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Absolute Music And Program Music

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It's an interesting concept we're getting to here!  The idea that wit, sarcasm, irony etc can be used musically actually makes sense to me. 

While it's true, there's never a true semiotic meaning found in music, using music to convey humour or sarcasm can be quite effective. 

For me, as an improvisor, humour and sarcasm and whatnot will often come out spontaneously, in reaction to things happening in the moment (like matching tones with a police siren, or taking a rhythmic motif from some dropped silverware). Sarcasm in the moment can come stylistically - repeating a particularly lame phrase or borrowing uncharacteristic styles from another soloist; playing purposefully "old-fashioned" over bebop changes, quoting "Stella" for the drunk guy who keeps yelling "Play Stella!".

Compositionally, it's interesting when music is used ... humorously. Incorrectly.  Sarcastically, ironically...whatever.

For example (clearly showing my bias, here), Carla Bley's use of Patriotic themes, and National Anthems. 

See Excerpt 04, Spangled Banner Minor, and then Excerpt 02, National Anthem. (from a much larger work, full of slightly warped takes on patriotic American music.

The first was "...written during the late seventies to express some disappointment or other with the United States government.". Which is pretty clear - the purposeful mangling and destruction of the theme. The second, less ironic and dark, but certainly with Carla's classic tongue-in-cheek humour. 

Things like "a fragment called Flags (which was just an inversion of the first eight bars of The Star Spangled Banner)" continue the concept of twisting something familiar, into something unique, and meaningful - in a new way.


If you want to hear the whole tunes, let me know. My brief thoughts and hasty excerpts don't do a major extended work like National Anthem justice ;)




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There are a thousand examples of sensual and even erotic music in the world. But nearly all of it is in pop and folk music. The most so called "serious" composers can achieve is an intellectual approximation of it. Unless he abandons his seriousness to change form.  But that's unlikely, otherwise no one would take him seriously. He leaves the sentimental stuff to Tom Waits and the erotic stuff to Sade and that's that. (Yes, there is the orgy in The Rite Of Spring and Ravel's Bolero, but neither would be appropriate in the boudoir, because neither of them is focused enough.

Now, regarding Austenite's question about practical methods for conveying irony. I have heard it in his piano variations. It's there. He may not have intended it, but it's there.  Start out with a cliche, something that everyone knows, or in his case, a theme, then change it. It's hard to avoid irony, because irony is just controlled wit. In my Humoresque I have used blatant wrong notes, syncopation, and stylistic juxtaposition to achieve humor. Many ways to do it.


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19 hours ago, Austenite said:

Good enough. But if "irony" is stating the opposite of what is meant, we're in fact admiting that there's an actual meaning. So - what is exactly what makes this music ironic? Is this adjective somehow meaningful to describe it? What musical devices could a composer use to achieve "musical irony", or even downright sarcasm and snarkiness (without lyrics, of course)?

There isn't perhaps an inherent meaning per se, but there certainly is an expectation. It differs from person to person but it is very real and is the key to musical "meaning". I'm not a biologist, but I hope it should be self-evident that the brain spends a lot of time performing background analyses when exposed to any kind of sensation in order to determine whether the situation is safe and to ensure that it continues to be safe. It makes predictions based on prior knowledge and the current state - if something unexpected happens, the brain becomes more aware and reacts to the new information. I'm not qualified to give a detailed medical definition of humor or even sensation, but I would say they greatly depend on one's experience with reacting to things and therefore the meaning is more often than not in some way localized. That being said, I would say that we as appreciators of Western classical music share some set of expectations, if examined at a reasonably low-resolution; and also that this music, if considered inseparable from its audience, has "inherent" meaning. It has to be evaluated on an individual basis whether something unexpected is funny.

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On 7/2/2016 at 4:42 AM, rendalli said:

As in a response to  - Music does not "speak" of anything but relationships of tones (my original statement). Evidently yes there are relationships of such as rhythm and timbre. These are still acoustic relationships, and my point is that music (and its analysis) can only be meaningfully discussed "acoustically". When I say "meaningully discussed", I mean there is a "shared terminology", a mutually understood "frame of reference".

However "pregnant in meaning" a piece of music is to you, it will likely be pregnant with a different meaning for a different person. This is why, to me, such discussion is insignificant. Anyway, actual musical structure as exhibited in a musical score is of much greater interest to me than "psychologism" and subjective "meanings", which I do not care to hear about. Talk to me of major thirds and augmentation, chromatic scales and syncopation, instrumentation and technique, thank you...


Music is a cultural phenomenon. As all cultural phenomenons go, none of them exist in isolation. With this in mind, there are multiple frames and fields of interest when discussing music. What you espouse is the traditional musicologist view of only having in mind musical syntax. At some point in the history of musicology there was a revolution and pragmatics (audience reception etc) became the second most important (if not the most important for many) frame of discussion. 

Musical semantics is of course problematic. Music does not clearly denote anything, except for the most banal examples (using referential sounds in music, birdsong, wind etc).Yet there are also many who would take a look at musical semantics. There are ways to do this. Many have made attempts at more objective musical semantics, but this is not strictly necessary or possible, in my opinion. 

To turn back to the first point I made, music does not exist in isolation in our culture. As such there is grounds for shared interpretations of music. Or shared sub-cultural interpretations. Yes: they are not universal. Meaning is not strictly describable in deterministic terms, it depends on the interpretative lexicon of the audience, thus sbjective, as you'd put it. To some this is a problem, I can see this, to the semiotician, this subjectivity is inherent anyway and also describable. This lexicon can be discussed meaningfully though, without resorting to strictly individual psychologism. To you this discussion may be insignificant, but to many it isn't. 


But my first point was to also to bring attention to the fact, that relationship of tones or pitches is not necessarily the main focal point in many languages of music. 


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