Casual Fridays: Can we really tell what a musical work is "about"?

On Tuesday I got to see Greta and Nora performing with the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra. As usual, they did a fantastic job playing and the orchestra received a standing ovation. One of the pieces they played was BedÅich Smetana's tone poem "The Moldau," which, as the conductor explained, took us on a journey across what is now the Czech Republic. We heard two streams converging into a river, a peasant dance, the city of Prague, and finally the end of the river as it empties into a large one. Or did we just think that's what we heard because that's what the conductor told us to hear?

A tone poem is supposed to tell a story, but generally the composer tells us what the story is about, in advance. Can we actually tell what a musical work is "about" without someone telling us? Are people with more musical training better at uncovering what a work is about? Maybe this week we can find out.

In this week's study, you'll hear seven short excerpts from classical works that express particular meanings intended by their composers. Your job is to guess, in just a few words, what the work is about. Don't use adjectives, like "beautiful" or "tempestuous" -- say what it's really about, like "a river" or "climbing a mountain." If you don't know, just make a guess -- maybe "random" guessing will actually sometimes come up with the right answer.

Click here to participate

As usual, the survey is short, with just 17 questions. It should take about 5 to 10 minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, April 30, to respond. There is no limit on the number of responses. Don't forget to come back next week for the results!

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This reminds me of the first time I listened to Peter and the Wolf. I remember completely making up a story in my head about what was happening during each movement. I also remember being extremely annoyed the first time I "saw" Peter and the Wolf being "acted". It completely ruined the piece because it was so different from how I had imagine the story and the characters. N.

I once composed some music for a commercial when I was in college, when I was done I played the music back without the images for a fellow student who hadn't seen the video I had been working to.

I was really pleased when at one point in the music he turned and said, "That makes me think of hot air balloons..." which was in fact what was going on in the video at the time.

at the end of the playback he had managed to identify 4 images from the video before seeing it... I can't tell you the feeling I had when he blurted that out though, It was a bit like being in a foreign country and realizing that you can speak a language well enough to be understood. It was quite a thrill...

I have a lot of musical training and practice, but much of it is vocal or non-traditional/non-western so some of the same aural cues would not be the same. This would be interesting if you used clips from East and South Asian and African pieces and their meanings as well.

I would tend to believe that any responses you got for this would be very group specific. certain tonal combinations have been used often enough to become obviously cliche... parallel fourths and the orient for a quick example.

How many people who haven't seen 'Psyho' associate squeaking violins with knives and showers?

Like Nestor, I agree that it's far more enjoyable and creative to make your own interpretations. Having a composer, or any artist assign a determined 'meaning' ahead of time kills the creative link between a work and those who interact with it.

Better to approach a work with trust and curiosity than to slavishly follow the rules.

I felt frustrated because I have always felt that music can be anything to anyone; a kind of freedom? It was odd for me to not only narrowly define what the clips were "about" and even odder for me to declare how confident I was in my accuracy. I felt very confident that I knew what the music was about for me personally. It would be cool to see a list of answers from other people.

Very interesting experience.

I don't like the quantitative questions, e.g. expecting people to remember how many years of musical training they've done. Usually, musical training is not continuous - it might be a couple of years of piano lessons at age five plus a couple of years with the school band at age fifteen, etc, and it's very hard to think back and try to add it all up. I went with a rough guess.

Here's me playing something of my own on electronic keyboard. It contains some improvisation.

just for fun I had my 5 year old listen. Her answers - scary monsters, rainbows, someone being loud, running away from a witch, , more scary monsters, getting married, playing the piano.

I have to admit, I mainly imagined cartoons (and what would be happening in a cartoon if that music were playing) for all of the music. That was probably at least partly because one of the first few reminded me of Fantasia and partly because I don't have as much exposure to classical or instrumental music outside of background soundtracks.

Hmm.. my answers were more similar to k's 5-year-old than I would've guessed.

(I also tended to imagine cartoons, even though I played in various classical orchestras for 6 years.)

I haven't done the survey yet (I will, I will), but your music posts always remind of a famous (apocryphal?) quote attributed to Igor Stravinsky -- a quote much loved by composers, and confusing to everyone else -- "Music is incapable of expressing anything."

Speaking as an erstwhile conservatory-trained composer, it's true, by the way.

You're going to make me boot up my laptop to listen, aren't you?? (Sometime next year possibly my budget will include a new sound card for my desktop. And... I hate laptops.)

I'm with HP and Stravinsky, though not a trained composer. I did have 12+ years of formal music training.

Did you intentionally select pieces that became less specific-sounding? At least to me, the first couple of clips generated very specific pictures in my mind, but the last few really didn't.

Several of them sounded very similar to me. I kept having images of ladies swooning. I, too, went with a version of the cartoon method, although my images weren't all cartoons; I had some opera-style scenes in there too (which is odd, because I have never watched one, really). I have musical training, but all at the high-school/early college level, nothing professional.

I also think context is important. How many people who have never heard a waltz or seen people dance to one would say that a waltz is "about" dancing? And how many people who have seen Fantasia could possibly hear The Sorcerer's Apprentice without seeing Mickey?

But I have to disagree somewhat with Luci--although I agree that watching or hearing a specific interpretation of a piece of music can color your perceptions of it, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I loved Fantasia, but I can still listen to Toccata and Fugue or Beethoven's fifth (or sixth) and appreciate them. Maybe it depends on the piece.

Bernstein's "academic" life was spent studying this issue, that of musical meaning and whether or not the non-musical meanings in programmatic music are an intrinsic part of the meaning of the work as a whole. Interpretations and presentations on this can be found in his Young People's Concerts and for the more mature audience, the Norton Lectures of 1973.

