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Saturday, September 29, 2018


I read a book by Deryck Cooke called The Language of Music, recommended by a commenter to this blog. [Thanks!] It was published in 1958 and Cooke was a musicologist working for the BBC and specializing in Mahler and Wagner.

Cooke sees the language of music mostly as an emotionally expressive one, and shows how certain sequences of notes of a scale are used over and over by composers to express the same emotion. 1,3, 5, 6, 5 in a major scale expresses innocent joy... Things like that.  It is surprisingly convincing. Within  the system of Western tonal music, we do hear these melodic snippets in this way, and he is able to name them with precision. Each interval also has a valence that is more or less determinate.

It is well written, and the musical example are easy to follow. You can just pluck them out on a keyboard because they are just snippets of melody, in most cases. It can be read by anyone who can read music at an elementary level. He also can answer questions like how composers are able to create original ideas out of these nuclei of melodic meaning. (Mostly through rhythmic variations.)

(Of course, I would have to go through it again and play each example rather than skimming through and audiating a few in my head.)

This anticipates the new musicology's preoccupation with meaning, but avoids the idea that this meaning is propositional. It is all pretty much a mode of expressing emotions, so it is harder to attach sexual or gender-based or sociopolitical content to musical meanings.  If the "content" of music is emotion, then we can name it in words, insofar as we can name emotions in the first place, but we can't detach it from its forms. The emotions are taken to be those experienced by the composer and then expressed, communicated to the listener.  I have to confess that I bought into this idea as I was reading. It is sufficiently nuanced in its applications. There were a few times when he anticipates the melodramatic style of musical analysis, but you feel that he knows what he is doing and won't push the material beyond where it wants to go.

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