Of Music and Meaning

Another miniature essay, this one posted to a discussion on how bad people are at guessing the intended meaning of musical pieces.

The clouds and hills in a landscape painting don't look like real clouds and hills.

It's not just that they're in 2D and reality is in 3D - it's that the textures, shadows, surfaces etc. don't look like the real thing, even taking the missing dimension into account. And yet we can still comment on the artist on being "realistic" or "unrealistic", "capturing the scene" or "reproducing what they saw".

Why? Because there are, in our culture, conventions about how clouds etc. are represented in painting. These conventions change over time, which is why a landscape painting from 1700 doesn't look like one from 19001.

So it is in music. Soaring strings don't resemble "romance" in any way, high pitched stabs don't "sound like" fear, and trombone slides don't have anything in common with slapstick comedy. But if you watch a film, the incidental music tells you what emotion you're supposed to associate with what you see. If you remove the music you see how flat it generally falls, and if you watch a foreign film, sometimes the soundtrack is puzzling.

Smoky saxophones are sexy, kazoos are comical, arpeggios are dramatic, church organs are elegiac, sitars are mystical. We all know this vocabulary connecting sounds to moods and situations, and it's so familiar we rarely question it2.

But vocabularies change over time, and are different in different cultures. That's one reason why a piece of music changes it's meaning - or loses it.

1Even when the paintings are "of" the same landscape. It's the same with seascapes. You can't judge how the sea really looked in 1750 from a painting of it made at the time - you can only judge how most artists learned to paint it.
2There's an old trick of changing the background music to see how the audience interpretation changes. Trashy documentaries tend to use "ominous" bass synth drones - try mentally replacing one with the lush high strings of romantic drama, and see how the message of the programme changes.

1 comment:

  1. I'll tell you what, there are some musical instruments that just sound ominous when played the right way...like the music they play when Jaws starts to circle in on it's prey!

    Sometimes, those sharp sudden high pitched sound are just jarring and unexpected, it's no wonder people's hearts race when they are suddenly exposed to them at really loud volumes.

    But in way, I think it's a good thing when vocabulary (and music) change over time, especially when it means progress. It means the continued growth and development of the species, hopefully for the better. It's amazing that our ancestors took the spoken word and sounds and created music, an incredible form of communication. I like that music is open to interpretation and appreciation.