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Absolute Music And Program Music

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Simple topic I'd like to open up for discussion about absolute music and program music. Do you agree with the statement: "where words fail music speaks", or Wagner's statement “Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone.”  Or do both statements miss the target? 

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First of all, thank you so much for starting this discussion because I've been craving something like this!

 

I believe that every art form is capable of expressing some things that the others cannot. Some things can only be expressed with music. Sometimes it's language. Other times it's visual art. Sometimes what can be expressed in music or in a poem is even better if shown in a painting. In a way I guess both statements are true. Words are more specific and less abstract, so you can say 'I love honey' in a way that music can't. One example being this excerpt from a little poem I wrote:

 

Ah! Honey, heaven's rich fondue

The sun envies your glow
Ever my taste is fixed on you
Sweetest, golden flow
 
I have no idea how to express the nature of my love for honey in musical terms. Here I thought it best to leave it as a simple poem. On the other hand, I have no words to express my love for my mother. Nor can I think of suitable music for that love. However, a simple painting (which I cannot produce for this post) of her reclining on the couch with me nestled up against her laying my head on her breast and sleeping while she strokes my hair and reads from her bible is, to me, the perfect expression of our bond. So in that case, imagery is the more powerful medium as opposed to music or language. Others may disagree with me, and perhaps they can express their love for their parents or other loved ones with music better than anything else. Or perhaps their poetic skills are for them the better choice. I think it varies from person to person. We can all express certain passions and ideas better through an art form we're suited to express them with. I'm not sure if I've phrased this clearly or effectively enough (I've got medication in my system so forgive me if I'm lacking structure or if I'm not quite hitting the mark), but basically it depends on who we are and what we're trying to express.
 
EDIT:
So back to the idea that you mentioned. I noticed that I didn't quite address exactly what you were talking about at first. The thing with program music vs absolute music is that I think that sometimes, a thing is better left to music because words or other programmatic thingies (so so sorry my mind isn't working right now) will detract/distract? from the main thing you're trying to convey. But maybe in other instances the addition of a poem or an image or story will enhance the power of the music to express the thing that the composer wants to express. Like Lord of the Rings movies wouldn't work without music. It needed (and indeed served up) impeccable music for that matter. Opera and ballet is the same way. The combination of lyrics or dancing with the music written for it can produce a more powerful experience than either element alone. So it depends.
 
I hope I've said this well enough to be understood. I think in the morning I'll look at this and be so embarrassed of my communication skills here :P Again thanks for starting this thread. And with that, good night or morning or evening afternoon whatever.
Edited by KJthesleepdeprived

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My final big work (I don't know how to call it in English) while in University had a big moment discussing this. I agree with Hanslick's point of view: music cannot transmit or communicate anything that isn't music. I can't express "honey" with music (but it doesn't mean that it can't be felt by someone).

 

The content of music s itself, not something else. Hanslick says that in a Opera about Cinderella, everything is very "cinderellish": the characters, the lines, the costumes, scenary, decoration... but the music itself can't be "cinderellish", because its nature doesn't allow it. If one says that "art imitates nature", it can even be true for visual arts (in some limited examples), but it doesn't work for music. Music can't express feelings like happiness or sadness; it expresses itself, and this "self" CAN evoke those feelings in someone.

 

So, when people say: this Program Music TALKS about this and that, it TELLS the story of yadda yadda...  well, sorry, but it doesn't. Try not to explain it before, don't show the program notes and wait for the audience's explanations... there will be myriads of it!

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Honey in musical terms would be trumpets representing the bees with Harmon mutes, stems out playing fast chromatic and scaled runs while the thick, golden honey itself would be a tuba in its mellow mid to high register falling gracefully downwards to the plop of the double basses' low pizzicato, all the while hearing a lovely waltz in 3/4 and a major key playing in the background.

