Popular conceptions of who Mozart was play a significant role in our appreciation of his music. Here the composer is portrayed by Tom Hulce in the film “Amadeus.” Warner Brothers photoClassical Consciousness

By John Coyne


If you feed the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem into an acoustic spectrograph – a device that visually depicts sound waves on a computer screen – what you will see are successive bursts of lozenge-shaped scribbles drawn onto your screen with each passing note. Behind those shapes are data, long sequences of ones and zeroes corresponding to the frequency, amplitude, volume, timbre, and other acoustic attributes of each individual sound, which are then mapped onto a grid in real time. This, in its most rudimentary sense, is what music is: a discrete acoustic phenomenon occurring in time.

And on the most basic level this is what enters our ears when we listen to music. But somewhere between our ear drums and our conscious mind something significant happens. As neurologist Oliver Sacks writes, in his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, when listening to music we bring with us “detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”

The experience of listening to music, in other words, is the experience of having memories and associations unconsciously summoned for us by sound in real time. We unconsciously graft imagery and layer associations onto the purely sonic phenomenon, so that by the time our conscious mind is aware that we are listening to music, the experience consists of far more than just the perception of sound waves. It’s as if the music is merely the script for a movie that is instantaneously shot, produced and screened in our brains.

But more than memories of “how things have previously looked and sounded,” we bring a range of extra-musical associations to the listening experience as well. In the world of classical music, where the great man theory of history is alive and well, and where an inexorable cult of genius surrounds brand-name composers like a heavenly aura, perhaps no extra-musical association determines how we perceive music more than the identity of the composer.

If you buy into the notion of music as a catalyst for memory, this seems obvious. So much of classical music lore consists of anecdotes and stories about the famous composers whose music populates the cannon – be it Mozart’s precociousness, Beethoven’s deafness, Bach’s ten children, Brahms’s misanthropy, Mahler’s intrepidity, or Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and so on. The music itself can often come across as footnotes to the popular conception of the composer’s character, rather than vice versa.

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TWO EXAMPLES of music discussed in John Coyne's article: a Hoffstetter string quartet originally thought to have been composed by Hadyn, and the Elgar Cello Concerto as performed by Jacqueline du Pre.

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