“Music is what happens between the notes.”
–Claude Debussy, French Composer,
August 22, 1862 – March 25, 1918
It seems counter-intuitive. After all, isn’t music found in the notes? Isn’t this what musicians read and execute, producing the sound that we call music? On the surface, this certainly seems true.
But then I realize that when I listen to a beautiful piece of music—perhaps a symphony or choral anthem—I am indeed listening to what is happening between the notes. I hear music in the rests and fermatas as I anticipate what comes next. I find music in the “pregnant pause,” as I sit in suspense on the edge of my seat or simply rest in a quiet moment of reflection. I am moved by the sweet dissonance of a sustained chord that lingers between notes. Whether it’s the silence of a rest, the suspense of a pregnant pause, or the awe-filled tension of a sustained chord, there lies music.
David Kundtz in his book “Quiet Mind: One-Minute Retreats from a Busy World” says it well:
“What gives life to the music is the feeling…when one note is just finishing its last echoing vibrations, but before the next one takes up the progression. The feeling slips, quick as a wink, into the gap and brings soul and life to the music.” (p. 11)
And isn’t this concept an appropriate metaphor for other arts? Graphic designers employ white spaces to create a neater and more appealing page. Runners improve between runs, not during runs. Those who meditate discover its fruit later in the day, experiencing the benefits of peace, patience, love, and compassion. And doesn’t our creativity flourish when we’re in a place of rest and reflection, not when we’re trying to be creative? I believe so.
In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron reminds us that “creative living requires the luxury of time. Creative living requires the luxury of space for ourselves.” When I’ve been too busy, with little time to relax, I become like an arid desert—dry, drained, exhausted. Or when I’ve lacked adequate solitude, I discover that a kind of “inner clutter” takes over and limits my ability to think clearly and creatively. I accomplish little, if anything at all.
Cameron tells us that the restful moments of our lives are not wasted; they are essential. These are the times of meaning, hope, and creativity. These are the creative moments of music found between the notes of our busy lives.
(If you’d like, listen to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein):