That question just dropped into my head one morning, probably when I was in the shower or doing something else mundane. I thought, if Beethoven or the Beatles were truly timeless, wouldn’t they be playing on top 40 radio right now? Wouldn’t they continue to be popular on the most contemporary of radio stations, rather than languish in the playlists of a classical or oldies station? And while we do have Spotify and Pandora and others of their ilk on the Internet giving us whatever we want right now, no one is calling Beethoven or the Beatles significant to the present in the sense that Bruno Mars is right now.
Beethoven symphonies are a product of their time – the first half of the 1800’s. That’s when you had violins, pianofortes and unamplified singing. They can’t sound like anything else, if done according to the book. Beethoven’s music was about his present moment, a comment on his present time. Even themes that HE considered “timeless” were planted firmly in time by the available instruments and conventions. Same with the Beatles – the revolutionary Sergeant Pepper’s album was recorded with stuff that was immediately available to those artists in their time. They recorded in MONO, for cripe’s sake! Yes, the band liked to break boundaries with their sound, but it was also a time for breaking boundaries.
Then how do music lovers turn around and say that Beethoven’s 9th or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are “timeless,” that these pieces continue to have relevance wherever they exist in time?
I think a better question is: What do we mean when we say a piece of music is timeless?
I don’t think we mean that it’s divorced from history. No music is. What we describe as “timeless” in music refers to something else entirely, a different kind of time.
I’m talking about the time that is eternity.
Now, I don’t mean endless time, more time like this. I mean a time outside of time. I’m talking about moments that make you forget that you’re existing in time, in linear history, something that pitches you OUT of this reality and into a state where time stands still and doesn’t seem to have any movement or relevance.
Music is the art of sound in time. But it is the art of sound in “clock time,” as Eckhart Tolle calls it – linear time, as you watch the progress bar on the screen. Eternity, by contrast, is the eternal NOW – the transcendence of linear time. This is what we experience in music that is “timeless” – we get that taste of eternity in the midst of an aesthetic seizure of sound.
Well, how the hell does good music do that? The answer to that question is the Holy Grail of musicologists, those who take the sounds and symbols of music and try to translate them into verbal language to get at the inner workings of it. I’ve done my share of that deep analysis when I was in school, and there’s a lot to enjoy and discover about it. But you can either study it or experience it – just sit and listen, or dance to it, or massage it into yourself by hitting the repeat button and drift out of clock time entirely.
Or maybe the secret is that you drift into it –music is a play of vibrations, one against another, the sacred dance of movement and stasis, friction and flow. Tick-tock. It’s the march of linear time itself. And the most arresting music could be the stuff that gets you so present to it – I am here now, and nowhere else – that the moment itself disappears.
That’s what I think is at the heart of debates about the “timelessness” of this music or that music. It’s not about what music will still be relevant to us in terms of linear history and historical context; rather, it’s about what music gives us that glimpse beyond time, into eternity. And it’s all different to different people, which doesn’t really answer the question, of course. Or, at least it’s my answer; maybe yours is different?