15 December 2002

Why Analyze Music?

While visual art has been said to be an imitation of Nature, music has been similarly spoken of as an imitation of human emotion [these expressions, I believe, originated with Plato]. Composer Hector Berlioz wrote, “While Love cannot give an idea of music, Music can give an idea of love. But why separate them? They are the two wings of the soul.” Shakespeare likewise described music as “the food of love” and, in words spoken through an imprisoned Richard II, ascribed multiple powers to music:
The music mads me: Let it sound no more;
For though it
have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it
seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
‘tis a sign of love, and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.
Perhaps the most we can conclude from abstract and ‘unscientific’ sentiments such as these is that many of us feel passionately about music and would perhaps claim that we have no choice but be moved by it — even though we may all differ as to which types of music affect us, or as to whether the experience is principally ‘right brain’ or some combination of ‘left’ and ‘right.’

The First Two Roles of Musical Analysis
I here propose that it is possible to break down any musical expression — song, symphony, folk dance or whatever music someone attests to being moved by — into elements that lend themselves to technical evaluation, the articulation of which will enhance our understanding (assuming we have enough of a grasp on the technical terms employed) as to why that particular music affects us emotionally (or even physiologically). This is the first role of musical analysis: to explain what we already can feel. While this explanation will necessarily make use of the vocabulary of music theory, it must also step outside of this theoretical lan- guage — resorting to psychological, sociological or physically metaphoric terms — to adequately account for listeners’ experiences. Versions of this idea may be found in articles we have read by Fred Maus, Edward T. Cone and Marion Guck. 

The second role of musical analysis — as would be the case with analysis of any art form — is to unearth properties in a work that enhance the listener’s intellectual understanding and possibly deepen his/her emotional experience as a result. [To those who argue that saying too much about a piece ‘wrecks it for them’ I would suggest that it is more likely they are feeling the wounds of early learning experiences than that they are being afflicted in the present]. 

My appreciation of the role of musical analysis began with having watched, as a teenager, the TV series “Civilization” — which brought the compelling art writer and lecturer Ken- neth Clark into homes everywhere. Here I was introduced to the many levels that art can affect us at the same time: color, form, drama, historical context and so forth. 
The swathes of snow and water swing about in a wholly unpredictable manner, and their impetus is deflected by contrary movements of spray and mysterious striations of light. To look at them from long is an uncomfortable, even an exhausting experience.1
Descriptions such as this [of Turner’s The Snowstorm] are the product of a mind that can continue concentrating on a painting long after the rest of us have passed it by. Likewise, someone gifted in musical analysis would ideally be able to maintain concentration — while noting structural phenomena — through a work that would, for most listeners, pass ‘in one ear and out the other.’

Even the process by which I managed to begin enjoying classical music, when my taste had been only for popular styles, could also be said to have been helped by a type of ‘musical analysis’: seeing a TV broadcast of Brahms’ Double Concerto after months of hearing my mother practice the cello part — the latter subjecting all family members to an unwitting aural ‘dissection’ of the piece.

Were we engineers designing a bridge, a technical understanding of all the stress components would be essential to build a structure that would withstand the weight of traffic in all circumstances. Our main concern could not be aesthetic experience, but rather functionality. (Though Frank Lloyd Wright may have written that whatever is purely functional is thereby beautiful, a design would not qualify for this designation if ‘beauty’ had been the designer’s goal). Composers of music, on the other hand, are not required to operate as practically — their priority being the aesthetic — and therefore analyzers of music have a different role to play than would analyzers of bridge engineering. 

The problem of how to handle this non-technical subjective component of a listener’s experience is addressed by Maus in his article, “Music and Drama.” After presenting us with an overview of past authors’ ideas on the relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘expression,’ he offers what he considers to be a model analysis, with accompanying commentary, of the opening of Beethoven’s Opus 95 String Quartet. 

