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The Structure and Eurhythmy of Music

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 1770-1831

The aim of this paper is to characterize the melodic, harmonic, and structural resolutions that occur in the auditory medium of music; where bars and beats provide an organizational framework for structure, proportion, and harmony; and the striking resemblance of music with the structures devised in other art mediums; such as architecture, sculpture, and poetry. The subdivision of caesura (meaning verse in Greek) into syllables and vowels, and the positioning of sculptures and architecture according to the laws of symmetry and visual harmony1—are strikingly similar to the manner in which music is devised and arranged according to the structural division composed of bars, beats, and notes. The melodic characteristics that are attempted to be demonstrated in this essay, are twofold; the first point, concerns the potential of music to express its inner content within the subjectivity of a beholder despite the medium’s temporal characteristics. The second point of this essay concerns the capacity of the medium to transcend its own laws of symmetry, structure, beat, etc.—and achieve an incomparable level of expression of inner life and emotion—to which a few resemblances with poetry will be mentioned.

Music’s Expression Albeit its Temporality

The first point concerns the embodiment of an absolute form despite the temporal and self-annihilating features inherent in the auditory medium of music. Despite these temporal qualities, music can nevertheless persist in the memory of a beholder as inner subjectivity; where the notes within the melody can be subsequently reproduced as a memory within the beholder’s Spirit [German: Geist].2 This characteristic is very particular to music as such, especially when contrasted to other mediums, such as painting; where in order to sufficiently grasp the inner life of painting, the beholder must stand in front of the object—in the present moment. Music on the other hand, can be actualized in memory at almost any subsequent time after its initial conception; which, however, is most frequently not a recollection of the melody in its complete exactness, but nevertheless, a sufficient recollection of the melody’s inner life and emotion.

The structure of the musical beat is what gives objectivity to music, but does not prevent music to reveal and expound its subjective inner life. This is what allows a melody to exist on its own account; where inner life in which “subjective passions and feeling of character and heart” are revealed. To contrast the musical medium with painting, as Hegel states, no matter how deeply one plunges to admire and comprehend the subject-matter of a painting — “it is all in vein” — because our relation to depicted subjects and objects, is rarely elaborated beyond the mere act of eye gazing and spectating. When a beholder recollects a melody, eye gazing and spectating are no longer applicable, and it is for this cause that such a recollection of a melody is rarely about notes in their bare structural form, but one which is highly theoretical and deeply emotional. The theoretical conception of the melodic play among the notes, quite paradoxically, emerges out of a strictly devised structure and composition.

When contrasted with visual arts, the potential of the musical medium is expressed when it conveys object-free inner life, which becomes ideally and theoretically elaborated in what Hegel refers to as “abstract subjectivity”3. This form of theoretical elaboration contrasts with the form of expression devised in other forms of art, whose subject-matter is most often contingent to something physical and external. What at first might appear as an irresolution on music’s behalf, especially if compared to the non-temporal features of sculpture and architecture; in actuality, is a potential inherent in the musical medium as such—which aids its potential to express features that are extensively theoretical and ideal. Music is a form of romantic art that withdraws from the expression of external life, and becomes an expression of inner life in its own subjectivity. This is what Hegel refers to as the “unfolding” of the ‘Absolute Ideal’ in music. This unfolding of the Ideal, consists of a meticulous act of working out and expounding the melodic subject-matter, which becomes fully actualized in performance of the melody.

The subject-matter of a musical piece consists of interplays, relations, oppositions, conflicts, transitions, complications, and resolutions; all which constitute the melody’s subject-matter, as well as the inner life and character of almost every specific note. Music of high vocation does not simply replicate a natural outburst of passionate notes but transforms music into a theoretical expression, revealing specific notes in their relation to one-another.4 At the same time, music gains a more theoretical ground for spirited expression due to the objective and structural foundation of the medium — but whose essence can nevertheless unfold as something profoundly subjective, in a manner that is to some extents, incomparable to any other art medium.5

