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Music and the Ineffable: A Conversation with McKnight Presidential Fellow Michael Gallope

May 2, 2019

Portrait of Mike Gallope.

Portrait of Mike Gallope.
Photo by Phuong Tran, CLAgency student

When we imagine a deep, meditative experience, where does it occur? In a peaceful forest? In an armchair at the library?

How about at 2:35 am at a rave?

The experience of listening and relating to music may have deeper and more complex meanings than we had thought. Michael Gallope, director of undergraduate studies and a professor in the Department of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature, researches how music grants us access to seemingly incomprehensible questions and philosophies. Gallope’s work has been remarkably influential on developing a new relationship between music and philosophy, giving him the respect of his colleagues across the country and leading to him being named a McKnight Presidential Fellow.

A Musical Exposure to Philosophy

Gallope’s interest in the topic began near the end of his undergraduate career. “I studied music in the context of a traditional conservatory, but I think what inspired me the most were the theories and philosophies I read in my liberal arts courses.” The undergrad had stumbled on the essays of Theodor Adorno and later an independent study with a professor sparked his interest in philosophy. He credits this as the kick that motivated him to pursue a career in academia.

“I always loved music, but I realized that there was this whole world of ideas and debates about the meaning and significance of music that sent my mind spinning in other directions” he explains.

His relationship with music is hardly restricted to theories and philosophies. Gallope plays in bands and fans occasionally approach him about his work. You might expect this overlap to be present in all of his academic life, but he says the two worlds have been kept largely separate. “When I play… it's another universe of trial and error and collaboration,” Gallope says. “The only goal is to create something that elicits fascination and magnetism. You can't think your way into that position. You just have to do it.”

Relating to Music

Many of us have experienced something profound and magnetic like this when listening to music. Whether it be to a track of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or at a late night punk rock show, the cause of this moment is a mystery. Gallope’s first book, Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable, invites philosophers to question what a musical experience truly is and how we can use it to explore other ideas. 

Some of the confusion comes from a misunderstanding of what music is. “Rather than being a kind of hermetically sealed, enclosed, abstract structure, music is, from another perspective, a very unstable experience and kind of perplexing,” Gallope says. “Its ineffability doesn’t prohibit one from speaking about it—it actually allows you to speak about it endlessly.”

The ineffability of music is precisely what allows it to inspire such powerful experiences and inform the listener of other complex problems. Adorno compares this quality of music to the ineffability of a perfectly just society. Of course, it may seem impossible to conceive of a legitimate utopia or develop a blueprint for a just society. But because music does not signify anything in particular, for Adorno, it has a unique way of helping us wrestle with the impossible. Trying to articulate utopian ideals within the framework of rigid propositions misses the point.

Consider sexuality and how it relates to a just society. Since the 1970s, electronic dance music has been a place for people to experiment with sexuality. That said, dance music does not explain what a social utopia would actually be, one that’s totally just in its treatment of sexuality. Instead, the music has a way of giving marginalized or subjugated people hope. We can’t exactly describe how, but it breaks open rigid social rules and grants access to a sexual freedom that we might not open with language. Although we can intuitively relate to this idea of a utopia, we have no reason to believe this experience can be broken down into propositions or described in ordinary language. It may not explain to us exactly how to assemble society in such a way, but somehow, we are still influenced by the impact of the music.

This ineffability is both exciting and puzzling, and it allows us to use music to relate to other difficult concepts. “It's a meditation,” Gallope remarks. “One that will resist intellectual understanding.”

This meditation can make listening to music an almost shocking experience. Intuitively, we can say that music makes us feel something special, whether that is shock or emotion, but breaking it down and explaining it with the usual tools of language and reason proves to be extremely difficult. That in mind, Gallope argues these difficult problems are still philosophically productive and incredibly fascinating.

However spectacular the task of explaining such a musical experience may be, there’s something beautiful in its inaccessibility. “You're not going to be able to take it and fully translate it into language. People will always be trying to get you to collide with it and to think about it, but it’s not going to get there. Language structures our capacities to think, but music is doing things language itself cannot do.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLAgency. Meet the team.