Music is a "time art" like theater and dance. But while those involve bodies, sets, costumes and props in space, all music really involves is time: vibrations in time. A musical note or pitch is nothing but a certain frequency of vibration brought to us by compression waves in the air. The tuning note "A" vibrates at 440 times per second. Melody is nothing but an organized sequence of pitches. Harmony is nothing but groups of notes heard together. Rhythm, again, is nothing but attacks heard in time. So music, all of music, is really just time heard in various ways.
This is exactly why it is so mysterious. It is easy to look at a theater set or a photo or video of dancers and get a sense of what is going on. But to see what is going on in music you have to look at a score:
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Only someone with musical training can figure out what is going on there. But it is all about time. That is a brief section from this piece, Eight Lines by Steve Reich:
Obviously, at least at the beginning, there are two things going on: the quick arpeggiation in G# minor in 5/4 divided 3+2 and the long, sustained notes in the violin. The clarinets add another rhythmic pattern and after a couple of minutes a melody appears in the flute:
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It is all about time. Reich underlines for us the essentially temporal nature of music by taking away pretty well everything else. Most of his music has very little in the way of melody or harmony, which leaves rhythm.
Music is time, but time is a pretty mysterious thing. Aristotle is supposed to have said that "Time is the most unknown of all unknown things." And in Book XI of the Confessions of St. Augustine he says:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not: yet I say boldly that I know, that if nothing passed away, time past were not; and if nothing were coming, a time to come were not; and if nothing were, time present were not. Those two times then, past and to come, how are they, seeing the past now is not, and that to come is not yet? But the present, should it always be present, and never pass into time past, verily it should not be time, but eternity. If time present (if it is to be time) only cometh into existence, because it passeth into time past, how can we say that either this is, whose cause of being is, that it shall not be; so, namely, that we cannot truly say that time is, but because it is tending not to be?Uh-huh. Which reminds me of a different passage in the same book where Augustine answers those who ask what the Lord was doing before he created heaven and earth by suggesting that he was preparing a hell for those who pry into mysteries!
I suppose that what we almost seem to sense in the music of Steve Reich is this eternal present. His pieces do not really seem to begin and end, they seem to always just be there, swirling in the moment.
Here is Music for a Large Ensemble by Steve Reich: