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Henry Thoreau said: ‘Music is perpetual, only the hearing is intermittent’.

Music is seldom a silent interval once it is incorporated into the daily fabric of our life. Singing, whistling, humming, thinking, recollecting – the music interacts with these activities and becomes habitual in us, perpetual. Is it not perpetual?

And when we whistle a tune, do we always do so for ourselves? Sometimes we may whistle for our own entertainment or to call forth something memorable connected with the music. Seldom do we whistle for others. Whistling or humming are primarily expressive activities, and are not necessarily descriptive of some mental state which the whistling ‘describes’ in sound, as opposed to in words. For, it can be asked, a description for who? For what purpose? And, for what interest? There need not be anything in my mind which answers why people whistle. Just ask a whistler, and let him reply. Often, no answer is forthcoming (ask yourself the same question). Is whistling or recollecting music therefore without purpose? Of course not. Is an answer to this question even possible? What would it look like? What interest does it have? Or, is it just sufficient that people whistle, and that we are graced with expert whistlers, like Wittgenstein was in his day?

Do I hear what I whistle? Yes, of course. But, do I whistle a tune to hear it? Is that my purpose? Not typically. I whistle simply to give expression to the music itself. I have no opinion about it. Why does a person go walking in the same spot every day? ‘Because I enjoy the scenery’ would be a sufficient explanation, and typically no more is in the offing. Why should we expect anymore of what is habitual and wholly familiar? If music is perpetual, then the explanation of it is something very humble indeed and mundane. But, this doesn’t rob music of any power. It merely reorientates our tendency to make of it something transcendent and abstract by squaring it instead firmly in the comings and goings of ordinary people, like you and me. This seems more in keeping with the meaning of music. It is as customary and tangible as asking your child to fetch a chair.

Music is interwoven with life’s activities as an essential and habitual movement, which finds expression every day in human thought and deed. Religious music is a paradigm, no doubt.

Music. Human beings. Water in water.

March 2008
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