Advice to Musicians from Martin Heidegger
They don't teach existentialist philosophy at music school, but if they did. . .
I sometimes feel the urge to apologize before publishing some of the postings here. That’s especially true when I address philosophical topics. It’s not just that web newsletters rarely deal with these kinds of subjects. But there’s also a legitimate suspicion that this kind of philosophical discussion does nothing and gets nowhere.
I recall the disappointment of my Oxford philosophy professor who was sitting on a train one day, and heard a husband sitting across from him make the following statement to his wife: “Dearie, just take the philosophical approach.”
My professor’s ears perked up—he was curious what a typical train traveler considered philosophical. The husband soon made that clear, spelling it out:
Dearie, just take the philosophical approach—don’t think about it.
My professor was ready to weep. The lessons of philosophy were, apparently, not to think about things. He had spent his whole life assuming the exact opposite.
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But I go against that perhaps useful advice from an unknown traveler in an antique land. I not only think about philosophical matters, but continue to believe that such inquiries sometimes can produce life-changing results.
Also, one of the main attractions of writing on the Substack platform is the freedom it gives me to address topics you won’t find in other media outlets. But those who are skeptical of philosophical inquiries can skip the rest of this article.
Because without further ado, I plan to discuss. . .
Advice to Musicians from Martin Heidegger
I’ve been studying German philosopher Martin Heidegger for decades. I even attended an academic Heidegger conference at one point, spending several days in eye-glazing confabulation with leading existentialists—not your typical recreation for a music writer. But there’s remarkable wisdom in his writing, although it comes at a cost.
That’s because Heidegger is a frustrating and difficult figure. His biography is a mess, filled with more than your typical dose of ugliness. We’re fortunate that few of his worst personal failings show up in the philosophical works published during his lifetime. But even those books can be maddeningly difficult to decipher.
I had a teacher once who mockingly summed up Heidegger’s philosophy in a three-word sentence (borrowed from a rough translation from one of his works): “The nothing noths.”
I know what you’re thinking. Noth is not a legit verb. But if you have scruples like that, it’s best not to open a page of Being and Time, or any of Heidegger’s other books.
They’re written with a prose style unlike anything you’ve ever encountered elsewhere, and at first Heidegger’s use of language seems very loose and quasi-poetic—and always almost impenetrable. But he actually conveys very precise and often inspiring concepts, only the burden is on the reader to grasp the arcane terminology and the complex course of the argument.
Perhaps the biggest frustration is how reluctant Heidegger is to offer clear guidance that you might apply in your day-to-day life. Perhaps that was part of his existentialist orientation, namely he wanted to emphasize the uncertainty and anxiety of the human condition, not provide glib answers. Even so, after you’ve traveled so far with him in the human psyche, you crave a few words of practical advice.
So you can imagine my amazement when I recently encountered a passage in Heidegger that seemed to promise a solution to the biggest issue of them all—how to live a valid life in the midst of a grasping, technology-driven society. And even more remarkable his solution was focused on music.
Not only was he giving advice to musicians, but he clearly saw this as extremely important information. And it’s not something taught at Berklee or Juilliard.
First some background: When you read Heidegger’s dark predictions about technology, you realize how relevant his thinking is to our current predicament. Heidegger died in 1976, back in an analog age. He had no idea of the Internet or Facebook or virtual reality headsets or online surveillance in the home. But he warned repeatedly about the destructive impact technology was having, not just on our world but even on our inner lives.
When you literally live immersed in technological tools, you start viewing everything in a brutal, results-oriented way. Your mind, capable of so much nuance, becomes a kind of algorithm itself. This is because technology manipulates things. It imposes our desires on reality. Everything is forced to adapt to our purposes and goals—and they are usually the most crass, opportunistic aims.
In fact, the single biggest goal of new technology is to make money. We’ve all seen that firsthand with the rapid evolution of the Worldwide Web from a free-flowing community constructed by nerds and eccentrics in their spare time to profit-making engines for the largest corporations in the history of the world. If you didn’t see it happen in real time, you could hardly imagine the speed and relentless intensity with which the transformation happened. An open community built on trust and gratuitous actions quickly grew up to be a cohesively integrated system of command-and-control money-making fiefdoms.
Heidegger would probably say that any technological orientation, at its very roots, has this tendency to dominate. That was always implied, even going back to the invention of the wheel, but it gets worse as the tech advances. The very people who pursue this path of progress, in hopes of liberation and personal growth, get dominated by the Frankenstein monster they create. First, you invent the wheel, and soon you’re caught behind the wheel of your car in the hellish daily commute.
The curse isn’t even the technologies themselves, Heidegger would have cautioned—no, not the robots and algorithms and machines—but the grasping, utilitarian attitude that views everything as mere grist for the mill, as content (oh, how the web bosses love that word) to be put to use.
How do you escape this?
Heidegger is elusive on that matter. But in a little-known essay on the poet Rilke he is forced to say something more specific. He loves this poet, and has to explain what Rilke means when he promises how we can become
adventurous, more sometimes than Life is, more daring by a breath. . . There, outside all caring, this creates for us a safety—just there
Heidegger quotes this passage repeatedly, puzzling over how an individual can reach this extraordinary vantage point, above the grasping and manipulating attitudes of our times. This is, after all, not much different than the key puzzle Marx tried to unlock—but Marx thought a whole revolution was necessary to achieve it.
Now Heidegger shocks us by saying, we don't’ need a revolution. We just need a song.
Yes, simply a song.
This is one of the most surprising passages in all of Heidegger’s work:
“The more venturesome are those who say in a greater degree, in the manner of the singer. Their singing is turned away from all purposeful self-assertion. It is not a willing in the sense of desire. Their song does not solicit anything to be produced. In the song, the world's inner space concedes space within itself. The song of these singers is neither solicitation nor trade.”
