Is music fundamentally a sensual experience? Is it emotional? Intellectual? Intuitive?
The answer is yes — music is fundamentally all four. Anyone who refuses to experience music sensually, emotionally, intellectually and intuitively is missing an essential ingredient of the human capacity for enjoyment and meaning.
Jung labeled four cognitive functions of the mind: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. In his article “Toward a Pedagogy of Composition: Exploring Creative Potential” (1986 Journal of the College Music Society), composer John J. Carbon posited that the best composers in history have been able to tap into all four functions, if not equally, then at least in a meaningful way.
Every composer has a particular strength. Among living composers, for example, it is facile to say that Milton Babbitt is a thinking composer, John Corigliano is a feeling composer, Augusta Read Thomas’s forte is sensation, and Meredith Monk has helped to redefine intuition. Mind you, it would be a huge mistake to say that any of these composers are restricted by these functions. Rather, we can speak of these functions as specific affinities that are most readily expressed through their musics.
In addition to strong suits, everybody also has a blind spot — a cognitive function that feels awkward, or simply doesn’t exist with the same vitality as the others. Again, the best composers find a way to bring these blind spots into their expressive arsenals, to find a balance, specific and recognizable, in their music. Rarely an equal balance, although a composer like Beethoven comes awfully close.
Rarer still is the composer who focuses solely on just one of the four functions with any success — but more on that in a future post.
In any case, I tend to agree with Mr. Carbon: I’m happiest when music suspends me dizzily in the midst of all of my brain functions. That’s the music I come back to time and again: each listening shows me something new about myself.
But when people criticize music for being too emotional or too intellectual (to name two of the more common complaints), in some cases they are simply broadcasting their own limitations, their own inability to match the balance proposed by the composer. Rather, as listeners, we should be open to all the ways in which music communicates, in order to integrate our own blind spots into an expanded consciousness and appreciation.