View Full Version : Much Ado About Beauty
05-05-02, 01:40 PM
On impulse, I recently purchased a recording of J.S. Bach's, St. Matthew Passion. Up till now I'd only heard a tiny snippet of it on the radio at Easter-time. Otherwise, I know as little about it as I do Bach's other works for voice; his cantatas and oratorios.
One evening this past week I played the entire three CD work of several hours duration as a background to a rather interesting book I'm reading (The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene). In other words, I didn't give the music my full attention. The music ended and I read on for a while. Eventually I put down my book and went to sleep.
During the next day I noticed a particular tune repeatedly creeping into my consciousness. I knew it had to have come from the St. Matthew Passion but I couldn't remember much else. The melody in my head wasn't even complete, only a half dozen bars
So that evening I again pulled out the three CDs, and began hunting for the mysterious melody. By listening for five or so seconds before going to the next track I suddenly found what I was hearing in my head all day. It was on the 14th track of the 2nd CD, the 47th track overall. As I sat back and listened to this short piece I couldn't help from being overcome by emotion. A solo violin and alto voice combine in a hauntingly beautiful, almost weeping expression. After a while I skipped around to some other tracks, but I kept coming back to this one piece.
Now, I'm not saying that the other several hours of Bach's composition are bad, it's just that this one short piece seems to stand out like a rose in a field of otherwise pleasant blue flax blossoms. The next day I visited the library to look up the words to this piece (as wonderful as the alto was in this recording, I couldn't understand a word she sang):
Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
Un meiner Zahren willen;
Schaue hier, Herz and Auge
Weint vor dir bitterlich.
Despite a month of intensive German classes in Bavaria a few years ago, my German is still, well...schrecklich. I think it translates roughly as:
Have mercy upon me, my God,
On my tears (willen?);
Look upon (my?) heart and eyes
That cry before you so bitterly.
Have mercy upon me!
Hmm...the words are rather repulsive; all this begging and whimpering. Still, out of curiosity, when I arrived at work (and my Internet connection) I put the first sentence into a search engine and to my surprise found a zillion hits.
It seems I'm not the first person on the planet to fixate on this piece. For example, I see YoYo Ma included it on a recent recording. My question is why? If beauty is truly "in the eye of the beholder", why was it that both YoYo Ma and I picked out this one brief bit of music among the several hours of the St. Matthew Passion? With an exception or two, it seems that if I had picked out almost any other piece of this work as being somehow special, I would have found that history hadn't seen fit to make nearly as much comment about it. Bear in mind that I’ve no real musical training, I’m simply drawn to what sounds pleasant; I reckon it could have as easily been the sound broom handles make against garbage can lids instead of music of the baroque period that I find pleasing.
There is a subjective aspect to beauty. My own wife is the most beautiful woman that I've ever had the pleasure to look upon; yet strangely, the modeling agencies from Paris or Miami haven't yet bothered her. Perhaps it's only me that thinks her the most beautiful? Not one of my friends or family would dare tell me that they find my wife unattractive. Is it possible that I’m married to an unattractive woman and not know it? I’ve seen men with hideously unattractive women. I wonder if these men know it? I suppose that if a man (a sober man that is) could convince himself that even especially unattractive woman are beautiful, he could vastly increase his chances of finding a mate, and thus ensure the survival of his genetic code. So why do most men prefer women that at a minimum, meet men's societal standards of beauty? In his book, The Red Queen, zoologist Matt Ridley explains that beauty and health often go hand-in-hand. Neither emaciated nor obese women for example, might be particularly good bets for carrying on my genetic lineage. Ridley further writes that a beautiful mother might be more apt to produce beautiful children, who in turn might be more successful in attracting their own mates, thus improving the odds for the survival of my own unique strands of DNA.
The selfish-gene angle is all well and fine for judging the beauty of women, but I doubt if I could explain my preference for Purcell to Puff Daddy with such arguments. I have difficulty imagining how an appreciation for music or art might be somehow connected to our survival. This brings me back to my original question. What attribute made the little Aria on track #47 stand out above the rest? Why do we find a particular succession of acoustic pressure vibrations to be sublime, while others set our teeth on edge? Or as Benidick exclaims in Much Ado About Nothing, “Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies”?
i can't answer your question, but...
long, long time ago, (in galaxy...blah blah blah)
i was playing with some music program (sonic something) in my Amiga.
