Music About the Passage of Time


There’s hardly a more perplexing topic than time. I had a graduate seminar called “Concepts of Time” almost 30 years ago where I did learn, among other things, the difference between the A and B series  and other technical issues in the philosophy of time. Yet I still have no idea what time is or whether time is even real. (A view shared by a few physicists.)  St. Augustine famously said: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Later, in Chapter XII of his Confessions, he responded to the question “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” with the answer, “He was preparing hell … for those who pry into mysteries.” He apparently meant this facetiously. To make matters worse modern physics uses mathematical models to combine space and time into a single continuum called spacetime.

But I’m less concerned with these abstract questions, and lack the training necessary to say something intelligent about them anyway. Instead I’m struck by the phenomenology of the consciousness of time’s passing, a fancy philosophical way of talking about the conscious experience of the movement of time, and also the experience of aging in general. Consider how some popular music, for example, has captured the passage of time. 


The American singer-songwriter Five for Fighting (Vladimir John Ondrasik III) captures this by focusing on different periods in our lives and our experiences of them in his song “100 years.” Here the focus is on the fleetingness of time:

The American singer-songwriter Anna Nalick wrote these lines about our inability to transcend, stop, or rewind the flow of time in her song “Breathe (2 AM).”

But you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable,
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button now …

And the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” from the classic play “Fiddler on the Roof, ” beautifully captures time’s passing. Here we have parents reflecting on how fast their children have grown and, at the same time, how fast they must have aged too. Here the attitude toward the passage of time is at once wistful and melancholy

No doubt there are countless other songs that explore similar themes, but this sampling suggests there is something universal about this experience of time’s passage that evokes strong emotions. It is no wonder that religions have tapped into this by marking life’s salient moments like birth, marriage, and death.

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