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I'll fix this for you: 

 

Honey [to me] in musical terms would be trumpets representing the bees with Harmon mutes, stems out playing fast chromatic and scaled runs while the thick, golden honey itself would be a tuba in its mellow mid to high register falling gracefully downwards to the plop of the double basses' low pizzicato, all the while hearing a lovely waltz in 3/4 and a major key playing in the background.

 

;)

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I suppose that works for a depiction of honey in it's natural setting if that were my goal as the composer of a piece dedicated to honey. It's a pretty darn good one as far as it goes. However, there really isn't a way to express what one feels about the honey. Or at least I can't think of one, as was the whole point of my post. If you can find a way to communicate to people the intense addiction and affection that I feel for honey using only music with no words, then you will have my long lasting admiration. That said, I like your thinking with the whole "honey = tuba + pizzicato + waltz" thing. It's very fitting.

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Nope, I was right the first time. :)

 

No.... you think you were right. (and to you, it is "right". To me, it might not be).

 

What you describe might will have a different connotation for anyone else.

 

Unless you (i.e. the composer) specifically tells me "This music represents 'honey'", then there's no actual way to present music with any truly universal semantical meaning. 

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I'm with robin on this one. Your description of how you would depict honey in music is only clear because we know that was your intention. Otherwise we might have pumped out a great deal of other interpretations. Like wild winged lemurs flying over a grassland and rhino-bisons feeding on the grass below. That's another image I pulled out while imagining what one might do with your prescribed orchestration. There isn't one clear answer to everything like this.

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Now there's one more thing: some things might seem to have a very sure representation in music. For example: if we hear some trumpets or other brass instruments playing a march-like music, we will automatically think of military ambience, or knights, royal families entrance... well, things like that. Now, the thing is that those instruments played in that specific manner DON'T MEAN these things. This idea has been constructed in us for long periods of time. Long time ago, for some reason, brass instruments had been used in such occasions, making people associate the sound to the ambience. But I repeat: this isn't a "natural" thing... it has been constructed.

 

Ok, so I propose a challenge: pick a "random" word from the dictionary and "translate" it into music. Don't say ANYTHING about it, don't even give a title to it. Then let people try to guess which word it is.

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It's the classic argument of music being referred as a kind of "language" when it clearly doesn't function like one (even if its perception uses many of the same brain resources as language and functions in quite a similar way!)

 

The best way to put it is that when you really want to get your message across, why don't you just go and say it in actual words? Very few people have died because you just wrote out "THIS SONG IS ABOUT CHEESE AND THOSE WHOSE LIVES ARE AFFECTED BY IT IN MEANINGFUL WAYS THROUGH A WEB OF COMPLEX INTERACTIONS AS STUDIED BY FAMOUS HISTORICAL FIGURES THAT MAY OR MAY NOT INCLUDE CHOPIN" in large letters on the first page of your 4 hour orchestral piece. Very few.

 

Otherwise, you'll just have to accept that whatever you write will be invariably interpreted by someone, somewhere in such a way as to completely subvert what you meant to "say" when you wrote it.

 

Like so:

 

 

Honey in musical terms would be trumpets representing the bees with Harmon mutes, stems out playing fast chromatic and scaled runs while the thick, golden honey itself would be a tuba in its mellow mid to high register falling gracefully downwards to the plop of the double basses' low pizzicato, all the while hearing a lovely waltz in 3/4 and a major key playing in the background.

 

This to me totally sounds like a bag of cats falling down a flight of stairs. If it's in Db. If it's in C#, it'd be a bag of cats plus a monkey (and/or a small breed of dog.)

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I like both.

Yeah yeah, I know that's no fun, but hey, I gotta be honest and go with my gut, and my gut can't decide and wants to have cake and eat it too. XD

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Both statements are precisely true. They are not mutually exclusive. As is the case with much of music, the Devil is in the details.

