Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Does Your Music Represent?

Sarah's last post addresses the difficulty of creating a title for a piece of music.  Since titles often illuminate what music is about, I'm going to discuss a somewhat related topic: the issue of whether or not music can represent extra-musical ideas and/or evoke emotion.  My answer, in a nut-shell, is that it can...just don't expect specifics!

The aesthetic debate regarding the representative and evocative power of music has a long, probably unending, history in the music world.  Even recently, a friend of mine from Cincinnati raised this very issue on his Facebook wall.  Can a piece of music actually have the power to make you sad?  Can a piece of music really conjure up the image of rain?  This topic always leaves me conflicted.  How can music really represent or evoke anything other than itself?  As an inherently abstract art form, music will undoubtedly mean something different to each audience member.

That being said, it's hard to ignore the fact that people often have similar responses to a piece of music, ranging from the emotional to the intellectual.  For example, Debussy's titles and musical gestures corroborate an attempt to communicate representational ideas.  I think it's fair to say that many people, when listening to Debussy, can imagine the waves, raindrops, and pastoral settings.  Of course it's possible to listen to Debussy without thinking about these things, but to insist that his music is devoid of representation would be a bit like looking at an abstract painting with the title of "mountain by the sea," where the painter has depicted a mountainous shape by a sea-like shape, and insisting that the painting has nothing to do with such a landscape.

In order for a composer to successfully accomplish a purposeful representation, some sort of context probably needs to be established.  With Debussy, you may be able to come up with such images on your own through his musical gestures, but chances are good that you were guided in that direction by his titles, etc.  To make this a bit more up-to-date, Steve Reich's Different Trains offers a good example.  Ignoring the text itself, Reich evokes the idea of a train through his textures and rhythms combined with a clear indication of context: the actual sounds of a steam train.

Arriving at a specific representation can be murky, though.  For example, someone could listen to recorded sounds of a steam train and, without text, think of a factory instead. Someone could listen to Debussy's La Mer and imagine an emotional state, rather than a visual landscape.

Because it's not a visual art, music is often better at emotional communication, which operates along a more abstract spectrum.  Most people listening to the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh aren't going to walk away from the performance feeling that it communicated exuberant joy (even if they may feel exuberant joy in reaction to a moving performance).  Is the Allegretto sad, angry, defeated, devastated, or resigned?  I certainly wouldn't want to label it anything specific, but I think it's fair to say that it is expressing something negative, rather than positive, in the range of human emotion.  Another, more recent, example of a piece having a clear emotional tone is Arvo Part's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.  I know it's loaded given the title, but the tolling bells and the falling melodies certainly don't leave you with the impression of feeling "uplifted."  I recommend listening to this without watching the video, just to make sure that the images aren't coloring your perception of musical tone:

Although music doesn't have the power to force you to feel an emotion yourself, I firmly believe that it does have the potential to communicate the idea of an emotion, if you are open to it (whether or not you internalize and empathize with the idea depends on how effectively a piece was written and performed, your mood, your personality, etc.).  Obviously such a communication is dependent on cultural and musical stereotypes and traditions, as well as harmony, rhythm, dynamics, texture, etc.

In defense of "programmatic" music (or music that does try to present some sort of narrative), I think it's one of the most exciting things to be able to try, either on an abstract or representational level, to communicate both musical and extra-musical meaning through your music.  I know I fell in love with composing because of its expressive possibilities, which, I've been realizing more and more as I get older, are endless and complex.

Exciting possibilities aside, I think that, as a composer, it isn't realistic to expect either of two different ideas: a) that your audience members will all be receptive to the exact thing that you are communicating (without some sort of contextualization), or b) to assume that some sort of tone or message won't be received (as an art form, I think music makes a lack of communication nearly impossible).

This, I think, is our challenge as composers:  What do we want to say?  And once that's determined, how well are we saying it?

Posted by Natalie


  1. Natalie, I think you've nailed it with your opening comment ". . . don't expect specifics." There is big difference between what music CAN represent and what it DOES represent. Murmuring melodies can be many things, and then once prompted with a title, or poetic association, can seem to clearly represent any number of things (from babbling brooks to sighing streetcars). This is perhaps why combinations of words (lyrics, titles, programs) and music are so powerful. And studies in music perception, especially those by Emory Schubert, Patrik Juslin, and John Sloboda, that music can definitely (a) affect one's general level of emotional arousal, and (b) be valenced (either positive or negative), again allowing for music to be mapped onto particular emotions, given the right context or prompts. In this way, music can indeed get you to feel an emotion, but it isn't the same kind of emotion we experience when we hear bad news, or see an old friend, or find ourselves in an embarrassing social situation.
    A good intro into all this is Peter Kivy's book, "An Introduction to a Philosophy of Music."

  2. Thanks for reading, Justin! I actually used Kivy's book in my comps! I love that book... Definitely a good intro to this topic. I'll be sure to look into Schubert, Juslin, and Sloboda.