i was notating some Beethoven piece and i forgot to put the correct key signature in there. the melody was amazing, really beautiful. then months later i heard the same tune on the radio, played, of course, correctly. i couldn't believe when i realized that it was really the same piece i had notated in my computer. it was good (after all,it was Beethoven) but nothing compared to that wrong version (no, i'm not saying i'm better than B, maybe just as good as him ;) :D ).
if Beethoven were alive today, i would send him my 'wrong' version of that tune, and if he would reply something like: "no, no, that's not MY music, you got it all wrong.", i would say: can't you hear how beutiful it is? are you deaf or something?" :D
so what's my point? no point, but i have a TIP for you, get the POINT?*
*from monkey island... http://home.arcor.de/wireck/smileys/tier/tier026.gif
Interesting post. I think I need to address this point by point, but I don't even think I can provide a full answer to most of your questions.
"My question is why? If beauty is truly "in the eye of the beholder", why was it that both YoYo Ma and I picked out this one brief bit of music among the several hours of the St. Matthew Passion?"
So basically, what makes music sound good? Well, according to my mother, a concert pianist, music sounds good to us based largely on harmonic progression. The fact that you can name the period baroque makes me think you already know that music has rules that dictate progression of chords and such. Some of these progressions sound very nice to the human ear. But why?
Here's an intersting site for that - http://splorg.org/~b/works/music_meta.html
"My own wife is the most beautiful woman that I've ever had the pleasure to look upon; yet strangely, the modeling agencies from Paris or Miami haven't yet bothered her. Perhaps it's only me that thinks her the most beautiful? Not one of my friends or family would dare tell me that they find my wife unattractive. Is it possible that I’m married to an unattractive woman and not know it? I’ve seen men with hideously unattractive women. I wonder if these men know it?"
Every man's taste is slightly (or in cases, largely) different, true. I believe it's an accepted theory that our mother's largely influence how we see women. Though I'm no expert in the area. Also, I assume past experiences with women subconsciencly affect what we prefer in a woman's appearance. Perhaps, we subconsciencly link personalitie traits to appearance traits. And then again, maybe love truly is blind and if you fall for someone's personality, you'll see their appearance as attractive.
"Neither emaciated nor obese women for example, might be particularly good bets for carrying on my genetic lineage. Ridley further writes that a beautiful mother might be more apt to produce beautiful children, who in turn might be more successful in attracting their own mates, thus improving the odds for the survival of my own unique strands of DNA."
Definetly. Men look for the best birth-giver and child-carer, women instinctively like a provider/hunter. That'e evolution. For instance, is money attractive in a man? Yes, for most. Is what we consider today a healthy physical shape attractive in a woman? Yes, for most. Years ago, someone more large than we prefer today was the ideal, as it could be reasoned the woman was well-fed and therefore able to feed a child.
Meh, if I'm wrong about it all I'm sure the Q or Tiassa will come in here and clean it up.
05-06-02, 03:52 PM
I have difficulty imagining how an appreciation for music or art might be somehow connected to our survival. This brings me back to my original question. What attribute made the little Aria on track #47 stand out above the rest? Why do we find a particular succession of acoustic pressure vibrations to be sublime, while others set our teeth on edge? Or as Benidick exclaims in Much Ado About Nothing, “Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies”?
"Benidick" was quite the philosopher, no? :D
Orthogonal, I won’t claim to be able to give you a definitive answer. Just some thoughts, much of which aren‘t likely to make much sense. Still...
We have our evolved instincts working within us; that which might drive us to choose one type of mate over another. And for the act of discerning beauty which is not strictly necessary to our survival, we have our own individual collection of “life experiences” to motivate us toward one ideal or another.
You mentioned J.S. Bach's, St. Matthew Passion. I have vague recollections of hearing some of this (think it was) on NPR over past Easter weekends, too, along with many other ‘snippets’ of other compositions. Chopin snippets have haunted me, Mozart, Debussy, and even Copeland. And there was an old Elton John tune I once heard (part of) on a static-y radio station when I was 13 years old. For one reason or another it took 6 more years to discover the title of that song, and in the meantime I could not forget what I’d heard. Drove friends crazy humming it for them; trying to get someone to recognize it. None ever did. It had, as they say, “moved me,” It “spoke to me.” I could “relate” to it. But apparently it had not spoken to anyone else I knew in the same way. (Or I was a poor hummer.)
Similarly, a segment of Led Zeppelin’s original version of Kashmir visited me one night in the wee hours after I’d woken up thirsty. The memory set upon me as I was slowly making my way downstairs in the dark. The rhythm of my footfall on the carpeted steps may have set off the memory of the rhythm in the song. Dunno, really. (It was kinda weird.)
