Saturday, March 13, 2004

Meaning in Music

I was doing some reading this afternoon for a paper I'm writing on Berlioz, when I came across this passage in a book talking about meaning in music:

"What we forget is that there is such a thing as meaning and understanding in one step, immediate and without immitation. Take a sudden cry. It bursts from someone near you, whom you know. The cry is an expression, and from the looks of the person and your sense of the situation you usually know whether it is a cry of joy, or of pain. But that is a mere tag. What the cry expresses is not the general subject pain or joy, nor a localized pain or cause of joy. It contains infinitely more than either emotion, general or particular. It expresses the whole being, that person at that moment. Strictly speakng, the cry is unanalyzable and undescribable....

Music--and every other art--is expressive in the same sense as a cry or a gesture. We say to the same effect a "facial expression"--it has no name, but it means. Music is of course far more complex than cries, faces or gestures, but like a brilliant pantomime its consecutive intention is immediately perceived and understood. No need of mentally guessing, translating, converting its passing forms into another realm of abstract or concrete perceptions. The better word for this power is not expression but expressiveness..."

I was reminded of something Jen said in a comment for an earlier entry, just about how hard it is to express music in words and maybe that's the point. This passage I think reiterates that point, and I was struck by how when you try to explain music in words, it tends to take away from the power of it. The point of music is that it is something you hear, and in the hearing of it feel the meaning as it strikes a chord within your very being.

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