In studying the Torah, Judaism identifies four ways of approaching their Sacred Text. The first three apply nicely to ANY text (sacred and otherwise). Suppose we take the soliloquy “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears…”
(BTW, in Hebrew, the accent is almost always on the last syllable.)
- Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain” (“simple”) or the direct meaning. At this level you need to know what a ‘Roman’ is, etc. It’s the face value meaning of the text.
- Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints” or the deeper (allegoric, metaphorical or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense. In other words, one observes that you can’t literally lend someone your physical ears, so this must be a metaphor. I suppose ‘remez’ would also include knowledge of the cultural context (without which the soliloquy makes little sense).
- Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — from Hebrew darash: “inquire” (“seek”) — what does this soliloquy of Shakespeare’s say about Life in general? Political theory? With the Bible (or Koran, etc.), this would be the level of generating sermons.
- Sod (סוֹד) (pronounced with a long O as in ‘bone’) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning. I don’t know how this would apply to Shakespeare or secular literature in general. Maybe this is the only level one can successfully read James Joyce! (Just kidding!)
The four letters PaRDeS form an acronym in Hebrew that spells/means ‘orchard’, so working with all four levels of a Text is referred to as ‘working the orchard’. This set of categories apparently was articulated c.12th century.
Not all literature uses—or needs—all four levels. Consider:
- Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain”: this is the level on which you want user manuals to function.
- Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints”: this is the level on which you want more sophisticated factual literature to function, e.g. news articles.
- Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — “inquire”: this is the level on which real Literature functions.
- Sod (סוֹד) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning. Very little literature belongs to this category.
Perhaps these four levels of understanding apply to music:
- Peshat (פְּשָׁט) — “plain”: you can follow the melody and rhythm of the piece.
- Remez (רֶמֶז) — “hints”: the piece makes musical sense to you. With ethnic music (of bygone days of other cultures) I grasp the ‘peshat’—I can identify the melodies and so forth but have difficulty really wrapping my mind around the piece.
- Derash (דְּרַשׁ) — “inquire” (“seek”) I don’t just mentally grasp the piece—it emotionally takes me somewhere
- Sod (סוֹד) — “secret” (“mystery”) or the mystical meaning…
Ah, the ‘mystical meaning’ of music. What might that be?
Perhaps one essential characteristic of a ‘mystical’ experience is that it fundamentally changes you for the better. Thus, a piece that works on a ‘mystical’ level would be one that changes you for the better on a soul/spiritual level.
I have experienced music like that. When I was a teenager, and my younger brother had committed suicide, overwhelmed with grief and confusion I would sit down and play Bach for hours. No stranger to tragedy himself, Bach’s music nevertheless has a quality of “God is in His heaven, so all must be right with the world” and I played that musical message to myself over and over for hours. Bach got me through some very dark times (without Thorazine, I might add!). And there is certainly plenty of other music that has this kind of healing/nourishing effect on the soul & spirit.
Maybe as we face the challenging days and years ahead, we might think about marshaling all the allies that we can, including music that goes beyond just amusing us—music that actually strengthens us and reinforces the virtues we need to address the challenges we face.