Sunday, January 5, 2014

Musical Metaphors

Our language contains within it layer upon layer of fossilized metaphors that reveal something of the history and sociology of the language. I haven't actually studied this phenomenon in the abstract, so don't expect any theoretical rigor.

Some examples? We have some in law. Referring to the boundaries of a piece of land, legal documents often refer to "metes and bounds" which are usages only found in these kinds of documents these days. "Bounds", of course, is related to the word "boundaries".

But what brought all this to mind was noticing how often music-related metaphors appear in conversation.

I don't mean to harp on it, but when someone comes to us crying the blues, those are musical metaphors. Of course, we often react by miming playing the world's smallest violin. I don't mean to blow my own horn, but I think I can find some more for you. I'm sure it will be music to your ears.

I've been reading about various institutions cutting back on music instruction lately. This is likely to end in a game of musical chairs as the music teachers scramble to find one of the few positions left. And if the resulting struggle results in an unfortunate injury, one of the unlucky teachers might end up singing soprano in the choir.

Speaking of a choir, if everyone at the meeting ends up expressing the same point of view we might say they are all singing from the same sheet of music. And if they all nod and say, "yes we are", we might say that they chorused. Or we might say they sounded like a broken record.

Even politicians indulge in a bit of it: Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. But he was actually playing the lyre. As things got worse and worse, people might have said they crescendoed. All in all, you could say that Nero's tenure as emperor started off on a sour note. He was just not in tune with the populace. Like the nutty emperor Caligula, he was a few beats short of a bar.

Musical metaphors invade our social lives. We usually agree that you should dance with the one that brought you. We also might think that to keep a meeting on a cordial footing we should mute disagreements. Yes, that too is a musical metaphor. A mute is a device that bowed string players place on the bridge to soften the sound. Also, the goal of many meetings is to achieve a harmony of means and ends. Otherwise we could all end up marching to the beat of our own drummer. Speaking of beating the drum, do people still call it that when they are trumpeting taking up some new social policy? And if we are already in agreement, is that just preaching to the choir?

If someone really puts together a good strategy we say they orchestrated a successful campaign, which mixes two metaphors. We usually want to avoid that. Builders, for example, might want to achieve a harmonious blend of architectural styles. Of course, we don't always want that. If you are organizing a debate on television, to avoid boredom you want to have a good counterpoint between different points of view.

Well, I hope I haven't bored you with my monotonous droning on!

Don't know if this is exactly the right song, but here is a Bessie Smith song from 1931. Apparently she needs some sugar in her bowl:

UPDATE: I have thought of the perfect piece to end this: the "One Note Samba" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, here sung by Frank Sinatra:


Jared White said...

Speaking of music and metaphors, this reminds me of Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. If you are not familiar with it you may be interested.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, I do know the Hofstadter book. I read it about 30 years ago with great pleasure. I should probably re-read it now with a different perspective.