When we descry the liminal space between music and words, we find ourselves observing the brackish waters of gutturals. The groans and utterances that words can’t express come bubbling to the surface of the crucible of our emotional life in piquant vowels that communicate more recklessly and extravagantly than propositional content. Here among the banshee wails, we catch a glimpse of the revolution that happened early in the 19th century.

Music had always been a part of human culture, but compared with words, it seemed a little amorphous and vague. It was “content-less.” If you wanted to describe something exactly, you needed to use words because music’s gossamer and ephemeral nature was too dreamy to do the job. In some ways, this has to be write. Until we get some kind of universal system like Hesse imagined in The Glass Bead Game, we aren’t really going to have someone responding to an Op Ed in the Times with a Bach Fugue subject.

The ancient Greek philosophers made a distinction between different types of knowledge. They used episteme to describe propositional knowledge and gnosis for an actually deeper kind of experiential knowledge. Sexual knowledge and religious knowledge are classic instantiations of the divide. Reading books and having knowledge about something is different than doing it.

Sometime in the early 19th century, a new thought began to emerge. What if all this was backward? What if music wasn’t a blunt tool? What if, like our moans and groans, the sounds we organize are an incredibly accurate and specific tool? What if words were the things that were too dull to etch a relief of our interior lives?

I came across a lovely passage this week from the Russian theosophist Vyacheslav Ivanov describing Scriabin’s music that perfectly epitomizes this sea change. Of course, Ivanov was writing long after the revolution had happened, but it’s a great example anyway. He writes:

“Where we [poets] monotonously blab the meager word ‘sadness,’ music overflows with thousands of particular shades of sadness, each so ineffably novel that no two of them can be called the same feeling.” Music gives us gnosis where words are simply dancing around with epistemai. And in some ways, we may already be playing a kind of “Glass Bead Game” already. Some of us are replying to those Op Eds with Bach Fugue themes, we just haven’t figured out a way to translate it yet.