Blog: Music in Time, An Analysis of Sonic Motion, Number and Temporality

I had a dream last night in which I walked into a bar and sat down at a stool. There was a trumpet next to me. I picked it up and started playing those first few notes of Miles Davis’ “So What.” The barman, who had the look of a gray-haired, respectable Italian grandfather, turns to me and says, “Nice. Is that ‘Freddie Freeloader’?”

Switch for a moment to Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six.” This one starts out with a nimble, chugging bass riff before Montgomery breaks out into a swift whirlwind of hammer-ons and staccato riffs. “So What,” in contrast contains ample room to breathe between Davis’ sparse trumpeting and a few piano chords in its minute and a half long intro, while “Four on Six” is ready to charge as soon as the gate opens.

We can easily say that these songs have a different temporality to them. In terms as simple as beats per minute, the motions and progressions of each track—that is, the things with which their time is filled—differ greatly. While time qua “So What” begins at 0:00 and ends at 9:23 and time qua “Four on Six” begins at 0:00 and ends at 6:23, the means by which we measure that temporal movement are unique relative to each particular track.

In searching for something to write about for this week, I came across an article in Nautilus magazine wherein Jonathan Berger, a composer, claims:

“Music creates discrete temporal units but ones that do not typically align with the discrete temporal units in which we measure time. Rather, music embodies (or, rather, is embodied within) a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate ‘clock-time.’ This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.”

Any examination of Berger’s claim must by necessity entail an examination of what time itself is. If I’ve gotten too metaphysical here for some of you, I apologize. But what else would you expect from a philosophy major?

I turn then, to two of the primary grandfathers in the western philosophical traditionPlato and Aristotle—for two distinct, but commonly held accounts of what time might be.

In the Timaeus, Plato presents the main speaker, Timaeus of Locri, as claiming that, “Nevertheless [the demiurge] determined to make [the universe] a kind of moving likeness of eternity, and so in the very act of ordering the universe he created a likeness of eternity, a likeness that progresses eternally through the sequence of numbers, while eternity abides in oneness.”

“This image of eternity is what some have come to call ‘time’, since along with the creation of the universe he created and devised days, nights, months, and years, which did not exist before the creation of the universe.” (Timaeus 37d-38a, trans. Robin Waterfield)

In Plato’s rendition, time is co-terminal with the existence of the universe. It is not a subjective human creation, but rather was created alongside the universe by the demiurge. Even if there were no humans to apprehend time, time would still objectively exist, since it accompanies the ‘moving likeness of eternity.’ So long as the universe exists, Timaeus purports, so will time.

In the Physics, Aristotle gives us an in-depth analysis on time, noting that time seems to be the sort of thing by which we track movement. “Hence time is not movement, but only movement in so far as it admits of enumeration. A proof of this: we discriminate more or less by number, but more or less movement by time.” (219b, ed. W.D. Ross)

Aristotle nearly equates time with motion in itself, but sets the distinction that time must be a quantitative measure of motion. Time in the Aristotelian framework ends up as a numerical standard resulting from the motion of objects and the need to track their motion.

So conceptually, time for Plato and Aristotle is either an objective entity into which objects in motion are inserted, or a subjective, quantitative measure resulting from the motion of objects, respectively.

Whether time is objective or subjective is a question that has plagued metaphysicians and laymen alike throughout the centuries. Newton and Liebniz in particular found themselves grappling with this issue when they were both independently developing calculus.

But, back to music—back to the art which, according to the medieval liberal arts tradition, was a study of number in time.

When Wes Montgomery’s guitar begins issuing forth a flurry of notes in rapid succession, the pacing of “Four on Six” is set but not at a slow pace. The speedy riffs give this track its characteristic tempo—it moves faster, we might say, than Miles Davis’ “So What.”

Whether objectively or subjectively, time always seems to be a sort of measure, and specifically it appears to measure motion. We say that a day has elapsed for example, when the Earth completes another rotation along its axis.

Entertain this notion, if you will—time, relative to “Four on Six” begins at 0:00 and ends at 6:23. The moment someone begins listening to this song, “Four on Six” time is actualized. We might say that otherwise, it exists in potential—that is, a subject isn’t currently engaged with it, but they might be in the future—but in order for it to be “actualized” or “instantiated,” it must be made manifest in the physical world.

While “Four on Six” is playing, we can think of it as having its own distinct temporal universe. Why? Because if time measures motion, and this song has its own sort of motion that is only actualized while the song is playing, its motion too, must be measured according to a standard relative to itself.

To use Plato’s framework, “Four on Six” time might be another reflection of eternity, this time being yet another grade removed because it would be a reflection of our physical, spatiotemporal notion of time. Or in Aristotle’s sense, if “So What” has its own sort of motion that can only be measured while the song plays between 0:00 and 9:23, it too, must have its own sort of temporality.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was game-changing in the sense that it made people consider space and time not as absolute constructs, but as measurable things that differed depending on a subject’s acceleration. Light moves at the same speed in a vacuum, notes Einstein, but may be perceived differently by observers depending on their acceleration.

Your favorite album or song, it seems to me, may yet operate under similar rules. When I listen to the Sex PistolsNever Mind the Bollocks, I perceive time differently from when I listen to Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon. Each album in effect brings in its own, semi-independent temporal measure when engaging with an observer.

So that being said, listen to an album—Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue would be a great choice, for example—and even if you don’t succeed in transcending time, you may at least flow according to a different time for a while.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user mandykoh.

headshotHorus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at

2 responses to “Blog: Music in Time, An Analysis of Sonic Motion, Number and Temporality”

  1. […] another piece published by The Bloc, I briefly explored what time is, ontologically speaking. At this point, […]

  2. […] an object taking place over a given amount of time. And time can be thought of as a unit of measure allowing us to track that same […]

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