The sparks which ignite music from Boethius to Bob Dylan, Lyell Cresswell

The Concept of Music
Robin Maconie
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990, £22.50, $91.95

The broad scope of Robin Maconie’s conjectural inquiry into music is succinctly expressed in his first chapter: ‘Music is an information process working simultaneously on many different levels, generating a complex of responses from the most basic and physical to the most elusive and abstract’. In his exploration of the urge to communicate, he passes from the mysterious footprint in the sand, to communication with beings from outer space. He concludes that an LP record will tell an alien being more about human life than drawings of a man and woman, or a diagram of the solar system, because it shows that we are capable of movement and aware of time ‑ that we are alive.

This impressive search for the how, what, and why of music ranges from aesthetics to anaesthetics, from St Augustine to Bob Dylan, Jericho to the land of the Houyhnhnms, the halo to the nuns’ fiddle, diarrhoea and stomach ulcers to tachycardiac arythmy and so on. The key issue involves perception. Following the Roman philosopher Boethius, Maconie establishes three levels on which music is perceived: beauty of sound (sound quality), beauty of action (performance) and beauty of imagination (composition). The first level involves the pleasure of listening, ‘the function … is … anaesthetic … an auditory acupuncture’; the second, the desire for sharing in order to distinguish ‘the real world from a world of make believe’; and the third the necessity of understanding music to understand the human mind better – ‘a healthy mind is driven by sensory data, in a manner rather analogous to solar panels being charged up by sunlight, or dynamos by energy from wind or water flow’.

One of the reasons we are attracted to music, he says, is that it stands out from the acoustic surroundings. It results from an ‘instinct of self-preservation against auditory invasion’. So we have some lessons in acoustics in which we are told that sound varies according to atmosphere and environment, music needs air to travel through if it is to be heard by humans, musical instruments have the capability of converting random energy into coherent energy; and that there is a spatial dimension to music because it ‘issues from external sources and is picked up by our ears’. We are asked questions too: is it right, in recording, to substitute an engineered sound for a natural acoustic and which came first – the music (and the building to fit it) or the building (and the music to fill it)?

All these things we can find in text-books: but Maconie brings them to life, turning them from the solid and prosaic into the sparks which ignite music. The points he makes are clarified with well chosen analogies found in things like the photocollages of David Hockney, the lawn-mower and the explorations of Flash Gordon.

In music, Maconie finds a metaphor for life: ‘Music is an experience of transience … (it) is arguably the most direct and unfettered expression of mortality’, it passes precariously before our ears as we listen. But he does not follow up the implications of the metaphor; for instance, does music qualify our perception of time? Instead he concerns himself with tempo (speed) and notation (the organisation of time on paper). He outlines the reasons for the development of notation from its use as a guide for pitch contour to its role in giving the composer more control over the performer – ‘a code for managing information and people as dynamic systems’ – and the lessons it has given computer programming.

There is a survey of the development of melody from its origins in speech inflexions and monotone singing; a glance at the architecture of Palladio and his belief in the parallel between musical and spatial proportions; and a potted history of the notion of the Music of the Spheres, which postulated that the proportions of the cosmos were in accord with the laws of harmony as demonstrated by the vibrations of a taut string; and that society should follow these laws.

Maconie’s style is beguiling. There is lively discussion, sometimes frustrating, when issues seem to be left in midstream, but always provoking and triggering ideas that go well beyond the scope of the book. There is a good bibliography for further study. It is an important book and should be read by anyone whose concern for music goes deeper than anaesthesia. The publisher’s price is so horrific, it virtually forestalls any wide distribution.

Robin Maconie is a New Zealander at present working in Britain. His study of the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Oxford University Press) has become a standard reference book.


Lyell Cresswell is a notable New Zealand composer who lives in Edinburgh. His first two CDs are shortly to appear.


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