Monday, January 17, 2011

Range of Emotions and the Musical Discourse

I got rather angry while listening to the "To the Best of our Knowledge" podcast called Why Do We Love Sad Songs, because I found the explanations of the "experts" ranged between the superficial monochromatic and the downright wrong.

Am I the only person on the planet who doesn't consider the proper way to describe the Barber Adagio as "sad?" Hearing or playing it stimulates a range of emotions in me. Some of those emotions have names, and some that do not. I find hearing it played well allows me to have great range of emotional reactions. There are times during any given reading of it when I feel exhilarated, and times when the music makes me feel tense, there are times when I feel sure-footed, and times when the music makes me question. I respond to the various timbers and use of tessitura by having different physical reactions. I respond to the lengths of the phrases, and the way they ebb and flow, and I feel differently--a whole new "cocktail" of differently--each time I hear it.

I fear that musical discussions like the ones in the aforementioned podcast are leading the basic stuff of musical discourse down the path of one dimensionality. Music is something far greater than happy or sad, and the elements in music that tug on our various emotional strings are far more sophisticated than describing the function of a descending major or a minor third in root position, and being done with it. The major = happy and minor = sad argument falls terribly short when discussing a piece of music by an emotionally off the chart composer like Beethoven. I lose patience when adults talk about major thirds being happy and minor ones being sad (and nobody ever mentions their emotionally-confusing inversions).

Children can often be quite creative and open when they describe their feelings, particularly when someone is willing to listen. People seem to be born with a rainbow of emotions, and ways of expressing them, but too many people lose them along with their baby teeth. Consider this cartoon that our son drew when he was nine or ten (Gran is a cartoon character that Ben used to draw back when he was a member of the Junior Cartoonists Society):

Fortunately he has been able to retain (and even expand) his emotional vocabulary into adulthood.

One of the instructor evaluation questions that students at my community college are asked to answer each semester is whether the instructor is able to simplify complicated material. I believe that what we seek from music is not the simple, but the complex, and we are often drawn to the emotional complexity in music that seems simple on the surface. Consider the monophonic Dies Irae. I could write volumes about this piece, if I only had the skill and vocabulary to do so. It reaches beyond the part of me that needs to represent thoughts in language. I can tell you why I like it, or why it's important, or what the words mean, or the tradition of incorporating it into to other works, but I can't really articulate the way it makes me feel. I can tell you one thing though, I wouldn't restrict my vocabulary to words like "happy" and "sad."

Perhaps one of the indications of what people like to call the "decline of classical music" is the sound-bite nature of using simple concepts to describe something that, in its most successful form, defies the use of (or need for) words. Culturally we are rather immature when it comes to talking about complicated feelings. Some of us have a difficult time when we encounter music that is too "intense" and requires too much of our attention, particularly if it is vocal music.

I believe that music that stimulates and draws upon deep emotional experiences will always be with us (though it might not be as easy to find in the future), and I believe that there will always be people who desire emotional musical substance in their lives, even if it happens rather late in adulthood.

When things get rough we need to remember that we do what we do for those people (many who will remain completely unknown to us) as well as for our own emotional health.

1 comment:

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi said...

I agree with you Elaine that there will always be people who crave musical substance in their lives. What is it that nourishes our souls, if not music, whenever we experience a time of grief or celebratory occasion? It is music that we wish for at weddings, funerals, sick-beds, ceremonies, etc.

We turn to music to ease pain, to intensify romance, to dance when we're joyful. One of my greatest pleasures for me is partaking in Mozart's Requiem during All Soul's Mass at St. James Cathedral. One literally recognizes the deep spiritual and healing impact of Mozart's music during and after the service.

Much has been written about the Mahler's music and its curative powers. The documentary film "A Wayfarer's Journey" delves into this phenomenon. I suppose this effect is not derived only from Mahler, but many other great composers.