How much time this account of the music spends in each of the two roles of analysis outlined above depends on who is listening. That is to say, we may not all experience the music as he assumes we do — prior to any explanation, at least. Speaking for my own listening experience, there was already a definite sense of abruptness about the first two bars of this quartet. The first role of his analysis, therefore, would be to explain reasons for the sensation I was already experiencing. In doing so, however — with his demonstration of the strongest pitches being mapped to the weakest parts of the beat — I was able to experience an even greater abruptness. Such a change in perception might be likened to a prep school teacher discovering that not only did his student appear outwardly disheveled, but that he was purposely breaking dress-code regulations at the same time. The author has succeeded, therefore, in the second role: of recruiting my intellect to deepen my listening experience. Another listener could quite possibly have already noted this odd pitch-rhythm juxtaposition, but may still have found another insight in Maus’ analysis compelling — in which case the division between the two roles, for that particular listener, would necessarily fall in a different place.
Different Strokes
Conversely, some of us may simply disagree with tenants put forth in an analysis — finding that the line between what one actually hears in the music and what a given author has projected onto the music has been crossed to a degree we find inappropriate. This problem I en- countered in Cone’s “Schubert’s Promissory Note” and “Analysis Today” articles. In the first of the two, Cone defines what he means by a ‘promissory note’ — though citing more than this one example in the literature would have given more credence to its indeed being a nineteenth century practice — and then makes a case for an ‘E’ that does not resolve cadentially to ‘F’, in Schubert’s Moment Musical (Op. 95, No 6), as being such a note. He offers a treasure chest of detailed observations which can certainly enhance our appreciation of the piece, even if we may not be in accord with all of them. Though he states that he is limiting his analysis to one aspect of the piece — that it would require too much space to go into all he could say about it — I was still left with the sense that he listed more details that we needed to read.

In the second article, Cone writes briefly about a variety of pieces from different periods to make several points as to the proper function of analysis. How well these short analyses ‘ring true’ for each us depends, of course, on our familiarity with the music under discus- sion. On page 42, we find an example by Beethoven where a progression of II# - i is de- scribed as being ‘resolved’ (via V) eight measures later — which does not hold up in my own hearing of the passage. Do we really need the dominant chord inserted to resolve ‘stress’ created by this progression and can its assertion
after-the-fact really serve that end? Why not hear the II# itself as resolving to i?

After all, the A# moves up by half-step to B, the F# up by half-step to G.

In both of these cases, Cone depends on us having a well-developed ‘long range hearing’ — that is, of a particular note or chord echoing in our ears, crying for attention, through intervening measures of music where other tonal directions vie for that attention. I am left wondering, however, if these ‘unresolved’ entities were, for this author, more visual than aural. In another instance, Cone demonstrates a degree of sensitivity to this issue, as he states on page 53 of “Analysis Today” [following his discussion of ‘cadential effects’ in certain 20th century composers]:
To the charge of irrelevancy, I answer that one who cannot indeed hear such cadential phenomena in this music must judge the analysis to be prescriptive and inapplicable. But one who does hear them must admit to that extent the validity of the approach.
In such cases when what the author has proposed does not altogether work for us, we may at least apply ourselves to question of what does in fact feel ‘true’ about a particular musical work. Just the same, in these two articles Cone certainly fulfills the two roles of analysis I have described, even when his conclusions are distracting.

Given the uncompromising scrutiny that Marion Guck subjected prominent music analysts to in her “Analytical Fictions” article, I was pleasantly surprised upon reading the literary flamboyance she exhibits in her own analysis of Chopin’s Sixth Prelude. Her ‘free’ language is carefully chosen, however. 
The simple, clear i - VI progression, opening diatonic tonal space and brightening from minor to major, inclines toward a rising mood.2
Here she assumes we experience “brightening” and “rising mood” in the music, without venturing further — such as describing the mood as ‘joyous’ or ‘like a weeping child being distracted by a puppy,’ etc.
. . . the progression stalls on vii and then V, entangled with frustratingly interstitial VI’s and i’s. Even the lift afforded by the soprano’s escape up- ward to F# is obliterated by its sixteenth-note rush down to be captured in the cadence.3
While “frustratingly interstitial” may not be an expression we are ever likely to encounter again, it is a fascinating combination of the psychological and the scientific (“interstitial” referring to spaces in between) — if somewhat obtuse. Do we experience ‘frustration’ with the harmonic progression? Or does the music go so far as to depict the human feeling of frustration, prompting us to nod and say, ‘yes, I’ve been there’? Perhaps, as Maus suggests about ‘gaps’ in analysis4, we don’t need to decide. The soprano’s “escape” is “obliterated” and then “captured.” This reminds me of Maus’ description of Op. 95, but the writing here hits me more in the gut — perhaps because the imagery is well-matched to the dramatic quality of the music. Her account helps to organize the piece for us, and successfully articulates the subjective without over-doing it.

