How Does Music Work?

Simon Zagorski-Thomas

March 31, 2011

What do we mean by musical meaning?

This seems, quite oddly, to be a question that musicologists are very happy to completely ignore. Perhaps the reason for this is that it is such a complex and subliminal thing. Perhaps we have developed assumptions about music based around harmony and form that assume that if we analyse the harmonic structure or formal structure of a piece, then we have also understood its meaning. We’re all familiar with the idea of music talking to us, of music being a form of expression: but what does it express? When I was studying music at school, I found that a lot of the analyses that I had to read about pieces that related to thematic development, sonata form and so forth only described what it was and had very little to say about what it meant. Since then I’ve written a lot of music, listened to a lot of music and analysed a lot of music. I’ve also read quite a lot about the psychology of music, although I’d be the first to admit that I’m very far from being an expert in the subject area.

However, I’m going to make some suggestions about how we understand music – as much as anything to help me clarify my thoughts on the subject. I’m going to start by describing how I think people interpret the world around them in general.

How do humans construct meaning?

My understanding of how humans interpret the world around them and construct meaning from their perceptions is based on theories of ecological perception, embodied cognition and interpretation through metaphor. James Gibson’s theory of ecological perception proposes that some aspects of the world as they are perceived through our bodies are immutable and universal because the experience of existing within a human body in the physical world forces some types of interpretation upon us. The way that stereoscopic vision and stereo hearing works ensures that we see and hear direction and distance in a consistent and coherent manner. We also develop a complex implicit understanding of acoustics because certain spatial features are always associated with certain acoustic results. We can tell without seeing from the way sound is reflected whether we are in a large or a small environment. Human activity also provides certain fixed and immutable forms of sonic result: we can hear the difference between something being tapped lightly or hit hard. We can generally hear a lot of other information as well: blowing into a tube rather than scraping on a string for example. In any given situation our implicit knowledge of what is, in our experience, possible guides our interpretation of what we actually perceive. And that goes for sounds that aren’t ‘possible’ too. For example, I believe that we understand new electronic sounds through their similarity to familiar acoustic sounds.

Lakoff and Johnson, in their book Metaphors We Live By, have taken the idea that we are hidebound by our experience of being a human body a step further to propose that the way we interpret phenomena that occur outside our body is through metaphorical relationships with our sensory experience. They suggest that embodied cognition and metaphor are the basis for all human thought processes. Thus, my experience of balance within a body is used metaphorically to understand the outside world with concepts such as a balanced diet, the balance of trade. Within linguistics this theoretical position has now become a central tenet for a large number of researchers and these ideas are increasingly being applied to other disciplines including music.

How does that work with music?

The implications for musicology of this theoretical position have been explored by scholars such as Eric Clarke and Allan Moore and there are a growing number of us who see this as a way forward for understanding musical meaning. One crucial aspect of this is that there are certain characteristics of sound that have basic forms of unambiguous meaning for human listeners. If we have two ears and have lived in the world for a while we can hear direction, distance and environment types. We can also hear the type of gestural shape that caused a sound  – high or low energy expenditure, hitting rather than scraping, even tensed muscular activity rather than relaxed. In music, I can hear the difference between the loose limbed muscular activity and tense, nervous muscular activity – and it conveys the types of character that we associate with those types of gestural activity within the musical narrative. So I can hear anger and passion, sexuality and serenity, all encapsulated within a musical narrative. However, just as if I see a silent film of a person writhing on the ground I might attribute their behaviour to pain when in fact they are laughing uncontrollably, the lack of context often makes musical activity ambiguous or indistinct in its meaning. And just as my impression of what might be happening if I see a group of people in flowing white robes walking into a large building will depend on my cultural background, so will my impression of what’s normal in music and what types of social behaviour it usually accompanies.

But the most important thing about music is that it’s not about a single gesture, it’s about complex sequences of them in complex combinations. Aside from, for example, hearing the sound of three performers combining into a kind of arrogant, loose limbed strut in the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”, there is also a continually changing dynamic even in the most repetitive of music. I may hear the sound of large scale energetic activity in a Mozart symphony or solitary and relaxed – to the point of lazy – activity in a Debussy piano prelude but it moves beyond an overall character. I’m listening to a dynamic narrative.

Obviously, a lot of that narrative relates to the features that musicology studies already. Structure and harmonic progression are the two key ones. Melody and rhythm seem to be mainly studied in structural terms: where a theme recurs or changes or how a rhythmic pattern is repeated at different points of the structure. There’s very little analysis in terms of what kind of feeling a particular rhythm or melodic shape generates.

What does that mean for musicology?

A few years ago, I took a written analysis of a Beethoven piano sonata and used it as template for composing a piece of electronic music – a Sonata for Yamaha DX7. I copied the thematic structure and development and recapitulation of the sonata form it followed. Of course, it sounds nothing like Beethoven: it uses just one feature of the Beethoven sonata and ignores all the others. In some ways, this is what I think modern musicology is doing. By not developing the language and theory to describe the gestural complexity of musical sound, by sticking to structure and harmonic progression and, more importantly, by studying the score rather than the sound, musicology is missing the point.