2 September 2004

The content of form in music, part 1

The book German Essays on Music includes an essay by Eduard Hanslick from 1854 titled "'Content' and 'Form' in Music." In it, he argues that instrumental music has no meaning beyond the notes themselves.

Music consists of tonal sequences, tonal forms; these have no other content than themselves. They remind us once again of architecture and dancing, which likewise bring us beautiful relationships without content.
[People] think that composing is the translating of some kind of conceptual content into tones. But the tones themselves are the untranslatable, ultimate language. Indeed, from the very fact that the composer is forced to think in tones, it follows that music has no content ...

This goes against the more recent theories of formalism, which suggests that meaning is derived from the structural assemblage of the work, and (possibly) the older Aristotelian ideas of empiricism. Form, in the work as a whole and recursively in its constituent parts, provides basic characteristics of expression in both music and the visual arts.

Form, in the definition that I'll use, covers all aspects of the structure of a piece. The melodic content and arrangement defines a certain structure (from smaller to larger):

  • Repeated motivic intervals within a theme: thirds in the first theme of Barber's Violin Concerto, fourths in the first theme of Yes' "And You & I",
  • Motives shared throughout the piece: the four repeated notes that open Beethoven's Violin Concerto (listen to this concerto, it's monumental),
  • The more obvious recurring theme: any strophic pop song,
  • The less obvious: the inverted melody in the second voice of the second movement of Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos,
  • More long-distance sharing of material: a fragment of the famous theme from the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata is repeated in the third movement

(Unless I can find MIDI transcription, I'll include some MIDI files that I've transcribed using MidNote on my phone.)

On its own, this genetic material lacks the content that Hanslick is looking for, but the structural manner in which the material is arranged does begin to provide content. The conversational prosody of the Stravinsky melody on its own is re-emphasized as the second voice rephrases the statements of the first. My piano teacher from college would recommend making up words to a melody in order to help understand its phrasing. The breaths you would need to take in the sentence would define the phrases in the melody. This trick would lend itself very well to the Stravinsky.

More than that, it points out that a melody and the structure of how it's presented can reference almost Platonic, eternal concepts. Without words, or acting, or a movie to provide context, we can find content within otherwise abstract music. My interpretation of the Stravinsky piece as a conversation doesn't mean that a conversation is the content but rather that it is a conversation-like-thing. This may sound very philosophical (spelled: B.S.), but I think it gets to the heart of music, abstract music, and the arts in general.

These structures (a vague term) are similar to what I attribute to religious expression. Religion, along with all socially constructed phenomenon, is the patterns and structures within the human mind exploded out into the physical world. The one valuable concept I got out of Freudian studies was the idea that random choices are still choices. You dreamt about a staircase you walked up yesterday: you certainly used the staircase because you experienced it recently, yet you experienced many different events--why choose the staircase? Social construction is similar to Freudian choice (my term). God can come in many powerful forms and manifestations: why do we choose the forms of the Koran or the Old Testament or the Hindu Vedas? These, as are all social forms, are shadows of the structure of our minds.

OK, back to music.

Musical form, at its most effective, is a shadow of our most basic human mental structures. This is very difficult territory to assume any, any, authority on, but we toss the dice where we have the best confidence. Life is always a struggle against the idiocy of subjectivism. And we all fail at times.

The best art contains these eternal forms. I'm not so isolated that I don't realize that this is unpopular philosophy in the 21st century, or so uneducated that I don't understand the thin neurological basis of any such philosophy. Getting that out of the way: these forms, when manifest in the arts, are our struggle, our struggle as humans, to tell our story.

[ posted by sstrader on 2 September 2004 at 8:11:47 PM in Music ]