Friday, November 4, 2011

Music: Body and Soul

I am listening to Bach’s Cello Sonata #3 in C Major played by Pablo Casals.  The music is streaming on my computer.  In its journey, this music has been notes on paper, vibrations in air (a few times), magnetic trace on tape, grooves in vinyl, the 0s and 1s of digital code, and is now being transformed into some kind of neurological code in my head.

Throughout its journey, it has always been attached to a material media of some kind; yet the music is obviously something other than any particular material media -- paper, vinyl, plastic, silicon or air.  The music is not in the material, but in the particular way that the material is organized – e.g. of the endless ways that 0s and 1s could be organized in the digital media, there is only one way that is Pablo Casal's recording.  The material is passive to this arrangement – the vinyl takes whatever arrangement of grooves is impressed on it – but the arrangement cannot exist without the material. 

Music is thus dependent on material, but is something more than any particular material.  It is a form of information; I could have used as my example any written work in the same way I have used music.  Indeed, I could use any aspect of culture, for all culture has this characteristic of always requiring some material media as storage, yet being independent of any particular form of media.  Original paintings, of course, are different.  They cannot be copied and still be original.  But photos of such paintings can move easily from media to media.

The problem of the relationship of mind to body has been a long and interesting topic of discussion in our culture.  The positions range from the complete separation of the two -- dualism -- to the complete reduction of one into the other: materialism and idealism.  I would like to suggest that the relationship is somewhat analogous to the relationship of music to a medium.  Like music, the mind can only exist as part of a material media, yet it is something more than that media.  It is primarily a thing made of information, and information is something that can move about from media to media.

Unfortunately, unlike music, we cannot readily make copies or our self and enjoy the kind of timeless existence of Bach’s Cello Sonatas.  In this we are more analogous to paintings.  We are stuck to this one medium.  When the medium goes, so goes the great art work that each individual is.  All that’s left are the photos.


  1. Hmm... this one makes me uncomfortable. The analogy of the vinyl impressed with the grooves of the sonata reminds me of the old Platonic notion of matter as passive, dead, inert, stupid stuff impressed with the active forms of the logos. That was a crucial building block of the devaluation of matter and the material, the earthly and the sensual - which personally I don't think was such a great move.

    The mind I would say has information as a crucial component but is far more than information. It is also processes, matter, and energy... not sure what else, but at least those.

    Am I misreading?

  2. Reply to Brandon: I had Plato somewhat in mind in this post. I think that what Plato saw as the transcendent realm of forms, we can think of as the immanent realm of information. Plato saw his realm of forms as independent of matter. I see information as always dependent on matter, yet it something other than, and not necessarily reducible to matter.

    When used as a recording medium, one certainly wants matter to be passive, dead, inert. But matter has other potentialities, as I explored in "The Material Soul." Or perhaps I might say that the holy trinity of matter/energy/information has endless potentialities.