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Poetic Thinking 2016 | October 16, 2019

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Poetic Thinking in Music

Poetic Thinking in Music
Andrew McLeod

One medium I find conspicuously absent from the syllabus is music (alas, we don’t have time to do everything). Even though music isn’t enmeshed in systematic forms of reasoning quite as directly as most of the art we’re discussing, it does have canonical structures (such as the sonata form, or a chorus with verses) and ‘allowed moves’ (staying within a key signature). I’ve been wondering, therefore, whether there are any clear instances of poetic thinking in music—and if so, what sets them apart.

One possible example might be free jazz, in which musicians improvise without fixed meter and/or harmonic structure; this stye can be seen, for instance, in Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come:

Another might be indeterminate music, wherein the composer leaves some elements of the piece up to chance and/or up to the performers. An example of this style is the below score by Earle Brown, which can be “played in any sequence, either side up, at any tempo(i)” while even the meaning of its markings are left ambiguous. 

Four Systems

Is the renunciation of traditional musical structures sufficient to qualify these types of pieces to be instances of ‘poetic thinking’? I’m not sure. Perhaps there’s another musical movement or style that would better fit the bill. Or maybe the notion of ‘poetic thinking’ doesn’t map to music as cleanly as I’m suggesting.

More generally, though, what other forms of art might we look for poetic thinking within? Perhaps architecture (some of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s buildings come to mind), or sculpture (no idea), or even gardening?


  1. Vivian Lam

    Thank you for bringing up music as a form of poetic thinking, Andrew! Indeterminate music seems fascinating–Earle Brown’s score as a visual tableau provides an interesting way at looking at (and producing, consuming) music.

    Considering how we have described poetic thinking as something that brings new forms of understanding of life and provides some beginning sense of directionality in navigating the world, I am reminded distinctly of Sartre’s Nausea, in which the central character, Antoine Roquentin, suffers exponentially because his hyperawareness that all objects and entities *exist*. “Existence precedes essence” is only circumvented by “pure” objects–as with the ideal concept of a circle (that does not itself exist), or a hammer that was created out of an individual’s mental blueprint of a hammer. Music in particular gives him a reprieve–for these notes don’t actually exist–they return to nothingness as soon as they come into being. A song has no past or future–but is just a continual stream of present.

    What does music, as perhaps the purest form of perceived experience, “reveal” (as with Heidegger’s temple) about the world? As a pure, wordless essence, *how* does it reveal? Can one truly “own” a piece of music in the form of records and MP3s, like a physical work of art? Does experimental and more free form music reveal *more* than more structured and regimented compositions?

    I likely have not quite explained or interpreted Nausea quite correctly, but it would be interesting to explore the implications of attributing this notion of non-existing creation as a form of poetic thinking.

  2. Harry Desmond

    Thanks for this. I’d say music is awash with poetic thinking, not simply in the renunciation of traditional structures but in those structures themselves (no one could claim that a poem is less poetic by cleaving to the sonnet form, for example).

    Traditionally of course music emerged as accompaniment to sung or intoned poetry, and it’s there that one presumably needs to trace its poetic roots. It seems that certain poetic utterances acquire more force or significance by being uttered in a certain way, and by a particular person in a particular context (thereby latching on better, perhaps, to the moods, feelings or thoughts of which they are the “objective correlative”). It’s interesting in this connection to consider the difference in effect between lyrics sung and lyrics read on a page, which I often find to be unreasonably large.

    Purely instrumental music seems a somewhat different matter; in particular, the (otherwise compelling) theory of “poetic thinking” mapping affective states to signs becomes much murkier. There’s no doubt that an instrumental piece can be “melancholy” or “reflective” for example, but the way in which certain chords come to acquire this (seemingly qualitatively different) meaning is a total mystery to me…

    Vivian makes a good point that one of the distinguishing characteristics of music as an art form is its ephemerality — what’s significant about it can’t be captured in a solid object or marks on paper. This property is surely shared though with acting, which must be another good case of poetic thinking in action.

    (Vis-a-vis Nausea, another critical aspect was that music contains its meaning and purpose within itself — these things are intrinsic to it. We, on the other hand, don’t come equipped with an essence or point or justification for our existence; rather we’re entirely de trop, and the ever-present yawning abyss between our meaning and the brute fact of our existence is the origin of angst.)

  3. Silvia De Toffoli

    True, music is absent from the syllabus. Nevertheless, I personally would not hesitate in counting pieces of music as instances of poetic thinking. (Maybe, banally, the absence is just due to a lack of time.) I also do not see the problem with the canonical structures, visual arts also have canonical forms.
    Why do you think that improvisation or indeterminate music would be a more prototypical instance of poetic thinking?
    Think about the tight constraints of classical poetry…

    Also, I don’t see why “thinking” could be done through painting, but not through composing, or playing music… Of course this would be thinking in a loose sense, but that’s what we have been talking about all along!

    Final note: The indeterminate score is fascinating, but in this context I find it interesting visually!

  4. Andrew McLeod

    Thanks for all three of your comments.

    Harry, in fact I will claim that a poem could be less an example of Poetic Thinking (not less an example of poetry, of course) by staying true to the sonnet form. This is not to say that sonnets can’t be instances of Poetic Thinking, but rather that I think one way of qualifying as Poetic Thinking can be to break down the sonnet form in an interesting way (see below). I definitely agree with your point that Poetic Thinking can also exist within traditional music structures, but where should we look for these instances of Poetic Thinking? I think it’s a hard question in general.

    Sylvia, regarding your comments on canonical structures: I don’t have any problem with canonical structures per se, I’m just trying to work from an instance where I have (as I take it) a well-formed intuition that something qualifies as Poetic Thinking (also see below).

    Since you both invoke generic forms of poetry as instances of Poetic Thinking in your comments, it’s become clear to me that I have a different conception of what Poetic Thinking entails than either of you. I’ve written a new post (Two Notions of Poetic Thinking) that explicates how I’m approaching the idea, which may also shed light on why I’ve approached Poetic Thinking in music the way I have above.

  5. Scott Weiss

    I agree that a core element of poetic thinking is breaking out of the constraints of traditional forms and structures, and for that reason I think that free jazz is a good example to think with. That said, I think we all agree that the imposition of formal constraints, such as a sonnet, can create new possibilities for poetic expression and creative thinking.

    I actually was thinking about poetic thinking in music recently due to my own experience. I don’t really consider myself a musician– I really like blues music and I play some harmonica. A few weeks ago, a couple friends roped me into playing with them on KZSU for the Day of Noise– 24 hours of experimental noise music. Here’s a link to the entire program (my group, No Tone, went first– midnight to 1am):

    The only reason I inflict this recording on you all is because it did help me think about poetic thinking both in terms of music and in terms of collectivity. We did very little planning, so pretty much the whole thing was improvised. In the process, it felt very much like a conversation, in which each participant would change his playing based on what the other two were doing. I’ve jammed with people before, but my experience with improvisational music like this is pretty limited. The experience was certainly useful for thinking through how creative expression can occur in collective settings.

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