When a bass sings, does he sing the same note as a tenor?
The bass may sing a D, and so also the tenor, but their D’s are not altogether the same. The difficulty of describing the difference (and the similarity) of these notes touches upon the mystery of the same and other, as well as the one and the many, the thematic contraries which serve as principles of our world.
Same and Other
We live in a world interwoven in this pattern of same and other (the very pattern of contraries which structures the creation in Plato’s Timaeus). Without the Same, all the regularity of planetary motion, the uniformity of nature, and the familiarity of every creature would disappear. The whole intelligibility of the universe would cease. We would live in a world of complete chaos–unpredictable, inharmonious, and truly not a world.
Yet without the Other, without difference, variation, and even multitude, the world would no more be a world. We would not experience harmony, or even unity, but an indistinguishable monad. Such a monad is inexpressible and unthinkable because experience, words, and thought require difference.
How can we picture or describe the cosmic significance of these two aspects of the universe? Time and Music
Time as Disjunction
Consider that out of Same and Other, the Craftsmen in the Timaeus established time itself. The Sun and the other planets move in partial disjunction with the stars. This crucial disagreement allows time to be marked by regularity, that is by consistent change.
The sun and planets move along the ecliptic (the circle of the other). Without which, we would have no seasons. We would have only unchanging day followed by day. The idea and experience of a ‘year’, of repetition, of a cycle would disappear. We would have no birthdays, no holiday seasons, no special time for plants to grow or die. All time would be monotone and move out in infinite forward progression without any sense of return.
This is just one way that the confluence of Same and Other makes the visible world, in all its aspects, a knowable, inhabitable place. A true word means a place not of the infinitely same or the infinitely strange, but of returns and cycles, of familiarity and difference that together cause change, growth, renewal, and knowledge.
Music: One and the Many
Music is another example of the significance of the same, the other, and their interweaving.
It is possible to imagine notes with only difference or otherness, rising in an infinite progression much like a numeric series (1, 2, 3, 4…). Each note would increase in pitch without ever reproducing anything like the previous one, except insofar as they were also notes. But if this were the case, the bass singer would never be able to join in with a tenor at a different octave. There would be no octave, no repetition. There would only be a scale of higher or lower pitch. In this imaginary world, we eliminate what musicians call pitch class, the character that makes all D notes similar to each other.
In such a world, there would be no naming of notes (do, re, mi) because there would be an infinite quantity of notes to name and learn, but no means of categorizing them by class. Musical notes would have diversity, but no familial characteristics.
The real music system is only learnable because there are a limited number of notes classes, despite the various octaves in which they are found.
Now let us imagine a slightly different musical landscape. We might eliminate an infinitely rising scale of notes and instead limit the range of musical pitch to seven notes of the heptatonic scale (of course in such a case we would probably not talk of scale). This would be like a world with only seven notes, simply.
The first world we imagined can be pictured as a line rising off into infinity. The second world might be pictured by a straight line marked by the seven notes, or perhaps a circle which represents their unity and our ability to repeat them.
Neither world is truly a world or Cosmos: an ordered array of being. Neither is anything like the musical spectrum we know. We live instead in a world in which the seven notes form a paradigm which is repeated in each octave. In each repetition, the notes do not remain absolutely the same, but are higher in pitch. In a sense, we have both the line rising in pitch and circling around, as the notes of similar pitch-class repeat. By combining the ascending line and the circle we form a helical graph, a kind of musical castle.
Why does this happen in music?
Understanding this phenomena brings us to the problem of identity. What is it that makes a note the same as another note in a different octave?
In music, as in other areas, we can understand a thing by its wholeness, its relationships, or its elemental structures. Each mode provides insight into the nature of being.
The octave is the most straight forward, comprehensive and correct account. Why does a note repeat itself in a certain sense, because it is in a special ratio to the initial note. It is the double of the first. We simply are creatures who recognize sameness, and we do so by grasping things through ratio (relationship). Therefore, pitch-class, the sameness of one note to its pair in the next octave is a precise representation of human knowing–grasping unity through diversity or knowledge through ratio.
We recognize the wholeness of one note, but in grasping its unity we also grasp what it is in community. The octave note has a like relation to its peers that the lower octave note does to its.
We can also consider the note atomically or elementally. Like all beings in this universe, the note is a composite being made up of multiple sounds. Thus a single note is itself a cosmos, an array of sounds composed and ordered in a certain manner to make the unity of that note. Thus a note is one and many. And each note class is the same as its fellows, but also different, possessing a sameness of arrangement which is yet unique to it.
In a coming post, the cause of order in nature (both in the elemental structure and in the wholeness of each being) will be discussed.