Aspiring to the Objective
In the books Classical Form by William Caplin and A Generative Theory of Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff we find expositories of theory on how all music from the clas- sical period functions — traits shared by Haydn, Mozart and early-middle Beethoven. While the latter book makes a strong case for there being properties common to music and linguistics [there already existing a “generative linguistic theory”], the former could be said to strike a connection between music and grammar. I found the Caplin particularly fascinating because his attempt to develop a water-tight series of rules for phrase behavior kept me in suspense as to where a ‘leak’ might spring. He did, however, effectively apply his models to more examples than I would have expected. 

Sense though it may make to look at every piece of classical music on its own terms, ignoring the common vocabulary in the style would make for cumbersome analysis. Though Caplin may believe that he has a rule covering every contingency, I don’t have to believe he does to benefit from learning his system. Just as in any ‘classical’ style — on the ‘primitive’...‘classical’...‘decadent’ continuum — there is an evolved balance to be studied. In writing my own music, then, I can ask, “does this passage have a “presentation” and “continuation” or an “antecedent” and “consequent,” or does it achieve balance through some other means? If not, is the aim of this passage to be out of balance? I wouldn’t call what Caplin does ‘analysis’ in the same sense as found in Cone, Maus or Guck; rather, he offers a theoretical toolbox from which analyses may be constructed, particularly when a piece requires exceptions to, or stretching of, his rules for “grouping structure.”

Role Three
Being a performer myself, Joel Lester’s “Performance and Analysis: Interaction and Inter- pretation” asks particularly relevant questions. How often do we performers acknowledge, or unearth, analytical insights in our playing? Do we have a ‘sixth sense’ that allows us to intuit a work’s essential architecture, or do we need to apply ourselves rigorously to analysis so as to avoid coming across as self-indulgent show-offs? Do our repeated practicings give us an organic connection with a work that no mortal analyst can reach, or does our preoccupation with the physical technique involved obscure our picture of the whole?

Lester adds a possible third role of analysis to those previously delineated: once you know why the music affects you and have been afforded new enjoyment through further analytical insights how do you then communicate these insights yourself in performance? Or if you are not performing the work yourself, how do you communicate your discoveries to a performer such that he/she will find practical application for them? Lester provides examples where analysts should share what they’ve found with performers, where analysis can be informed by performers’ existing interpretations and where analytical insights should not be incorporated into performance.
A fourth role?
It’s hard to believe that 27 years have passed since I first read The Classical Style of Charles Rosen, just after hearing his lecture/demonstration at UMass Amherst. Of all the authors we have read for this class, Rosen is the one to most remind me of Kenneth Clark — and thus continues to be my favorite. Like Caplin (the title of whose book even overlaps the titles of Rosen’s two books on the same period), he seeks to distill for readers the salient traits of classical style; but rather than inventory and catalogue in the somewhat dry manner of Caplin, Rosen focuses on aspects that he apparently finds most inspirational about this music. Granted, the different means these authors employ are justified by, and appropriate to, their differing goals. In contrast with some of Cone’s writing, so it strikes me, Rosen doesn’t tell us anything we don’t need to know in making his succinct points.

I get the sense, as with Clark, that Rosen always has the ‘whole’ in mind while discussing the ‘parts.’ Putting matters in historical context, he causes us to appreciate the truly revolutionary — Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets, for example. 

But the Schezi Quartets have the rhythmic technique that comes from the experience of writing comic opera: a rapid action demanded a regularity of phrasing in order to be intelligible, and the music needed a tight continuity articulated logically to keep time with what happened on the stage. What Haydn had learned in ten years [since Op. 20] and what these new quartets show, is, above all, dramatic clarity. 
Placing us in the context of Haydn’s world and Haydn’s life affords us new understanding of the creative process along with an enhanced appreciation of the music. While every analysis of a musical piece may not need to place us in history to be effective, this optional ‘fourth role’ offered by Rosen leaves me feeling better informed, and thrilled to learn more. 
1. Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1960.
2. Marion Guck, “Two Types of Metaphoric Transference” in Music and Meaning, p. 205.
3. Ibid
4. Fred Maus, “Music as Drama,” in
Music Theory Spectrum, p. 68: “. . .the gaps belong in the analysis. . . they record an aspect of musical experience.”

18 November 2002

Graphic representation of Pierrot #18

"Der Mondfleck" from Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (click to enlarge) . . .