Hearing, along with sight, is one of the only two theoretical senses, compared to the more practical ones; such as taste, touch, and smell. For Hegel however, hearing can be actualized in a manner in a form that is more ideal than the sense of sight; because sound as such, is a sphere in which a complete cancellation of materiality is possible.6 Within the sphere of sound, music is given a medium in which its ideal content and inner life can unfold. This can be contrasted with other mediums such as architecture and sculpture, where there is a struggle to idealize the content within all the three physical dimensions. For example, painting in relation to architecture and sculpture, achieves a more ideal form of actualization of inner content due to the medium’s capacity to negate of one of these dimensions—making it a two-dimensional medium instead of a three-dimensional one. Music on the other hand, negates and strips away the physicality of all these dimensions altogether, which no longer interfere with the actualization of theoretical, absolute, and ideal qualities. The only dimension in which music can assert its existence—is time, which Hegel refers to as a “sphere” and not a dimension per se. The theoretical elucidation of a melody unfolds exactly within this sphere of time.

In this absolute sphere of time, Music achieves immediate self-sufficiency and absolute subjectivity without relying on a contingent externality. It is the subjective feeling that music claimed as its own subject-matter and ideal content7, which is why music can actualize feelings that are attempted to be worked out in other mediums; such as awe and worship in symbolic art; love, mourning, grief in painting; and misery, lament, sorrow in poetry. These are feelings that are profoundly embodied and expressed in music, which makes it a addition to other works of art in other mediums, due to the melody’s ability to trigger and actualize these emotions. This allows music to become a medium that becomes “heartfelt”, giving it a capacity to trigger the shed tears, joy, etc. — in a manner that is incomparable to any other medium.8

Music can therefore be incorporated with other forms of art to the advantage of both sides. When for example, music is accompanied with poetry to produce a fusion—the medium of drama as such—it brings to our soul the feelings that are attempted to be expressed through poetry, but which become triggered and fully actualized when accompanied along with music. Here, poetry is the elucidating interpreter of ideas and thoughts for us to apprehend and reproduce, and music presents these subjective feelings as its subject-matter through the use of notes that inwardize and accompany the poetic work.9

Music’s Expression of its Inherent Structure

The second point of this essay characterizes the ability of music to express its profoundly subjective qualities out of a relatively strict foundational structure. As mentioned beforehand, the seemingly paradoxical qualities of the musical medium, lies precisely in its capacity to produce emotional expression out of seemingly strict and structured law of proportion and rhythm. Other mediums like as architecture, hold structural rules with similar strictness, but come nowhere close to expressing and actualizing their inner life through their medium. Music’s high vocation lies exactly in the fact that it overcomes the constraints of its own medium—let alone the inherent constraints of dimensionality and materiality that other mediums evidently struggle with, but cannot overcome. This allows music to expound its theoretical profoundness as an art of highest vocation.

But structure is nevertheless a feature that music has to overcome, balance, and figure out. When a virtuoso performs a musical work, he must be obedient to the instrument and must not improvise as it will spoil the performance.10 On the other hand, a performer must not actualize his work in a purely mechanical fashion, but must give life and soul to the work in the same sense that the composer intended to give, and not give an impression of a “musical automaton” who recites a mere lesson and repeats mechanically what has been dictated to him. Here, Hegel refers to Genius as someone who is accounted only when the performer reaches a “spiritual height” by bringing the composer’s work to life. The spiritual height here lies precisely in the virtuoso’s capacity to unravel, execute, and expound the inner relations, oppositions, conflicts, etc. that occur among the notes within the melody.

These expressions triggered by music however, are not derivatives of sensuous material, nor are they a direct reaction to physical vibration—along with all kinds of various other forms of externalities—but rather, an ideal expression within the sphere of time as such.9 Due to the fact that music cannot rely on anything external due to its theoretical and temporal nature, it nurtures a spirited enrichment that it then needs to find an adequate mode of expression, before it annihilates itself within the sphere of space and time. Both, music and poetry gain an advantage when dealing with the auditory temporality of sound, where a steady flux of time must be apprehended according to some form of unit. In music, the equivalent of such a unit are notes; which succeed one after another according to the rules of structure, relation, harmony, tension, etc. This is what constitutes the object-free inwardness of music; consisting of musical notation, bars, beats, etc.—which again, according to the medium’s paradoxical nature—form its objective foundations, but also its absolute subjectivity and inner life.

