessly and sent me home with the feeling that I had seriously failed the test. I was crushed. The next day I had to do another subject. But when I got back to my room, I couldn’t bring myself to start studying again. Instead, I put on the first CD of Wagner’s Parsifal. And I followed it up with the second. Nearly four hours later, I had listened to the entire opera (or rather ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel’) as if in a trance. The music had completely refreshed me. That morning’s ordeal was forgotten and I sat back down at my desk. The next day’s exam went well. My hypothesis is that exposure to this long sound bath completely revitalised me on a biophysical level. I didn’t think about anything, just went with it, let myself be carried away and woke up reborn.
A snippet from Wagner’s Parsifal in the cherished recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and complemented with a splendid cast of singers.
  • Ten years had passed in my life. I was married and had children. We spent our summer holidays with the family in Tuscany. One day we went to a small village. There were only a handful of houses. We were walking around aimlessly. Suddenly I heard snatches of a familiar piece of orchestral music, Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain. It was immediately clear that this was not a recording, but a live performance by a real orchestra. Where could that come from? For some reason, sounds that come out of nowhere, through an open window or from behind a firmly closed church door, always grip me. They seem to electrically charge the atmosphere. It wasn’t long before we found a full youth orchestra rehearsing in the village church. And the door was open. The enthusiasm bounced off the walls. The joy and concentration on the faces of the young musicians resonated so well with the searing, echoing tones of this vibrant sculpture of sound. Our fleeting participation in this communal celebration and the vitality of the musical happenings in contrast to the relatively “dead” setting of this historic village made it an unforgettable experience.
Performance of Mussorgsky’s popular orchestral piece by the Polish Youth Symphony Orchestra. An echo, in a very different setting, of my Tuscan experience.
  • Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to attend a concert at the Vienna Konzerthaus. I was in the Austrian capital with a colleague to attend a conference, and at the last minute we managed to get tickets for an evening with the very famous pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. On the programme were Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas (op. 109, op. 110 and op. 111). Two elements contributed to the extraordinary nature of this experience. First, our assigned seats were on the stage, not in the auditorium. So we looked from the stage to the pianist and behind him to the packed hall. Incidentally, the seats were relatively close to the piano. Secondly, Buchbinder took the very unusual decision to play the three sonatas one after the other, without interruption. This made for more than an hour of uninterrupted music. Why did this experience stay with me so strongly? Firstly, the arc of tension that linked the robust and propulsive lyricism of the first movement of Op. 109 with the final bars of the unworldly Arietta of Op. 111 offered an extraordinarily intense aesthetic experience. The physical proximity of the musician added to its visceral, multi-sensory nature. Adding to this was the constant eye contact with the 1,500 people sitting in front of us, listening to Buchbinder as if hypnotised. This emphasised the social nature of the event. We felt part of a collective, taking part in a privileged, even sacred event. But not only that: the bundle of psychological energy that this concentrated attention radiated onto the pianist was palpable and seemed to penetrate every cell of my body in synchrony with the unfolding sound sculpture. Since then it has been clear to me that a concert is in fact a mutual exchange of energy. Perhaps there was also an intellectual dimension to the musical experience. For when you hear the three sonatas in one flow, your brain automatically picks up the structural and textural characteristics of Beethoven’s late style — the polyphonic layering, the chromaticism, the contrast between voice leading in high and low registers. Rudolf Buchbinder was greeted with endless applause, had a microphone placed on the stage and concluded the evening with a moving testimonial, thanking the audience for the very intense process of co-creation, which he described as exceptional in his long career.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata №32 in C Minor, Op. 111 — I. Maestoso — Allegro con brio ed appassionato · Rudolf Buchbinder (recording released in 2021)
  • In 2010–2011 I decided to undertake a particular experiment: I wanted to listen with special attention for at least a year, as an antidote to the creeping habit of casual music consumption. So the task I set myself was to meticulously document my listening impressions. The result was a listening diary, most of which is still available online. I also linked it to a series of listening projects, each focusing on a single composer. For example, I systematically listened to the complete works of early modern masters such as Claude Debussy and Bela Bartok. The experience was very time-consuming, but rewarding. This longitudinal listening experiment allowed me to indulge my intellectual curiosity and my enjoyment of pattern recognition. Listening, thinking, researching and writing became an almost meditative discipline. I also felt that I was gaining a much deeper understanding of the composers. I always found Debussy difficult to place, but eventually I understood that he is in a sense a very classical (or rather classicist) composer and that the label ‘impressionist’ is very misleading. In the case of Bartok, I was struck by the astonishing technical perfection of his compositional methods (as far as I have been able to check and listen on the basis of the analyses available to me). Again, the label of “folklorist” proved to be beside the point. My appreciation of the dynamic and sparkling character of his compositions grew considerably as a result. To this day, Bartok remains for me a monumental, inspiring presence.
