Sunday, October 2, 2011

Music, Narrative and Metaphor

Now there's another dissertation-sized topic! But I say, why should grad students have all the fun? We ordinary folk can also mess around with fancy concepts.

I was just reading a great book on Western culture by Jacques Barzun, one of the most learned people alive. This book, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present is an amazingly wise and well-organized history. His thoughts on music are so sound that you would think him to be a musician. On pages 494 to 497 he gives an excellent and concise account of the genesis of program music:
The symphonies of Beethoven, beginning with the Eroica, were found hard to follow by their first listeners. To assist understanding, musical minds that did grasp the form wrote comments for the bewildered, and since the music was dramatic in purpose and effect, the obvious way to help was to suggest a story, with persons and events--as in opera, with which people were familiar. The "plot" suggested for a symphony need not fit closely--a hint about certain passages would prime the imagination. [E.T.A. Hoffman] ... led the way in programmatizing the Beethoven symphonies. Then Schumann, Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner and a host of others filled their writings on music with these supposititious dramas... [Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, p 495]
 What's wrong with that? Well, nothing really except that, as Barzun says earlier on the same page, "music cannot tell a story." No, it really can't. Music is not a 'language' and narrative is not possible. What music can do is express moods and sensations and how it does that is still rather magical, though there is a neurological lab at McGill University that is hard at work gathering evidence.

Let's talk about origins for a bit. One of the foundational stories in Western culture is the Iliad. Originally it was probably sung to the accompaniment of the four-string phorminx. Of course we don't have any of this music because it was improvised and not written down. A bit later there are some very ambiguous melodies such as this one:
He should have been singing that, and accompanying himself with the lyre. We pretty much have to imagine what a performance of Homer might have been like. But a modern equivalent might be something like this:

Only words can tell a story. But as in the song by that modern bard, Bob Dylan, music can heighten the effect. And the explanation of 'program' music, as Bazun points out, is the reverse of this. A few descriptive words can aid the listener's involvement with the score. Take this piece, for example:

Now, of course, La Mer has nothing really to do with the sea, any more than a painting of a roast beef sandwich has to do with lunch. Both are artistic representations. But the musical one is inherently abstract. Suppose that you didn't know the piece and had no knowledge of the title and description. Could you guess it was about the sea? Doubtful. In fact, different metaphors could be chosen that might be equally inspiring. But as Debussy chose the one of the sea, we have to privilege that one. Another example: many years ago I spent two summers in Banff, Alberta, Canada, studying guitar in the master-class of Oscar Ghiglia. He is an outstanding teacher and one reason is that he inspires musicality through metaphor. In both years the prelude to the first lute suite of J. S. Bach was played. In the first year, Oscar developed a wonderful metaphor for the student. It was like the plot to an Italian opera and when this dramatic dominant 7th in last inversion--a 4/2 chord--was arrived at he scowled ominously and declaimed "revenge!" It was absolutely perfect! The student will always feel the immense drama of that moment! But, of course, the Bach prelude has nothing inherently to do with revenge. The next year, teaching the very same piece, Oscar chose a completely different metaphor.

Descriptions in words of musical compositions, whether of landscapes, natural phenomena or a narrative, are merely metaphors and have no inherent connection with the piece. Their purpose, and it is a real one, is to inspire the listener or performer to awaken the real excitement of the piece, which is entirely musical: melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

Ok, quick, for those of you who don't know this piece, what piece of geography is it associated with?


Anonymous said...

I'll be curious to hear more about the work of those McGill neuroscientists. I'd love to know if birds feel pleasure when they listen to their singing. (I am not being facetious -- I see no reason why they would not, just as I see no reason why they would.)

Bryan Townsend said...

There are occasionally items in the media about some of the research into music going on at McGill. Here is one link:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Very neat!

There's a group at Dartmouth who record timed signals on an fMRI of people listening to a piece of music. They're then able to play the music back JUST from the image recordings. They need to train their algorithm first on the same person. Its sounds completely amazing (reconstructing music from reading your brain!) But the more I think about their experiments the less impressed I am.

What would enormously impress me is if you got into an fMRI and then played a tune in your head (with no sounds) and somehow the image recordings could be turned into a rendition of that tune. But I see no way for how the first experiment can lead to the next.

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't think I quite understand: you get into an fMRI, listen to a piece of music and the machine gets an image from scanning your brain? Which it can convert back to music? This I have got to hear! Have you got a link?

Anonymous said...

The FIRM project at

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, I'll have a look.

RG said...

Jacques Barzun "living"??? Holy Smokes! You are right... 107!

And still picking up awards!

Sometimes, jubilemus, the good do not die young.

Bryan Townsend said...

Au contraire! Jacques Barzun, according to Wikipedia, is merely a young 103 years old and living in San Antonio, TX.