Music Lessons Themes
by Mary Oliver

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Music Lessons Themes

(Poetry for Students)

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Creativity and Imagination
Several layers of creativity and imagination are at work in "Music Lessons": the composer having created a musical composition out of his/her imagination; the pianist recreating the score in her imagination and on the keyboard; and the listener processing the music in her imagination to create a poem that readers imagine, and may one day play a part in reimagining and creating a further object of attention. The playing of a piece of music inspires in the student an image of rockclimbing, and the metronome provokes her to imagine death. Other things inspire their opposite in a kind of counterpoint: inside inspires imaginings of outside, relative inactivity of the lower torso inspires imaginings of intense physical activity of the same area, culture (music) inspires an image in nature, constant motion of the metronome inspires the stillness of death. And this is just the point of the poem: that the playing of music allows one to transcend one's circumstances, to flee to, in many cases, to what seems farthest, most opposite. The imagination is under no commandment to compromise its desire, can travel as far as it wants to get what it needs to soothe lived experience. The teacher uses the piano, a time machine, to do her travelling, to leave her domestic circumstances and duties, even leave the confines of her own body so she can escape death. But while the teacher is able to escape her circumstances, empty out her existence in a kind of heavenly death that is the furthest state away from morbidity, the student cannot forget (that incessant metronome!) what music is: a stalling, a delay, a detour along the way to a death whose time it tries to delay with imagination and creativity.

A metronome is a time machine, a serious time machine unlike the more playful time machine, the piano. A metronome can be adjusted to go faster or slower; it cannot be played; it either works or it does not. While the piano transports teacher and student to another place and another time—a time devoid of responsibility and duty, a time devoid of time—the metronome brings the student back to the teacher's insular home, to a reminder of time passing (already indicated with family photos and knickknacks), of time, like a shadow at the end of day, lengthening behind and shortening ahead. The metronome is a pendulum without a clock. A clock can be a kind of taskmaster keeping one from thinking of death because of its marking of appointments and opportunities. The metronome, however, is a more severe taskmaster than the clock, for no matter how one tries to play with or around the time of the metronome one inevitably returns to it, the mind numbing, tick-tocking of time passing. In a musical piece played on the piano one knows or can find out where one is either in the piece or on the piano. But with the metronome one might as well be here as there. Finally, while piano and composition allow one to know where one is, the effect can be a feeling of timelessness in the best sense of the word: time without concern. But the metronome produces no sense of timelessness, only incessant and eternal monotony, marking time without reason, here (tick) and there (tock) as different places without difference.

Both piano and metronome mark time but only the piano yields timelessness: the piano produces the timelessness of a pleasurable, transcendent state of death while the metronome produces never-ending time in a miserable and mired state of hellish death. This may be the reason for Oliver's, or if you must, the student's association of the metronome with death, and the piano with vigorous activity allowing one to forget time. The metronome is a kind of upside down or standing pendulum, a pendulum that might remind one of Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), where the pendulum is fitted with a blade like Oliver's "knife at the throat." Or the metronome might remind one of a pendulum inverted so as to give primacy to the constant beating of time. The metronome, then, is both a symbol of terror and eternal boredom. But one might conclude—as does Oliver—that the metronome is as necessary an evil for the joys of music-making as death is necessary to produce and maintain life. Music reminds us of time, time reminds us of life and death, and life and death provoke many of us to seek transcendence from time through a medium such as music— founded, paradoxically, on time. If the paradox works, it is because people usually find in music a greater amount of life than death.