Monday, December 19, 2016

Musical Moods

A lot of my posts get the all-too-broad tag "aesthetics" because I don't know where else to put them. Like this post!

I read a fascinating essay by Richard Taruskin the other day that was about the origins of the use of the octatonic scale in the music of Franz Liszt (who seems to have discovered it), Rimsky-Korsakoff (who used it quite a lot) and Stravinsky (who used it in interesting structural ways). The essay recounts an interesting debate between Taruskin and some music theorists. He was interested in the history of the usage, but they were, emphatically, NOT! Their focus was purely on the interval structure. I suppose this is the difference between musicology and music theory.

That discussion, somehow, percolated around in my mind for a few days and sparked some distantly related thoughts: what if the most salient thing about music is not the instruments it is played on, or the musical form or the kind of meter or the way it is presented on stage (dancers, light show) or the way the performers are dressed, but simply, the kind of musical mood it presents?

I have talked before about musical moods. I agree with those writers, like Peter Kivy, who say that ordinary garden-variety emotions such as love or hate or anger are not what are presented in instrumental music (though they might be in sung music with a text). No, what we hear in music are uniquely musical moods, some of which might remind us of non-musical moods, events, places or things.

An examination of music from the perspective of musical moods might tell us something about why we find some kinds of music appealing and others not. For example, Mozart has been perennially popular since he was a child in the 1770s, and even more popular today as people have been buying the big new box of Mozart at a great rate. I have read a lot of books on Mozart: some that discuss his music in terms of his psychological makeup, the loss of his mother, his disappointments in love and so on, others that delve into how the music is put together and the organization of the structure. But none of that captures the moods we hear as we listen:

The serene delicacy of that, leading into the piercing, clashing seconds of the harmony is the musical mood. Sure, I know why professional musicians disdain talking about music in this way. I'm sure I have criticized it many times myself! But this kind of language, the language of the moods we hear, is more indicative of how we hear music than talking about F major or secondary dominants or what happened in Mozart's life the week he wrote this.

Individual pieces of music have characteristic moods that are, yes, pretty much impossible to capture with a verbal description:

Actually, "moonlight" is the verbal attempt to capture the mood!

Genres of music also have a kind of generic mood spectrum. Music of the classical era, while offering a great variety, tends to have certain mood-characteristics: it is charming, balanced, has clarity and so on. The traditional Delta blues has a rustic depth of tragic expression (with some humor). Bebop has a kind of urban, sauntering sneer. Polka has a certain stiff energy. And so on. Just my tossed-off miniature descriptions. These are of no use to a musical scholar as they lack any sort of detail. But they may capture some of why we like this, don't like that. A lot of marketing uses and manipulates musical moods to suggest what is cool or not cool.

That leads me to propose a musical distinction between generic musical moods and highly specific ones. The generic ones are very useful in the commercial use of music. For a blue jeans ad you want something that tells that listener that if you buy these jeans you will be in with the cool people.

Now that is, of course, a generic re-creation of some of the moods of the Beatles' music who were, in 1974 when the ad came out, the coolest of the cool. Let's compare it to the original model:

I could have picked other songs from around that time, as the jeans ad is a pastiche of different stylistic elements.

The distinction is between a utilitarian use of certain musical elements to create a useful generic mood as opposed to a musical composition that has a unique musical coherence and focused expression. Let's take another couple of examples. First, the generic:

And the more focussed expression:

As you can, I hope, hear, the distinction is not an invidious one between classical music and the other stuff, but a distinction that can be applied within any musical style or genre. There is undistinguished, generic Baroque music just as there is undistinguished, generic pop music. Possibly more of the latter as it is more useful, commercially.

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