Music – a memento mori for the moment

Here, for your delectation or detestation, is a thing that I think: “Music is the art best suited to the depiction of impermanence.”

Making such a thought public may elicit several responses: “What?”; “Who cares!?”; “That’s because you’re a musician.”; etc. Fair enough. I’m going to start by addressing the last of these questions, then move on to the second, and after that should be well on my way to answering the first.

Yes, I am a (hack) musician. I’ve studied music in some depth and am thus inevitably biased in its favour. But, I protest, I also write and have studied writing. I also draw and paint a little bit, and am fortunate enough to be married to an incredibly talented and prolific painter. Thanks to my wife Genevieve, to live in our house is to be on intimate terms with the process of creating visual art. So much for my claims to authority – I have none and make no claims to any (“the only thing that I know is that I know nothing…” blah blah). That music, of all the arts, most effectively depicts impermanence is just a thing I think. There are reasons that I think this particular thing, however, and I am ready to defend them.

So who cares? Why should anyone care about this seemingly most esoteric of claims? Just what on earth do I mean by “impermanence” anyway? I’m so glad I asked me! Impermanence, it seems to me, is a characteristic of all existent things. It is what the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was drawing attention to with his famous claim that one can never step into the same river twice. The river is in flux. By the time you take your second step it has changed. It doesn’t matter if you immediately follow each step with the next, or avoid stepping into that river again for days, months, or years. The river is never at rest. Moreover, the “you” that does the stepping is never at rest, not even for a moment. Like the river, you are always changing, always in flux.

The importance of understanding the impermanent nature of both ourselves and all components of the environments in which we live is also central to Buddhist philosophy. No doubt some scholars of Buddhist thought will take exception to this claim, but I consider insight into the impermanence, as well as the interdependence, of all things, to be not only fundamental to Buddhist thought, but also primary goals of Buddhist meditation practices. Consider the Four Noble Truths (my paraphrasing):

  1. Life is characterised by dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness).
  2. Dukkha is caused by primal confusion.
  3. There is a cure for primal confusion.
  4. The cure is the Noble Eightfold Path.

If you consider the form of this teaching, the first the Buddha gave after he achieved enlightenment, you’ll see that it’s pretty important to know what “primal confusion” is. After all, the claim is being made that it is the source of suffering! The Buddhist literature is voluminous and there are diverse interpretations of these fundamental teachings, but the gist seems to be that primal confusion is a matter of believing the world has a different nature from that which it in fact has. This is pretty obviously confusion, and it’s “primal” not only because it affects everything, but because it’s innate – we are being told that the default worldview possessed by humans is mistaken at the fundamental level. What mistake are we making? We think that things exist (or have the potential to exist) independently and permanently. Basically, we think it’s possible to isolate things (any things) from their contexts and we think things (immortal souls perhaps?) can last for ever. We are dead wrong about this. In fact, Buddha claims, the nature of existence is that it is interdependent and impermanent – to exist is to exist in a context with other existents, and existence is intrinsically ephemeral. If we can truly understand and internalise these facts about the world, we will allegedly be freed from suffering.

Impermanence is therefore kind of a big deal. A fairly obvious example of just how big a deal it is rears its head when we contemplate our own death. Our existence is impermanent. It is going to end. I take it to be fairly obvious that for most of us this is kind of a bummer. One only has to consider the proliferation of death-denying mythologising throughout history, from immortal souls living forever incorporeally in analogue heaven, to uploaded consciousnesses living forever digitally in digital heaven (is there really any difference?), to see how important this issue is for humans in general. Accepting the inevitability of your own death, not to mention the death of everyone you love, is difficult. But maybe accepting that all existence is impermanent, that death is the price of admission, can help. And acceptance of death really does help us to live better (at least I’ve got this on good authority, I’m still terrified of death most of the time). The goal of Buddha’s teachings is always soteriological – it is aimed at achieving “salvation” (or liberation – moksha). Not salvation in the afterlife, but the cessation (or at least diminishment) of suffering in the here and now. (By the way, I’m not going to talk about Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation in this piece, maybe another time.)