Is the opening rhythm of the Mahler 9th just a fancy off-beat, hinting at the syncopation that Stravinsky would later use, or is hit a musical representation of his own heart beat, the failing heartbeat that he knew would kill him soon? Is the end of the 9th just a very long fade out, or is it really the last breaths of a dying man?

If music has no meaning outside of itself, then why homages and quotations such as Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex quoting Verdi's Aida (but *only* for Oedipus's own parts, not for anybody else), or Alban Berg's Violin Concerto which pulls from Brahams's Lullaby (2nd Symphony) and a Bach choral that (also plays on that devil tritone without actually touching it)
or Takemitsu's Quotation of Dream (which draws from La Mer)?

BTW: the Stravinsky quote is real, though most composers and scholars agree that his own music betrayed him on that.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 25 Apr 2009 #permalink

I am 52 years old, and started taking piano lessons less that 2 years ago, and this is my first musical training. I find this question fascinating because I have been considering the "language" value of music for some time now.

I believe that music evolved before consciousness did, hence you can find music is so many other animals. Language evolved after consciousness did, hence only humans have it.

I have come to the opinion that music evolved as a means of communication between unconscious minds. Language later evolved as a means of communication between conscious minds.

The questions you ask can be rephrased as "listen to something with your unconscious mind, interpret the meaning and make it conscious, then talk about it." That may be a lot easier said then done. It's like telling someone how you feel. We have lots of metaphors for that, but they are all metaphors because you cannot fully describe an unconscious thing with conscious language.

I found myself trying to work out what kind of scene in a film the music would be the soundtrack for. That was the only way I could think of to visualise the music.

I've had some musical training (learnt how to play the piano) though must say I was never really good at it.

Listened to the clips and must say I guessed pretty much all of them...especially the later ones I just had close to zero ideas even on what to guess.

Will be interested to see what the results are like!

Perhaps the 'words' of the language of music do not refer to objects or situations in the world, but rather to emotions and changes thereof.

Further to the above, one of the pieces in the survey is trying to create an image through reference: Elephants from Carnival of the Animals. From wikipedia: "the thematic material is taken from Felix Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hector Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs" but shifted down a couple of octaves by using the double bass, thus taking away all the grace that the original pieces had.

It may be the case that you can only hear the intended meaning if you have heard all the referenced pieces and know their meaning too. Perhaps those who have not heard the referenced pieces can never truly understand a piece. (I don't believe this myself, but it's a hypothesis worth investigating.)

By Philip Potter (not verified) on 27 Apr 2009 #permalink

The first clip is about some cellos, then, additionally, violas and violins, engaging in call and response with some cymbals, all this while a kettle drum murmurs in the background. Later, the kettle drum becomes more voluble, which leads some oboes join the colloquy.

I'm with Stravinsky: Music doesn't express emotion (or anything else). I think the confusion on this point stems from the fact that music clearly elicits emotion. But so does stubbing your toe, and no one ever argued that stubbing your toe was an instance of emotive representation.

Classical works referencing others is all over the 19th century, especially in "program" pieces.

The most infamous is the simple stretching of an interval in a theme from a 4th to a minor 6th to create Tristan and Isolde out of Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet.

Each "generation" would take some aspects of the vocabulary of the previous generation and tweak it to the harmonic vocabulary they were developing, so Berlioz R&J -> Wagner T&I -> Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. It was only in the rejection of tonality that the avant garde broke that pattern...or did they, given Alban Berg's flirtation with Bach and Brahams in the violin concerto?

Magpie that he was, Stravinsky also quoted from the past throughout his works (Firebird has elements of Rimsky-Korsakov, Fairy Dance has Tchaikovsky; Oedipus Rex has Verdi), making me wonder if when he finally did embrace serlialism in the 50s, was he truly embracing it or merely "stealing" from Webern and Boulez as much as he had been stealing from everybody else throughout his career.

Now, does not knowing those details of reference make understanding the work any less? Does one have to understand the artifices upon which art is built in order to appreciate the art? Well that depends on what you mean by appreciation, which, like "theory" has different meanings between the vernacular and the academic.

Appreciate to common language merely means "do I like it? Will I listen to it (or read it or look at it) again? Does it at least seem like a quality work even though it's not something I like?".

Appreciation in Art, academically, means learning the artifices upon which an art is built, being able to recognize them when used in other contexts, and being able to make a judgment about whether or not the artist has used them effectively and creatively.

Whether you want someone to appreciate it in the former or latter sense seems to be a key question here. Note that in my definition of Appreciation in Art, I did nothing to mention non-artistic associations. "traveling through the Czech Republic" doesn't figure into real music appreciation. It may help the layman gel his "like" of a piece in the common sense of appreciation, but means nothing to the educated listener.

Or does it? That seems to be the real key to this entry and quiz: can our internal experiences of imagination in reaction to music something that can be generalized as being common, and if so, should those too become part of the requirement of "Appreciation" in the artistic sense?

After seeing flying whales in Fantasia 2000 and knowing they mean nothing to the serene landscape that is the Villa Borghesi (I've been there) or the marching Roman soldiers that Respighi had in mind in composing the work (Pines of Rome), I'm inclined to disagree.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 30 Apr 2009 #permalink

Perhaps those who have not heard the referenced pieces can never truly understand a piece.

Can one understand the metaphors of Shakespeare without knowing Greek Tragedy? In this sense musical reference, as musical "metaphor", seems the same.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 30 Apr 2009 #permalink

After this task all I can say is that music recall some emotions and some scraps from films, but nothing in particular as climbing mountines... Or maybe I'm just insensitive?