Thursday, December 25, 2008

Music: "Pure" or lyrical?

 One of the problems with past discussions of music on Objectivist forums (of which I was also guilty, and I'm sure it's not limited to Objectivist forums!) was the equating of music with song lyrics and appealing to a song's meaning in contrast to the meaning of the actual music. But one such area where the role of lyrics and word meanings can shed light on musical meaning is the comprehensibility of the words and whether or not it matters in music's power to move the listener. Some people listen to rock songs where the words are indecipherable ('xuse me while I kiss this guy?). Other people listen to Italian operas and are moved to tears, even though they don't speak the language. 

Why do some people cry listening to an opera sung in a language they don't speak? What about wordless syllables where the emphasis is on the voice as instrument (
melisma)? Obviously, it's the style and the melody, the emotion in the performance, and lyric meaning can be married to the musical meaning, but some would argue (in the case of opera, especially) that music with words merely detracts from the music, putting it in a supporting role. A mortal sin if one is of the mindset that music is what the other arts aspire to. 

Rand's writing on graphic design (the decorative arts) versus pictorial painting can shed light on this:

The task of the decorative arts is to ornament utilitarian objects, such as rugs, textiles, lighting fixtures, etc. This is a valuable task..but it is not an art in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term. The psycho-epistemological base of the decorative arts is not conceptual, but purely sensory: their standard of value is appeal to the senses of sight and/or touch.

She adds that if a work of art has to be representational, "if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art. On the other hand, a representational element is a detriment in the decorative arts: it is an irrelevant distraction, a clash of intentions. And although designs of little human figures or landscapes or flowers are often used to decorate textiles or wallpaper, they are artistically inferior to the nonrepresentational designs. When recognizable objects are subordinated to and treated as a m
ere pattern of colors and shapes, they become incongruous."

Is the above true for music and lyrics as well? The answer depends on whether or not music is to be considered representational or not. It's a debate that's raged for a long time, and probably saw it's most dramatic battle in the field of opera. Disney's
Fantasia was another battlefield where music not only competes with a libretto but with animation (continuing Wagner's quest for the "gesamtkunstwerk." (In the case of Fantasia, the battle between Disney and abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, the battle was  between abstract and representational art, but the question still comes down to the same as the one between lyrical versus "pure" music.)


  1. Years ago I crossed the continent to attend a fiery (as in real fire on stage) production of 'Tristan and Isolde,' sung in Wagner's German. Visually, it was two elephant-sized top names of opera singing the title roles, and that worked, only sort of.

    Audibly, however, their singing difficult arias at all ranges effortlessly, loudly, and energetically was beyond description. The hair on my body stood and the adrenalin flowed for nearly four hours. At the end of the performance my energy level was as if I had been doing hard manual labor for 12 hours.

    The total wonderful experience was something I could not possibly describe adquately.

    I subsequently bought all the soprano's modern recordings and some of the tenor's recordings. I still listen to the second act romantic trio scene from time to time and still feel very wonderful afterwards - I turn off the CD before the maid screams - along with the aria sung by the soprano for which the opera is remembered.

    I don't fully understand why this is sacred music to me and might dismiss any wordsmith's attempt to explain it as well. Further, I am left with a question of, "Why isn't there more music with this effect?"

    Cecil R. Williams

  2. Hello, Cecil, thanks for your comment.

    I have a few specific blogs on this to be posted in the next week that will present some research into the answer.But since you admittedly might "dismiss" the works of wordsmiths ( I understand, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture. ;) ) So for now, I'll ask YOU a question: have you ever wondered if your last question there, "why isn't there more music with this effect," is THE question to ask? Meaning, do we treat music as the force that makes us feel the effect, while we play the role of passive recipient? What do you think the listener's role is in getting that effect?

    No pressure to answer it publicly, but if you care to speculate aloud, feel free. :)


  3. Michael, thanks for the post. A lot to digest there, but what stood out for me was the idea of projection, where you say:

    "Long study of the phenomenon of non-objective art leaves an indelible impression that the scam relies heavily on the inevitable visual metaphors in virtually any and every arrangement of colors possible. And I mean that when all symbolic and sentimental associations are first removed from consideration. "

    I do think there is SOMETHING to it...Scott McCloud, in his book UNDERSTANDING COMICS, shows how cartoonists depict various emotions and feelings with simple lines that take on meaning in context. Curved lines become proud, wavy lines become either heat or stinky, jagged lines become anger, fuzzy lines become paranoia, and so on.

    If I were to simplify Rand's requirements in "Art and Cognition," I would say not that music makes us experience emotions, but we project onto melodic lines our emotions, in the manner of the examples I just mentioned. Not ready to make that claim...yet...:)

  4. CORRECTION: In the 3rd paragraph from the end of my Dec 28 post, insert the words shown here in brackets:

    If the lyrics alone are artistically capable as prose or poetry and the pure music is too, I fail to see [how] their capacity to create the direct experience of a sense of life [would diminish] when performed together.