The time-measure in music; which consists of a bar, a beat and a tempo; serve as the foundation of regularity on top of which the inner and absolute qualities of a melody can unfold. This structural definition draws similarities to classical Greek architecture—where columns of the same thickness must be placed alongside one another in accordance to devised principle of equality.11 Music borrows some of the successes achieved in the Greek columns in terms of devising methods of order and structure (whether this was deliberate or not, the similarities are nevertheless there). One of these is namely, the laws of symmetry and eurhythmy12 (deriving from Greek roots meaning beautiful or harmonious rhythm), except that music is not actualized in an external object and is the reason why it can only be expressed temporally.

Another medium with which music shares it temporal and structural characteristics, is poetry. Among the many distinctions between music and poetry, Hegel emphasizes on the most prominent distinction among them—beat. Poetry in relation to music is not constrained to the repetitive time measures, which for the most, are fixated in music.13 The rhythmical time-measure in poetry, does however introduce a form of accent and caesura (verse in Greek) which corresponds to what is recognized in music as the rhythmical beat. The manner in which long syllables become more accented and more important than the shorter ones, is an example of how language can form an intricate sonorous structure within a poetic work. This relation between poetry and music, is further unraveled when an accent is put on shorter syllables, which can emphasize them relative to the longer ones.14 This example in the structural and relational quality of poetry, highlights its similarities with musical structure, while also hinting on poetry’s immense dependance on the meticulously devised structure in music—and even perhaps—in architecture.

Further, in a poetic medium events become verses; uttered words are passed over as vowels and syllables—resembling that way in which bars and beats provide an organizational framework for notes. This is one of the forms of poetic expressions that Hegel refers to as rhythmic versification. It is a form of versification that gives a poetic work its metre, rhyme, and tempo—all which help the poetic work to expound an inner life within the structure of language. This reliance on language, resembles the structural objective foundations of music and the manner in which they unfold the subjectivity of a melody. This relation can be noted in particular among the sonorities of European languages, in which, vowels and syllables gain a function similar to how notes play a function in music. Hegel emphasizes that in Latin nations—particularly among the Spaniards, whose language has the necessary sonorous language fitted for the reassurance of vowels (a, e, i, o, u)—give a poetic work an additional leverage to its rhythmical qualities. It is this sonorous similarity that music shares with poetry: where vowels and syllables are subjected to the rules that are similar to the manner in which notes are subjected to various melodic rules—consisting of interplays, relations, and oppositions.

At the same time, Hegel makes an emphasis on the way sound is treated in music in relation to how sound is treated in poetry. In particular, Hegel mentions how in music, the sonorities of the human organ of speech are meticulously expounded; but not in poetry, where the organ of speech is used in a manner that is other than something musical—as a “mere token of word”—which acquires value only as something indicative, meaningless in itself.15 Although the vowels and syllables in poetry do consist of elaborated relations among their tones and accents, they are primarily adjusted for the translation of speech, which imposes limits on the extents to which the sonorities of an organ of speech can reach an idealized stage. Contrary to poetry, which treats sound as something subservient to speech; music takes sound as a separate independent medium—treating it as an inner world possessing a subjectivity.16

  1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, trans. by T.M Knox. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Vol 1 & 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), p.913. 

  2. Hegel, p. 892, top of page. 

  3. Hegel, p. 891. 

  4. Hegel, p. 938. 

  5. Hegel, p. 889. 

  6. Hegel, p. 890. 

  7. Hegel, p. 902 

  8. Hegel, p. 935 

  9. Hegel, p.904  2

  10. Hegel, p. 956. 

  11. Hegel, p. 915. 

  12. Hegel, p. 894. 

  13. Hegel, p. 1017 

  14. Hegel, p. 1018 

  15. Hegel, p.898. 

  16. Hegel, p.899.