Anyway, these kinds of experiences have happened to me often, and my best guess (for I’ve never bothered to investigate it further) would be that some of the music that some of us hear stimulates particular blends or strains of special memories that were once created by emotion-based events; events we’ve already experienced in our own uniquely individual way. Perhaps created even totally, truly, unique emotions not possible for anyone else to experience--though YoYo Ma might have experienced something quite similar to what you have.
That you should scarcely notice it while reading a book (while your attention was divided) may only mean that the ultimate “stimulation” was necessarily put on hold. The next day when your mind was perhaps less engaged the stimulation-potential found a way to manifest. The answer to Why it should insist on manifesting is also guesswork. But I’m guessing that it spoke to you of something wonderful, (and “wonderful” doesn’t always mean good). But so wonderful it was flagged by your mind for a repeat performance, or even so wonderful because your first encounter with something almost identically provocative (years earlier perhaps?) left you with more questions than answers. It repeats because you’ve perceived there is something more to that Aria, just as there was something more to whatever it was that originally inspired that unique blend of “wonder” the first time you encountered it.
As for encountering these things for a first time, I have a few vivid memories of hearing certain strains of music when I was 2-3 years old. Remember being transported in my imagination. More or less captured and compelled to follow some sense of “wonder.” And over the years remember hearing bits of movie soundtracks that would stop me in MY tracks. Where is that coming from? Where have I heard that before??) Music generated from string instruments generally affects me the strongest. Some Celtic and Middle Eastern music will transfix me. As in... Man! This stuff is talking to me! (As it happens, I have quite a bit of Irish “blood” in me, though neither my parents or grandparents intentionally played Irish music in our home growing up. )
From this point it’s tempting (for me) to wonder about genetics, but I won’t elaborate because it’d be nothing but pure speculation, and poorly done, at that. Yet... some of us are born with musical abilities that others don’t appear to have... Are we then talking about a certain type of sensitivity that could be bred in or out of us?
There is a subjective aspect to beauty... Is it possible that I’m married to an unattractive woman and not know it?
But orthogonal... if she’s attractive in your eyes and mind, how can it really matter if she’s deemed unattractive by anyone else? Your own perception is good enough, isn’t it, if it works for you?
And maybe it’s more a matter of chemistry than anything else? Maybe the two of you share a splendid chemistry... on all levels.
If so, congratulations. ;)
Good to hear from you again,
Did you enjoy the book? Perhaps, subconsciencly you link that music to the enjoyment of the book.
05-10-02, 10:39 AM
Many thanks to Tyler and Counterbalance for their thoughtful replies!
I enjoyed the cognitive science link Tyler kindly posted which deals with music as metaphor. George Lakoff’s book, Philosophy Of The Flesh is given as a reference on this site. I’ve seen this book in the stores though I’ve not yet read it. Instead I read the book Lakoff and Nunez authored together titled, Where Mathematics Comes From, in which they make a strong case that mathematics develops by grounding and linking metaphors. It’s only a tiny jump from mathematics to music, or as Leibnitz wrote, “"Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from doing mathematics without being aware of it." Conversely, Goethe remarked that, “Geometry is frozen music.” It stands to reason that my love for mathematics is closely tied to my love for highly structured music, such as composed by J.S. Bach.
In his book, Fractals, Chaos, Power Laws : Minutes from an Infinite Paradise, Manfred Schroeder describes “good” music as a balance between the expected and the unexpected. In other words, when I hear an incomplete passage of music I should have an idea of how the passage will finish without actually being able to fill in the missing notes myself. I hopefully would recognize a piece new to me as coming from Haydn's or Mozart's pen for example; yet an element of surprise is required. A joke is best enjoyed in the first or second telling. I’ll repeat to myself the punch line of an especially funny joke, and laugh each time. However, there's a limit to how many times we can hear the same joke and still laugh. Similarly, we’ve probably all ruined a piece of music for ourselves by playing it over and over until we become tired of hearing it. Schroeder would say that we’ve removed the element of surprise from the music. Going in the opposite direction, noise is entirely unpredictable; at least from our point of view. Other than perhaps classifying it as “white” or “pink”, we haven't a sufficient insight to discern structure within noise. Given a single “note” of noise we have absolutely no idea of what the next note might be.
