The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on October 9th, 2014

I received an intriguing note from a student in one of my music classes today and thought I'd share my response.

Hi professor,

Since I am working on an honors project which is about the beauty of physical laws in nature, I also would like to know other different types of beauty besides science. I think the biggest motivation for scientists to do scientific research is the elegance of nature. I believe so do musicians. So I just wonder what the beauty of music is in your mind, or in other words why do people think music is beautiful and powerful? 

 Thank you:) 


Hi Stephan,

 Yes, I have heard these kinds of statements before when it comes to the arts, including music. My understanding of the scientific approach to beauty is that while it may include some appreciation for the innate aesthetic value of a subject, the concept of “elegance” is primarily based more on a keen appreciation for the amazing patterns, interrelationships, and apparent order that exist in nature. While all of this can produce feelings of awe and amazement, the experience is basically an intellectual one. The intellect perceives order (sometimes accompanied by aesthetic pleasure) and is gratified by the experience.

 In the arts, on the other hand, while the pleasure one takes in the perception of form and design definitely play a part in an artistic experience, the real core of their appreciation lies in the communication and experience of emotions and feelings. That is primarily what the arts are all about at their best. Simply put, an artist’s chief objective is to capture emotion, mood, feeling, atmosphere, etc., in such a way that it communicates clearly to an observer or, in the case of music, a listener. An individual encountering a work of art is challenged by the work to try and receive whatever the artist has tried to capture in the work, and he does this by referencing his own experiences in the realm of feelings, moods, etc. Finding his inner world reflected in a work of art is greatly satisfying --- sometimes profoundly. Yes, there is intellectual pleasure in the perception of design elegance in the arts, but the essence of the greatest artistic experiences is fundamentally not intellectual, but emotional. The experience of “beauty” in the arts is probably impossible to explain, although many have tried, because it transcends the intellect. It goes deeper into our souls, into terrain where words fail us and the only currency is feelings. Why is a certain phrase of music, or painting, or statue, or play, or novel beautiful to us? Because it speaks deeply to us in some way and mysteriously moves us by its expressive content.

 I am reminded of the attempt on the part of many people to correlate music and math. The assertion is usually made that they have a lot in common. Well, no they don’t. While there are mathematical elements in music, they are very basic and have little to do with the true purpose of the art --- expression. Math can never be expressive in the same way, it can only quantify and explain. Math turns back helplessly at the portals of emotion, mood and feeling.


Robert Millar

Posted in GENERAL ARTS    Tagged with music, math, science, arts, beauty, expression


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