  • In the fall of 2021, we were still struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic. Concert halls had been shut for a considerable time. I had the opportunity to attend another concert after a long hiatus, this time at the new Philharmonie in Paris. I had never been there before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The exterior of the building, designed by Jean Nouvel, is rather futuristic. It does not particularly appeal to me. The common areas inside are characterised by austerity, or rather banality. But the main concert hall is an incredibly beautiful space that exudes elegance and intimacy. It almost feels like a sanctuary. The house orchestra — the Orchestre de Paris — performed the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre under the baton of Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden. The hall was still relatively empty and all the members of the audience wore hygienic masks. As soon as the first bars sounded, I felt as if I were lifted up by a great hand. The wonderfully creamy acoustics, the new acquaintance of my body with the benevolent energy of a symphonic score brought to life. The feeling of being able, even in precarious circumstances, to participate in this event with other people (who at the time were mostly seen as potential sources of contamination). In terms of aesthetic experience, Wagner always speaks to me in a special way. Although I am not a Wagner devotee, his music is the cornerstone of my musical universe. The dark colouring of the harmonic palette, the searching chromatic melodic lines, the lush texture of a symphonic fabric and the radiant interventions of his heroic sopranos and tenors are characteristics of Wagnerian sound sculpture that appeal to me strongly. I also look for the same characteristics in other art forms, such as painting, photography or literature. They are essential features of my imagination. Here I am building a bridge to a generative way of dealing with music.
Jaap Van Zweden conducting the Orchestre de Paris at the Paris Philharmonie, 7 Oct 21 (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)
  • In 2022 I organised another photography exhibition after a long break. Photography has been a very active practice of imagination for me for more than twenty years. But the link with my love of music had not yet been made explicitly. The exhibition took place in a very peculiar space in an old industrial building, a former brewery. Its peculiar dimensions (very narrow, very long, very high) created an atmosphere somewhere between a chapel and a torture chamber. The atmosphere was perfect for the paintings I had grouped under the theme of “The Coming”, in which I wanted to allude to the Last Judgement and thus to the undercurrent of panic that has permeated our society since the pandemic. To mark the opening and closing, I invited a string quartet and asked them to play a piece I had chosen. It was John Tavener’s The Hidden Treasure, a meditative piece of about half an hour, which I felt was an excellent sonic complement to the images and atmosphere of the building. The musicians of the Boho String Quartet performed the piece twice with great sensitivity. Aesthetic appreciation and a generative practice of cross-fertilisation between different creative fields marked this memorable musical experience for me.
BoHo String Quartet rehearsing at my ‘The Coming’ exhibition, Deurne, Antwerp, May 2022 (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

What can I learn from this? An individual or a group of people create an acoustic signal. Energy is transferred and my “heart-mind” (to borrow an integrative concept from the classical Chinese wisdom tradition) receives this signal as pleasant or healing. At its core is an aesthetic appreciation of a process that I experience as multi-sensory and pre-cognitive. This experience is sufficient in itself. But I acknowledge that the social and physical environment in which this transaction takes place is important. It can meaningfully enhance the experience. I am also positively stimulated by taking a step back from the music and exploring it, looking for conceptual patterns. This is a game I like to play and says a lot about me, but nothing about the essence of the music. Ultimately, I find music generous and mysterious enough to allow it to serve as a starting point for an imaginative practice. Integrating it into other creative activities, positioning myself as a human being in relation to the ethos of admired composers, engaging with friends or inviting people to share a musical experience. Yes, I know, paradoxically a lot of prose to say that music is not a language, does not need to be explained and does not need a story to shine.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?