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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 1998/10/15

Why Music?

In the first installment of BRAIN TUBA, I attempted to write a little bit about the function that art serves for the artist and the viewer. Once one is in the realm of art, though, there’s certainly a whole variety of places one can go: painting, photography, sculpture, poetry, prose, and music, to name just a few examples — the list is infinite. Each of these mediums serves some purpose that, ostensibly, cannot be served by any of the others. Here, I’d like to explore the question “why music”? How is a song different from a photograph? WHY is it different from a photograph?

A little backtracking is necessary, first, however. Paintings and songs are inherently different mediums, but – even so – they both serve as translations of the same basic things: ideas. Idea. That’s a slippery term. Without something to back it up, it’s a pretentious-ass concept. So, I’m going to try to define what an idea is to me and how different forms represent it differently.

An idea exists only the medium of ideas — never above or outside of it. (Bear with me here.) One can write the word “tree” on a page. The printed word – unless one takes into account the physical makeup of the paper – is, without question, not a tree. What it does evoke in the reader’s head, though, is the idea of a tree. The word isn’t the idea — the idea is the idea. Practiced art is about the manipulation of ideas – more complex than a tree – in the head of the observer.

Art can deal with ideas about literal, tangible things, like the tree example, above. It can deal with ideas about obtuse, abstract concepts, like emotions. Or, with the use of metaphor, it can gracefully combine the two.

An idea that is common to many is road burn. It’s when one has been in a car for as long as he cares to remember, driving and driving, is presently somewhere in the middle of the country – Nebraska, Indiana, East Jesus – and hasn’t had a full night of sleep in over a week, probably hasn’t had a shower in about as long. Despite the fact that he is deeply enjoying being on the road, at the moment, the only thing he can think about is not being there. That, to me, is road burn. That is my way of expressing the idea through the medium of words. Hopefully, you got the idea — understood what I was trying to say.

Road burn – like all ideas – can be expressed in a whole variety of ways. Here’s another one then: a stark, black-and-white, Robert Frank-like photograph of a barren highway, dragging off to the horizon. There are a couple of road signs in the blurry distance (both unreadable) dimly lit by the gray twilight. And a lone car. Except for the fact that that was my description of a photograph, and not actually a photo, the aforementioned picture, in my opinion, conveys the idea.

Another example, in another medium: the first 30 seconds or so of Letter Home by moe., before the vocals kick in. Instantly, the mournful faux-steel of Chuck Garvey does the same thing for me as reading those words or looking at that picture would to do to me in, say, a couple of seconds. These are minute timings, surely. But that, in itself, is the point. That’s where the difference between music and most other art forms lie: translation time. To comprehend the photograph, one’s brain goes through levels of translation before the viewer understands the idea. With the music, it is instantaneous. It appeals directly to the viewer and feels a part of the viewer because he doesn’t have to think about it.

To go on a tangent that will soon relate back: In operating, computers function on a whole bunch of different levels. The most basic level is that of the hardware — wires and sockets and silicon chips and such. There is an absolutely elementary computer language that is used to communicate with the hardware. This is known as machine language. It’s binary — it’s made up of lots and lots of 0s and 1s and nothin’ else. The binary corresponds to actual, physical switches: zero means a gate is closed, a one means that it’s open. Every command that one enters into a computer is, at the lowest level, made up of a buttload of binary.

Thankfully, though, in order to operate a computer, the user does not have to memorize billions of different combinations of 0s and 1s. This is because there exists something called assembly languages which chunk and translate the binary into pieces the user can understand. Also known as compilers, these provide the user with an interface to interact with the hardware, even if he is unaware that he is doing so. In a common computer program, there are usually several levels of assembly languages between the user and the hardware. Hell, even languages like C++ are only compilers.

This is a good way to imagine the way different art forms relate to ideas. An idea exists only at the binary, machine language level. The basic string of neural impulses that result in idea can be equivalent to a long string of 0s and 1s. Each idea is a program. Programs – like one titled, say, “road burn” – are always made up of the same strings of machine language. Art, then, is a compiler — a way for a “user” to access these “programs”. Just as different computer languages compile binary in different ways, varying mediums compile ideas in various ways.

For example, the description of the road photograph goes through several levels of compilers in a brain before striking an emotionally resonant binary chord. The first thing one does is to turn the individual words of the sentence into their own individual ideas. “Stark”, “barren”, “highway”, etc. all have different connotations. That’s one level of translation. Once all of these have been called, they are combined with the idea of what a photograph is. Thus, the idea of the described photo is produced. Finally, now that the photo is assembled and on view in one’s head, all of the disparate elements can come together into one and it can be translated them into binary. Instand road burn!

The initial description of the emotion moves one step closer. As instantaneous as the comprehension of a sentence may seem, it still must go through translation word by word, image by image. It’s as if all of the words in the sentence had to be smooshed into one, into something greater than language — an idea.

Lastly, the music. For me, this is the purest level, rivaled only by abstract art. It appeals directly to the binary level. Music is composed of 0s and 1s conceptually — and coincidentally, literally in the case of CDs and DATs. Because the ideas involved in music are not a tangible thing, they rely on the listener’s subconscious to provide meaning. In that way, music accesses something that is already there. In listening to music, the listener plays as large a role in defining it as the artist. Whereas, with other art forms, the viewer can be fed something that makes sense on a more realistic level. He can become passive and choose to take things at face value — if only because there is a face value at which to take them.

Of course, it is completely possible to listen to music with any number of compilers. If one is trained in music theory, for example, one might, when listening to a piece, listen on a technical level — keys, chords progressions, time signatures. Or, if one is particularly versed in the musical history of a band or a specific song – as many are in the case of bands like Phish and the Dead – preconceptions about songs and arrangements will greatly affect how a listener approaches a piece of music.

Nonetheless, music has the potential to be infinitely pure. One has the ability to turn off all preconceptions and simply soak it in. In that, music can simultaneously change the way we think as well as provide us with something to think about.


Jesse Jarnow was found in a basket by a pack of wild walri on the shores of Halifax slightly more than 20 years ago. After being taken in and raised as one of them, the young pup Jarnow was set free from the Halifaxian walri community with a pat on the back and a bucket of severed fish heads. By barking and bellowing messages in Morse code, Jarnow managed to flag down a passing vegetable truck, which dropped him off in Oberlin, Ohio were – quite miraculously – he was admitted into the college that he now attends.

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