Music and the Suspension of Disbelief

The suspension of disbelief is the linchpin of a fictional narrative’s success; without it, a great deal of film and literature would be unrelatable and thus ineffective. The essential idea is that the audience must temporarily accept fiction as reality to connect with the art.

Though the concept is most frequently discussed in terms of film and literature, we actively engage in suspending our disbelief when listening to music. In doing so, we are able to heighten our experience and truly engage with an artist’s work.

The application of suspended disbelief to music enables us to expand our perspective and further connect with the music, providing us with the opportunity to improve our worldly understanding.
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Intentions of Listening to Music

What is the purpose of music? How do we interact with music?

These are questions Aristotle alludes to in his book Politics. He contemplates the nature of music in relation to its role in education. He theorizes potential uses of music such as relaxation, habituating pleasure, or mental cultivation.

Aristotle attempts to answer the role of music in education; however, his search leads to the question of our intentions in listening to music.

To say that music is solely a leisure activity is an oversight. On the flip side, defining music as an activity primarily concerned with intellectual stimulation is an overstatement. Our intent behind listening to music generally falls into some combination of the two.

We’ll examine two potential intentions behind experiencing music:

Leisure and Exploration.
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Leisure is somewhat of an escape; an activity focused on the enjoyment of pleasure, the retreat to comfort, and the idea of immediate gratification.

Exploration is more of a pursuit; an activity focused on examining preconceived notions, the push to discover, and the recognition that gratification may be delayed.

Both are important; both are worthwhile.

Understanding our intentions behind the activity can better illustrate the mechanics of suspended disbelief within music.

Suspension of Disbelief and Music

The Washington Times columnist Alan Nathan defined the suspension of disbelief as “a literary term of art referring to one of Aristotle’s principles of theater in which the audience accepts fiction as reality so as to experience a catharsis, or a releasing of tensions to purify the soul.

The principle is most often applied to film or works of fiction; however, the process is equally significant within music.

We experience music through three different lenses:

  1. Lyrics: the words of a song
  2. Instrumentals: the pitch, tonality, structure, and musicality of a song
  3. Visuals: the artwork associated with an album

The majority of our music conveys meaning through these three lenses, though the interaction and intensity of them depend upon the artist and/or genre.

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Applications to Music

In a similar fashion to literature or film, music is often structured as fiction or non-fiction. Because the suspension of disbelief applies specifically to works of fiction, the concept has a direct application to music.

When music takes the fictional form, we must suspend our disbelief to truly engage with and experience the music; we must accept the fictional as the real. Music is just as effective a means of storytelling as any other.

An album based on a fictional narrative is the obvious application of suspended disbelief within music. These fictional narratives are often explored as we engage with music through the intention of leisure. We seek the fictional narrative or album as a form of pleasure and comfort.

Beyond this, the suspension of disbelief applies to norms. This application is necessary when interacting with music through the intention of exploration. Music often follows tried and true patterns.

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Anytime we expose ourselves to a new thing, our tendency is to judge it within the context of our reference points. If someone gives me a punk album to listen to, I will inherently judge it against the norms of the genre.

These norms constitute our belief of what an album should be. Therefore, to truly explore, we must suspend our disbelief of what an album should be in order to fully engage in the experience.

If the norms of an industry are accepted as fact, then music ignoring norms is opposed to fact, and thus it can be viewed as fiction. We must suspend our disbelief and accept fiction as reality.

We must say to ourselves, “This isn’t like any rap album I’ve heard before, but I’m going listen to it as if it were.” This is the process of evolution within music, and suspended disbelief is a mechanism working behind the scenes.

Two Case Studies

1. The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

Although it’s not a concept album, the album loosely follows the story of the main character Yoshimi’s battle. The are fictional aspects integrated throughout every aspect of the album.

  • Lyrics: while the lyrics explore deeper concepts such as love and mortality, the lyrics use the story of Yoshimi defeating evil machines and robots as the catalyst for doing so
  • Instrumentals: the musicality of the songs can venture into unique territories. Chatter amongst people is used to augment the rhythm section at times; it’s almost a fictional form of a rhythm instrument
  • Visuals: the artwork associated with the album features a massive, otherworldly creature standing off with a character in a yellow dress

The album frequently slips into the fictional realm, and listeners must suspend their disbelief of the plotline and its accompanying ornamentation in order to understand the truths being conveyed about human nature.

2. Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition

Danny Brown’s album is the epitome of a boundary pushing rap album. The album continuously confronts the norms within the industry, forcing listeners to suspend their disbelief of such techniques.

  • Lyrics: the most intriguing aspect of Danny Brown’s lyrics stems from his delivery of them. His unique rapping style goes against the norms of hip-hop in many ways
  • Instrumentals: the samples and beats throughout the album draw from uncommon inspirations and the backbone of the album does not feel like a stereotypical rap album by any means
  • Visuals: the artwork associated with the album features a distorted photo of Danny Brown’s face twisted with that of a skeleton’s

Lyrical content aside, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition requires listeners to set aside many of their preconceived notions of what rap music is. This suspension of disbelief allows listeners to explore and further expand their perspective.

So we acknowledge the presence of suspended disbelief in music, but what are its resulting effects?

Catharsis: the Effect of Suspended Disbelief

The predominant effect of our suspended disbelief is an expanded perspective. By accepting fiction as reality, we expand the number of possible scenarios to explore exponentially. As we increase the breadth of our perspective, we are able to increase our understanding of ourselves.

Returning to Alan Nathan’s description, we suspend our disbelief “so as to experience a catharsis, or a releasing of tensions to purify the soul.” Whether our intentions behind listening to music be leisurely or explorative, our suspended disbelief aids in our ability to understand and thus release tension.

When engaging with music as a leisure activity, we experience more of a passive form of releasing tension. We engage in an activity in which we suspend our disbelief to enjoy a seemingly alternate world for a brief period of time.

When engaging with music as a form of exploration, we experience an active form of releasing tension. We engage in an activity in which we suspend our disbelief to expand our perspective and push the boundaries of our assumptions, allowing us greater capacity to relate and release tension.

Fictional literature works to amplify truths about human nature, and music follows suit. A primary driver behind this process is the concept of suspended disbelief.

Engaging in suspended disbelief enables us to expand our perspectives and experience varying degrees of catharsis. The concept is just as applicable to an art form such as music as it is to traditional applications such as film or literature.


Further explorations

  • In what other ways do we apply suspended disbelief in our lives?
  • We’ve examined the use of fiction as an amplification mechanism for illustrating truths of humanity, and suspended disbelief has been shown to aid in this amplification. What are other possible mechanisms to aid in such a process?

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