As you amble down the river Seine in Paris, a continuous strand of street merchants and vendors forms a facade along the way. You see refurbished books, freshly printed magazines, and enough greeting cards to say “happy birthday” and “get well soon” to each of your relatives and friends for years to come. Sounds come of rushing cars and beeping bicycles, quickly exchanged bonjours and au revoirs, and the cool breeze wafting over the Seine below. Wondering what you will eat for lunch, you begin to look around for a café.
And then you hear it. Cutting through all the noise of the busy street, it comes to you. The melody of a long forgotten song. You stop in your tracks, and everything slows down around you. The simple but elegant theme is agonizingly beautiful. A thousand memories begin to arise, flooding over you. You remember your mother’s music box and the charming little melody it would chime out whenever you would open it as a child. You hear the same melody now, so many years later, playing on the radio. It warms your heart yet bringing with it a tinge of sadness for a time gone by. Your eyes start to blur slightly with tears. You are full of gratitude for that time in your childhood and for your parents. Blinking the tears away, you look off into the distance for a moment and continue your stroll down the street, a bittersweet smile forming on your lips.
In the opening chapter of his Aesthetics, Dietrich von Hildebrand touches upon the subject of music and memory. Why do we tend to associate melodies with certain places we have visited or times in our life? Why do certain memories of beauty remain so imprinted in our heart? How does beauty relate to memory? These are just some of the questions sparked in this first chapter on the topic of memory. Though Hildebrand focuses on the objectivity of beauty and its distinction from associated memories, his analysis offers a chance to explore the rich interconnections to be found here.
Consider another example. An iconic song from an earlier decade begins to play on the radio. Countless memories are elicited from that time in your life, whether it be your childhood, adolescence, or young adult life. The song acts as a musical trigger, bringing you back to a time when you heard this song so often. Not only does it cause you to remember the song, it evokes the whole ‘atmosphere’ of that moment. You might even begin to remember a particular day on which you heard it: the weather, who was present, and how you were feeling. “When we hear [the melody] at a later date, it transposes us in an intensive manner back into that period and evokes in us a specific kind of presence of what we experienced then.” (1) For some unbeknownst reason, listening to music is one of those experiences, alongside smelling aromas and relishing tastes, that grants an extensive access to memory.
One explanation for the connection between music and memory is association. We tend to associate particular events in our life with the music we heard during those events. If one always hears the lighthearted sound of a stadium organ at baseball games, the melodies played will most likely elicit favorite memories from watching the game. Or perhaps having heard a certain kind of harmony in movies whenever things got sad, one identifies it as “sad music.” Association has the potential to invest such melodies with a greater significance and meaning than they would have had otherwise.
Undoubtedly, there is a wealth of experience to encounter in remembering beautiful music. However, it is highly interesting to note Hildebrand’s pivotal distinction between the intense subjective experience of beauty and the objective existence of beauty. While the observer plays a central role in the aesthetic experience, beauty has an objective existence that transcends the observer. Even if no one ever recognized the beauty of some work of art, it would still have the capacity to delight an observer. Beauty constitutes a distinct value. Apart from any consideration of how useful or pleasurable it is to listen to music or look upon a painting, one can recognize that certain works of art convey magnificent beauty of the highest quality. This beauty has an importance of its own. It is this objective beauty that the subject encounters.
Thus, Hildebrand poses the fascinating question: "What kind of contact takes place between the objective and the subjective when we enjoy the beauty of a landscape or of a piece of music?" (2) It is this line of thinking which brought him to consider the impact that music and other forms of art have on memory. Originally, the full importance and worth of this work of art impressed itself upon our consciousness. Now in the remembrance of the work, all of the meaning invested in this beauty comes to bear once again.
Works of art or scenes in nature that are surpassingly beautiful impress themselves upon our memories like no others. It is precisely those objects which have the greatest beauty that affect us the most deeply, if only we be open to them. Yet it seems even the simple beauty of a melody in a music box has the power to summon us to dwell on the beauty of our most beloved relatives and friends. May we open ourselves to experience such beauty which speaks so profoundly to our heart. ----------
1. Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics Vol. 1 (Forthcoming publication of the Hildebrand Project) pg 28. 2. Ibid., pg 31.
Image 1: A Paris Street Scene, Eugene Gallen-Laloue (1854-1941), 1941. (source)
Image 2: The Power of Music, Leon Noel (1807-1884), 1848. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (source)