I enjoyed and agree with Counterbalance’s idea that, “The rhythm of my footfall on the carpeted steps may have set off the memory of the rhythm in the song.” It’s no secret that we have the ability to, “name that tune in only three notes,” etc. Our footsteps might provide rhythm without pitch, yet even that’s enough to trigger the recollection of music. Do you notice that we've little difficulty remembering lyrics to a tune we haven’t heard for many years? Occasionally, I make largely futile efforts to remember theorems I “memorized” from my sophomore Geometry class; yet at this moment I could easily tell you word for word, the lyrics of any number of songs I listened to at the same period of my life. Likewise, we all use mnemonic devices to help us remember by superimposing structure, or rhythm, over less obviously structured data.
I fall prey to a common though maddening phenomenon in which a musical passage runs in a loop for hours in my head. These days it’s usually pop music I hear in the gym; by “Britney” or one of the “Boy Bands”. The “virus” often becomes implanted despite my best efforts to concentrate on my workout and ignore the music altogether. Once infected, the only antidote I’ve discovered is to quickly listen to some more enjoyable music with a clear theme. It’s important that I should be able to hum the tune afterwards, or else the offending music will come creeping back.
I admit that my being able to hum the tune appears to be a necessary, though not a sufficient condition for my enjoyment of music in general. This puts a great deal of modern “classical” music out of reach for me. Stravinski, Bruckner, and Mahler are little more than noise to my ears. In his The User Illusion,Tor Norretranders wrote that, “Mess is so rich in structure as to appear structureless.” Idealized Euclidean figures: lines and triangles for example, may be simply described in a few words, while the structure that arises in my dustbin is of immense complexity. I’m afraid that the fact that I get so little from abstract art or modern “classical” music is indicative of my dearth of imagination.
An example of a personal favorite work of art is John Singer Sargent’s well known portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw; http://www.jssgallery.org/Paintings/Lady_Agnew.htm
I might compare the image of Lady Agnew to the easily hummed theme in the 2nd movement of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”; http://classicalmus.hispeed.com/articles/mozarteinekleine2.html
Both the delicate curves of Lady Agnew’s face and the delicate notes of Mozart’s nocturne strike a perfect balance between the expected and the unexpected, or if your prefer between monotony and complexity. Perhaps as Tyler suggests, I find comforting features of my mother’s face in the face of Lady Agnew? In Mozart’s nocturne I possibly find, as Counterbalance writes, “that some of the music that some of us hear stimulates particular blends or strains of special memories that were once created by emotion-based events”.
Dietrich Trinker wrote, “A million times more bits of information enter our heads than our consciousness perceives.” Studies have repeatedly indicate that we are only consciously aware of an unimpressive 16 bits per second! Or again, as Norretranders put so eloquently:
“One moment you are aware that your shoes are pinching your feet, the next moment you might be aware of the expanding universe. Consciousness possesses peerless agility, but that does not change the fact that at any given moment you are not conscious of much at all. We do not see what we sense. We see what we think we sense. Our consciousness is presented with an interpretation, rather than the raw data. What we experience has acquired meaning before we became conscious of it”
Or Julian Jaynes:
“…the actual process of thinking, usually thought to be the very life of consciousness, is not conscious at all…only its preparation, its materials, and it’s end result are consciously perceived.”
In other words, far more goes on in my head than I am aware of. I consciously receive only the condensed results from the vast engines of sense and reason based deep in my unconsciousness. It might be that the heavy machinery of our unconscious-self primarily enjoys the optimal structure and pattern to be found in “good” art. All I am conscious of is the tingle in my back-bone; a condensed report that what I heard or saw was very nice. This notion goes a long way to explain why some of us feel that beauty may be perceived, yet not understood. What would it mean to understand beauty?
Counterbalance, you are correct pointing out that as long as I find my wife beautiful, it matters little what others think. I wish I’d remembered to write that initially, for that is exactly how I do feel. Still, there is no doubt that my first attraction to her was due to her physical beauty. I knew nothing of her kind heart then. In his book, How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes that people should marry their friends, those persons that best compliment their own nature. He writes that too often a man ends up marrying a woman primarily for her cute nose, with disasterous results.
