Music and Time’s Passing


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. Their 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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10 thoughts on “Music and Time’s Passing

  1. I try harder to think better; doing the best I can with what I have and know. The physicist’s account(s) of time have little relevance to or meaning for me. As you astutely put it, lack of education in that area limits understanding. Knowing there is a space-time continuum does not assist me in thinking about those things which interest me most and about which I have something to say. Hasn’t so far, anyway. Have I made the BEST use of my time? I really can’t answer that. And don’t know if anyone else can either. We have to use our own best judgment.

  2. Certainly the human experience of time is a complex and mysterious one. I was trained as a physicist, so for most of my life I have had a clear notion of what I’ll call “physical time” (to differentiate it from “experienced time”). I’ll note, however, that there are only two laws of physics that provide us with an “arrow of time” — that is, they are unidirectional. All the other laws of physics work equally well going backwards or forwards in time. Those two laws are, in my heretical view, really expressions of the same concept. The first of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is really just a codified empirical observation that isolated systems never experience reductions in entropy.

    The other law — which, again, in my heretical opinion — is the Uncertainty Principle and is the fundamental basis for the direction of time. The Uncertainty Principle is the foundation of quantum mechanics, yet is has been shouldered aside by Schroedinger’s Equation, because the latter is mathematically useful and has been used to solve all sorts of physics problems, whereas the former is mathematically useless. Yet the Uncertainty Principle is profoundly important, because it is the only law of physics that clearly shows that the total stock of information in the universe must needs decline with the passage of time. And it is this broad decline in the stock of information that informs us as to the passage of time.

    I’ll add that some physicists have been nibbling away at this concept for the last few decades, and indeed some of the bolder physicists have really run with the idea.

  3. The “best use of our time,” what a good question. But thinking about it causes me some anxiety. Surely I don’t always have to make the best use of my time. Maybe I just want to relax and watch a movie or take a walk. But then maybe that’s a good use of one’s time.

  4. when I first encountered the uncertainty principle I thought “bummer, we can’t know everything.” Later I thought “but maybe by undermining determinism it provides room for free will.” But later still I found out that didn’t really work so I was back to “we just can’t know everything.” Throw in Godel’s incompleteness theorem and you really end up a skeptic.

  5. Time truly seems to be the biggest paradoxes of all. On one hand I know it doesn’t really exists: I believe it’s a limitation of our minds, i.e. we understand the world around us only in patterns. We cannot understand what is formless. This idea came to me by reading an essay on music by Arnold Schoenberg, whose music I don’t like and/or understand (almost no one does, either, not even the most famous composers who were even his friends). The “pattern theory” is his idea, not mine, but I have a hunch that he got the idea from some German philosopher.

    Anyways, when you add to the above mentioned need for us to break down what is formless into hours, days, etc, the process of aging, as you mentioned before, then it becomes “time”. We see the effects of it: the dust that again settles on the furniture, no matter how many times you dust off the place (I don’t even bother anymore), etc…

    I remain confused, yet I have this strange certainty that everything has a beginning and an end. This too is contained in my idea of “time”, along with my reminiscing of childhood happiness.

    It seems as if the more I stick my head into all this, the more puzzled I get.

    In regard to “Sunrise, Sunset”….what a coincidence, I did not know (or remember, for I must have seen the play as a child) the song, but I spent several hours a few weeks ago on it at the piano as I was playing from an old songbook. The music and the lyrics opened an entire world for me.

    Sorry about my ramblings, and thank you for reading!

    Kind regards,

  6. i always enjoy reading your comments Luigi. And what a poignant song Sunrise/Sunset is.

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