Drawing on Rilke, he calls those rare singers “the most venturesome”—namely those who are able to rise above this terrible utilitarian reductionism that destroys both our world and our inner lives. They find their way out through song.
This isn’t mere grandstanding. Heidegger is absolutely correct—even language has been corrupted by the prevailing mindset. Most of what we say aims to get things done, to convince people, to get our way, to change things to suit our needs. For that reason, any path out of this mess requires, first and foremost, a way of expression that isn’t just proposing and arguing.
And that’s exactly what a song does.
It’s no coincidence that this last final rise to dominance of technology has been accompanied by a collapse in language. Heidegger would have told us to expect this. Words no longer aim at expressing truth. They also get degraded into mere tools to accomplish goals. Sometimes ugly goals.
We all see this every day. The professions that use words the most often are the ones least trusted—politicians, journalists, lawyers, corporate spokespersons, etc. At no point in the history of democratic society, has the mastery of language been treated with more suspicion.
The song is more powerful than language because it operates outside of the expectations of brutal functionalism and manipulation of the world. It is the purest use of the human breath. It’s almost a miracle that we still have access to such a unblemished form of expression.
Consider for a moment how extraordinary Heidegger’s claim is. Other thinkers have been obsessed with music—and have been for more than 2,500 years. But who else has made this amazing proclamation, namely that music is our most powerful response to the dangers of technology.
Now what does this mean for musicians?
Such a grand view of the role of music puts a heavy burden on the musicians themselves. After all, they are supposed to provide the model of a way of living that rises above the grasping and manipulating that dominates every other sphere of human existence.
It’s easy to mock this elevated view of music. But do we really want to do that? I know for a fact that musicians feel, almost instinctively at times, that they are somehow at odds with the technocrats and web overseers who seem to control everything (and especially the ways music is consumed in society today). They feel that they must adapt to these larger forces, but something about it doesn’t feel right.
Heidegger helps articulate the reasons for that. And also forces us to consider the dangers when musicians develop too comfortable and close of a relationship with the utilitarian masters of technology, politics, and commerce.
When I first started getting gigs as a jazz bandleader, I often hired older musicians. (Full disclosure: At that young age, I considered any musician over the age of forty to be old.) They were from a different generation from me, but they had been able to see the masters of swing and bebop in the flesh, and would clearly have wisdom to impart to me.
And many of them did. I learned a lot from those old (or middle-aged) pros.
But some of them were depressing to be around, because they were burnt-out from the struggles and low rewards of their music careers. This was a shock to me. I was young and full of fire and enthusiasm for jazz. Every gig seemed like a gateway into transcendence. I didn’t even know it was possible to play jazz without any enthusiasm, just for the money.
Because that’s absurd, no?
Nobody goes into jazz for the money, because there isn’t any. What an awful place to end up in this crazy world, playing the most beautiful music in the world without intrinsic enjoyment of the process. If you go down that path, songs are no different than widgets produced on the factory line—even the sax or trumpet become nothing more than profit-making technologies. Ouch!
I thought about those people when I read Heidegger’s description of musicians as the more venturesome ones. Their work is “neither solicitation nor trade.”
That doesn’t mean that musicians have to be happy all the time, or quiet about the practical problems of the world as large. In fact, the opposite is the case. The mere playing of your instrument with pure intent is a powerful statement on its own.
If you, as a creative person, feel some friction and separation from the technological ‘utopia’ surrounding us, that’s a good thing. And maybe you’re doing even more with your music. If you participate in more cooperative and communal ways of sharing music, you may feel that it’s just a drop in the ocean compared with the power of the web platforms, but you are making the right decisions, and setting the right example for others.
And it can have an impact. If I had time and space I could give hundreds of examples of music changing the world—but it almost always happens indirectly. I often describe songs as catalysts, and I like that word, because the catalyst itself is unchanged, even while casting a spell of transformation around it.
Let me address one last controversy here. What I’m saying (drawing again from Heidegger) is that musicians are a kind of role model. In his schema, the pure singer is the greatest role model of them all. And I know that many of us bristle at any suggestion that musicians should bear that kind of responsibility, taking on a serious ethical role in society.
You may recall Charles Barkley’s famous rant: “I am not a role model.” He was talking about athletes, but musicians may actually have even more influence as role models in society. And many of us are just as unhappy about this as Barkley.
But the reality is that musicians are role models, no matter what we say to the contrary. And that was true back in Heidegger’s day, and long before.
Just look at Instagram or TikTok or other social media platforms, and see how influential musicians are. They even get called ‘influencers’ nowadays. It’s pointless to argue against this, because musicians have been playing this role for at least 250 years, if not longer.
The more promising approach isn’t to dismiss the role musicians play as influencers, but take it seriously—very seriously. With almost deadly seriousness. Not because musicians are better than other people—oh, lordy, they aren’t at all—but because their vocation puts them in direct touch with one of the last pure, disinterested things in culture.
Music could lose that quality. Powerful forces have been working to do that for decades, and intensifying their assault in recent years. They would like to turn songs into cogs that spin the wheels of technocracy and commerce. The most valuable thing the music community could do, in the face of such pressures, is to set up a counter-movement asserting the exact opposite.
Under that scenario, music would celebrate the last disinterested gesture. It responds to manipulation with a kind of artistic altruism. In a world driven by extrinsic goals, it is the last holdout of the intrinsic pursuit. It is (in the lovely words of saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk) a “duty-free gift for the traveler.” And aren’t we all travelers?
Or, as I prefer to put it: Music is the anti-algorithm. That’s something we don’t want to lose. And if we hold on to that vision with spirit and dedication, others might follow in our steps.