I agree with you Tyler; women do appear to find money a sexual attractant for their permanent mates (though it's a slightly different story with their affairs). Pinker wrote that, "One may estimate the wealth of a man by the beauty of the woman on his arm." It's no secret that men on the other hand, care little for a woman's wealth or social status. Men are primarily attracted to a woman's beauty and youth. Despite the fact that humans are driven by their genes, nevertheless, we are fortunate enough not to be controlled by them. We have sufficient intelligence to counter our genetic commands to go forth and replicate. Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene initiated much of the discussion about our being little more than genetically driven robots, has written, "Homo sapiens is the only species that can rebel against the otherwise universally selfish Darwinian impulse." Thank God for that; I drove a rusted 1961 Volkswagon Beetle when I first met my wife.
My wife confided later to me that it was my blue eyes that made her want to get to know me better. Even this admission made me uneasy; to think that I might have missed the “love of my life”, had my eyes been brown instead! Of course it’s silly to go down the road of asking such “what-if” questions. Had her grandfather not been killed fighting with the Italian Army in WW1 her father never would have immigrated to America. Had it not snowed on the day we met, she and I would have been in school rather than ice skating where we met, etc.
Oh well, I’m already off the thread, so I might as well tell you a nice story I just remembered from a dinner party a few years ago. We were going around the table, couple by couple, telling of how it was that we came to be together. It came to the turn of a couple from Finland. The husband is the quiet sort (in fact he’s a brilliant mathematician), so his wife told the story. He was studying at the University in Helsinki at that time. They first met at a dance as he visited his friend in her small hometown. She liked him right away, though she wasn’t sure what he thought of her. They met again when he next visited his friend, and still she didn’t have much of a clue how he felt. Her older sister suggested that she bake a cake to send to him; which she did. He sent her a brief letter of thanks, which she read and tossed aside thinking, “Well, so much for that.” Some time afterward she absent-mindedly picked up the same letter again. This time she noticed a tiny spot of ink on the envelope right next to the postage stamp. She pushed the stamp up a bit to see that it was actually part of a line of ink. Curious now, she gently pried the stamp away to reveal the words (In Finnish, of course),”I love you.” We all thought their story was by far the best.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you of an experience of beauty I had last autumn that will always stay with me. As I was walking towards the village of Montpelier I noticed a woman approaching from the other direction. As the distance between us closed, I became aware that she had the distinctive features given to one with severe Downes Syndrome. My reaction as usual was to think, “poor girl”, but just as this “poor girl” passed she gave unto me the most beautiful and full-faced smile I’ve ever had the pleasure to behold. In an instant my pity turned instead to the most serene joy. I’m not ashamed to tell you that as I walked on, I even cried briefly. In my travels to the greatest art museums of Europe and North America I’ve never been moved to shed even a single tear for visual beauty. Strange how things are.
05-10-02, 11:53 AM
orthogonal, it's a pleasure to take in 'the view' through the windows and doors of Michael's mind.
I watched the film American Beauty last night for the first time. And in the days before that have had the opportunity to view photos of a friend, stillshots of athletic action. Physical beauty, yet actually more. Captured: The human form, one carefully nurtured and sculptured, expressing an intriguing individualism in a language all of its own. Smile-worthy stuff. Thus, my mind has been skimming over the concept of beauty for several days; an interesting and enjoyable mental excursion.
This thread seems an excellent landing spot for some of these recent and related thoughts, and though I'd love to linger this morning, to share more, duty calls for now. Regardless of the number or type of responses that have been drawn here so far, please do continue to share as you feel inclined. Your input is much appreciated.
What is the exact name of that section of the piece please? And where can I download it?
05-10-02, 12:57 PM
Hi there Adam,
I think you need something similar to a RealAudio Player for my above link to produce music. I'm not sure where else to look though the exact title of the piece in question is;
Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major ("Eine kleine Nachtmusik"), K. 525, by W.A. Mozart
Hope you can find and enjoy it!
04-25-08, 05:09 PM
I dont think anyone has posted here for a while...
anyway the resaon why people choose to 'mate' with more beautiful females/males is because (as in the animal kingdom) cleanlines, hygine, shininess of fur/hair and other features are used to determine wether you are worth wasting your fertile eggs on or not, here in the human 'world' beauty is a sign of fitness, health, cleanlines the exact person you want to share your genes with to go onto the next generation, and prehaps what someone before said that they mate with the beautiful ones so their offspring will too be desirable and have better chance of mating in the future.
Do to with Erbarme dich mein gott...
I love this piece and yes it is sorrowful, I wondered what the lyrics where and what they meant and thankyou for answering that question. I think you're right when you say certain melodies get different reactions, my friend hate the music i like (that being of the classical variety) and seem to want to urge me to listen to emo/pop/ rock which really annoy me..