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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The melodramatic style in musicology

Here is what I mean by the melodramatic style.  We know that analysis of harmony in and of itself is dry, and that music has a syntax but not a semantics of determinate meanings. We attribute emotions to syntactic or structural changes. So we have "catastrophe," "disaster," the "San Andreas fault." We have a "cruel cadence," "traumatic," "breathtaking," etc...  All the language is over the top.  And this is not an isolated example, but an entire style in musicology.

So the semantics of music is mostly a series of emotions. I think we can agree that music works on our emotions. So this method of tracing a series of chords and attributing a emotional weight to them does not seem wholly out of line. What seems exaggerated is, well, the exaggeration, and then the odd specificity of the overall narrative, the surety with which it is put forward. How do know whether something is a disaster and not a joke, for example? Who gets to decide? How do we know that anyone else will hear music in the same way?  The emotional language is doing all the rhetorical work here. Without that, we would just have a dry recital of what chord follows what other chord.  If the emotional language were toned down a bit, then the description wouldn't be all that compelling, would it?  It is emotionally compelling if we believe it, but if we are at all skeptical, then the melodrama makes it less convincing.

An exercise might be to have 10 musicologists in 10 rooms listen to this and invent their own narratives of what is happening here. Then compare those 10 reactions to 10 listeners who do not know how to analyze music like this.


As a short cut today I came up with a very simple formula:  "the meaning of music consists of the meaning we attribute to it." So it is meaning for someone.  And it is an act of attribution: someone decides how to name and define that meaning. If it means something, sincerely, for me, and I say what it is, then I am right. If a bunch of people react the same way to something, then they are right, whether they share common conventions of listening or for other reasons.

A lot of musical meanings seems simply tautological. What does slowness mean, for example? Or bounciness? We could represent "arbitrariness" by playing random notes. Or "incoherence" by starting a theme and not finishing it. "Banality" might be a too-simple theme played over and over, etc...  Understanding music is simply following along with it and finding whatever meanings we find there. I resent being strong-armed by a melodramatic narrative that may not correspond to how I would hear something if left to my own devices.    


Leslie B. said...

Very interesting

Vance Maverick said...

"If it means something, sincerely, for me, and I say what it is, then I am right."

I'm sympathetic to this line of argument, but it seems to imply that if I don't or can't say what the meaning is, then there is no meaning. While many people's experience is that there's an intense and immanent "meaning" in the music they care about, but they can't say what it is.

For my own use I resolved the conundrum of the public and private value/meaning of art by deciding that this mystery was in fact the point. I will manipulate these common tokens in a manner that works for me, and I have faith that because you and I share a culture, to some extent an experience, to some other extent a sensibility, the alchemy will work for you as well, and the tokens will be transmuted in your alembic into something of value to you. We have no way of really talking about that something, and that's OK, in fact it's magic.

Not very satisfying as a basis for scholarship, I know.