Saturday, March 13, 2010

the significance of notes

Phenomenology is hard.

I'm working today on a revision of a paper on sensation, re-directing phenomenological attention from the usual -- the transcending perceptual act of a subject consciousness -- to the subjection of our senses to their basic elements. It's tough stuff, for a lot of very complicated reasons that would take too long to explain here.

Anyway, I'm re-reading one of the greats, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, and stumbled across this typically intriguing line:

"Just as, when I look closely at snow, I break its apparent 'whiteness' up into a world of reflections and transparencies, so within a musical note a 'micromelody' can be picked out and the interval heard is merely the final patterning of a certain tension felt throughout the body."

(p 211 in the old Colin Smith translation - with, by the way, a footnote citing Heinz Werner. Some people think Merleau-Ponty stole his phrasings and ideas from others, including Werner. I dunno.)

I tell Lauren this, and she doesn't seem to have this experience. I get certain feelings from particular notes, especially on a guitar - certain affective dimensions and resonances. E feels, in a way, earthen, solid, or even stony. A feels warm but changeable and a little slippery. D feels angular and pointy. And I mean the notes, not the chords or keys - though the keys carry forward a lot of that general atmosphere from their home notes (as it were).

So not only do particular individual notes have proto-meanings for me, but changing the key of a song alters its emotional color to some extent as well. Take a well-known old song that's been stuck in my head all day: Roger Miller's "King of the Road." There's a key change for the last verse, up one-half step, which is a weird thing to do in a guitar song anyway, but also, to me, fundamentally alters the way the song tenses and releases.

Naturally, I assumed I was being goofy, until I read that line. Merleau-Ponty's description is right on for how a given note feels to me, though I'm emphasizing the emotional rather than the bodily feeling of it. Mid-20th century cognitive psychology, in particular by Gestalt psychologists, is strongly suggestive of these kinds of links - Merleau-Ponty spends a lot of time describing their research on the connection of color to mood, for instance. We know, too, that brain anatomy is partly responsible for the connection between smell and memory. So why shouldn't notes have that kind of relation as well? Maybe I'm not that goofy after all.


Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

I would wish, above all, that I could hear more clearly. But I fear no one hears as clearly as I.

Doc Nagel said...

That is one deeply buried gag reference. Far freakin' out.