When describing how music is composed, the lines blur between what is quantifiable, and what is ethereal. As with most creative professions, the characteristics of music composition are limited to a point. Personal preference and subjectivity come into play. Our interpretation of sound plays a great part in how we feel about it.
Michael Whalen, Emmy Award-winning composer, embraces this enigmatic part of the craft. “I like to explore the unconscious part of it,” he says, “the idea that you’re listening to a piece of music, and it’s affecting you in ways that you are not immediately conscious of. I get e-mails and letters from people all the time saying, ‘We were listening to one of your albums when my mother died, and I really had the experience that she was walking into heaven.’ They go into these long, detailed messages about what the music meant to them and what was made available to them emotionally because the music almost gave them permission to feel something.”
Despite the best efforts to curate a sound, the act of listening — the participatory operation that involves the listener absorbing the notes, classifying them according to the new and familiar — is all through the prism of experience.
Take the concept in music known as color. Whelan describes how the act of classifying music is dependent on what the participating listener brings into the act of listening. “What I think of as ‘blue’ music — that sort of cliché of it’s that bluesy, jazzy, whatever, whatever — that may not be blue to you. Your blue and my blue are not the same. All of asudden, there is no truth to what the color of music is. So there is no blue,” Michael says, “it’s blue, therefore you have to live in a world that is blue music. That’s part of what music is, is that I create the music, and then however that music occurs for you, is that truth for you.”