Now, it’s no coincidence that I’m a fan of philosophers and teachers like Heraclitus and Buddha (and their exegetes). I’m an evolutionary biologist and it is also absolutely central to evolutionary thinking that all things are interdependent and impermanent. I want this to be a short piece, so I’m not going to go into details here, but to consider interdependence just think about the concept of an ecosystem. By definition, “systems” are composed of many elements that interact and “work together”. Sometimes, this coalition really does work together to achieve some tangible goal, but not always. The parts of an ecosystem don’t necessarily cooperate, but they do depend upon each other to achieve stability. In fact, the evolutionary “game” is all about achieving stability in the face of the constant flux which characterises, well, everything. Stability can only be achieved through the formation of coalitions (a solitary quark, for example, is extremely unstable), i.e. through interdependence. Stability is only relative, however, ecosystems change and eventually disappear, mountains crumble to the sea (did I steal that from somewhere?) – everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever, all things must pass (insert song lyrics ad nauseum).

If as a musician I am biased towards music, as an evolutionist I am biased towards impermanence. Why is music so good at depicting impermanence? Because music is the most obviously ephemeral art form. More than any other art form, music draws our attention to the passage of time. It’s not the only art form to do this of course (narrative would be another obvious example), it’s just the most direct. Music only exists in the moment of hearing. Sure, you can write a score for a piece of music, but the score is not the music. It is map, not territory. The same is true of a recording – the grooves in a vinyl record, the 0s and 1s in an MP3; these are not music, they are media through which music may be realised….by pressing “play”.

When music is existing, the fact of its passing, its being in time, is impossible (for anyone paying attention) to ignore. Paintings are impermanent too. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is impermanent too (hopefully I’ll see it before one of us expires). But these works of art do not wear their ephemerality on their sleeves. To experience them is not to experience their transience directly. In this, music is unparalleled. It makes impermanence explicit. In so doing, it draws our attention to the constant flux of the present moment. Perhaps we are able to forget or ignore this aspect of music these days because we are so constantly bombarded by recorded music wherever we go. Music is assaulting our ears from every angle as we move through the world (and indeed we’re often using it to block out the world with our earphones), and most of it is thus relegated to the status of background noise. Listening is different from simply hearing. As Igor Stravinsky remarked, “a duck hears also”. When you really listen to music, its flux, its temporality, is undeniable. You are either with it you aren’t. If your attention waivers, you’ve missed it. That part is now gone. If you were trying to listen to one of Anton Webern’s “5 Pieces for Orchestra”, you just missed the whole piece. Perhaps you heard a few plinks and plonks, but had you been listening you might have had one of the most profound experiences available to human consciousness. (Am I overselling Webern? No.)

Okay, what’s important about this? Music makes explicit something that is fundamental to the human experience. We exist in time and all our experiences are transitory. To get the most out of experience, to get the most out of life, we must be paying attention. All experiences are like Webern’s pieces, both in their potential profundity and in their undeniable transience – blink and they are gone forever. This is pretty obvious, right? But have you accepted it? Have you started to conquer primal confusion? I haven’t. Not really. I still want the good times to last forever and I still think the suffering will never end. I often need to be reminded that pleasure and suffering are equally impermanent, and music is one of the best memento moris for the moment.


Painting by Genevieve Jackson, used without permission from artist (she’ll forgive me). 

3 thoughts on “Music – a memento mori for the moment

  1. I would argue that games are better suited to illustrate the impermanence, because not only each moment of play exists in that moment only, but they require interaction and therefore the same game is basically never the same. Even if you play the same game twice, you’re unlikely to recreate the same sequence of actions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alex, excellent point! I think that any art form with an explicitly temporal aspect (games, films, narratives of any kind) “depicts” (or literally embodies) the passage of time and thus impermanence. Games are indeed particularly apt in this sense, for the reasons that you’ve mentioned. On the other hand, though I didn’t go into this in the piece, I think it’s partly that a piece of (recorded) music is objectively the same (different listening equipment, compression rates etc notwithstanding) each time you revisit it, but often experientially completely different, that helps draw attention to the impermanence of our “selves” – i.e. our perspective on the world. With games, since as you point out they are different every time and we are actually taking an active part in determining the content, they’re a bit too close to life to isolate the variable of perception in a way that allows us to see how it is constantly shifting (but are clearly an apt “microcosm” of life for precisely this reason).

      With scored music, every performance is different, and I was going to get into a discussion of impermanence as it relates to improvisation and jazz as well, which I may do in a followup. So the experience of playing a game is somewhat akin to the experience of performing music, rather than just listening to it, at least in the sense that one is an active participant and (particularly if improvising) must be present in the constantly shifting moment to be perform at a high level.

      None of this is an attempt to undermine your point, which was a good one – thanks for reading and commenting!

      – Tim


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