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Music does not "speak" of anything but relationships of tones. What I mean is that any actual analysis of music is on a technical level only. Personally I don't have any patience with ideas such as "Beethoven's sonata conjures up an image of moonlight" (because it doesn't, it's just music). All such attributions have come from conventions which have developed over time and which are now largely accepted. String tremolo, for instance, is often associated with dramatic moments in film scores. Music does indeed relate to something within us which is not "language" (in the sense of the spoken or written word), so in that sense it does go "beyond" words, but in the same way, words go "beyond" music (even if poetry might be considered "musical").

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On 6/3/2016 at 10:47 PM, rendalli said:

Music does not "speak" of anything but relationships of tones.

Or rhythms, or timbres. Or processes unfolding in time? 

Music is too pregnant in meaning to be only self contained, even with its inability to be specific about anything. (Other than of course iconic sound signs in the Peirceian sense) 

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when thinking of music evoking pictures or movies in the Mind's Eye. It means it has made connections through different brain mediums. Now this isn't always the case when listening music, sometimes the music only comes to my feelings, and i dont imagine seeing anything in my Mind's Eye. Sometimes yet another brain function gets activated, the Mind's Ear, mostly on a bit meaningless music(is it still music then? or just logical chords? or am i not concentrated?), which is a bit dull and low action, i make it more interesting in my head by soloing on it. There is also music when i Listen to it, I want to dance to it, There is also music, mostly crazy modern stuff, where i like to think, I was on Codarts once, and was listening to a compositions students piece, which went like GRRRR.. pzzzztttt grzzzzttt psss,(soundscape) all in crazy metalic sounding scratches. my mind went to this: how would it be to be a microchip in a computer, seeing vague structures in front of me, and thinking about this subject very specifically, i could concentrate about the subject, because it was present in the surrounding sound.there was nothing else for 20 minutes, I think music can place you on certain thinkingpaths. it can also give you some sort of Morale, think about the ancient battles where they used drums to make the soldiers braver and fear less pain. and this Morale is an important part of the music, because, its a feeling, and a mindset, where you dont need to have words for. 

So we see all these things happening to us listening to ''music''. are all of these sounds music?, all these different reactions caused by the music? since, some of them are able to be put in images, and then again transformed to words, some music could then be translated in words per person, but some music gives us feelings which is harder to describe, and then there is music we want to dance on, why would you even want to put that into words, then you won't dance anymore. the music makes yo do it right?.another thought, if you listen to a piece, and you go through different emotions, you can have words let you go through the same emotions, it is possible probaly, would it be the same then, would the piece and the book relate to eachother? or would it not?

I dont know too much, about the topic, but enlighten me, does it make sense what i said? i think music speaks, to a lot of neuro things. 

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On 27/06/2016 at 1:29 AM, Yachar said:

Or rhythms, or timbres. Or processes unfolding in time? 

Music is too pregnant in meaning to be only self contained, even with its inability to be specific about anything. (Other than of course iconic sound signs in the Peirceian sense) 

 

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...

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14 hours ago, Casper Belier said:

i think music speaks, to a lot of neuro things.

I agree there are patterns established in my neural system by musical structures, and the patterning of my brain influences what I think to compose. That is merely an "accident of experience", music itself isn't "programmatic". Performance wise, of course, a lot of musical activity is cerebellar, rather than musical analysis, which is cerebral. Surely the brain has a lot to do with the whole thing...

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There is of course a difference between telling a story in tones and supplying an actual program, which to me is often ridiculous, and painting around a central concept. If the purpose is to create unity between the different elements of a piece, that approach is no less valid nor less effective. Just as with absolute composition, it is necessary for the elements to be consistent with the means by which they are united to avoid arbitrariness. The only real difference is that certain concepts do not need to be predicated to the audience because they are already native and so you can allow yourself more esoteric tonal material.

Chasse-Neige of F. Liszt is a particularly poignant example of mastery in this field. Also, here is something I cannot really vouch for yet but which I found very appealing as I listened to it live in concert the other day. I'm sure you will at least find it interesting:

 

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EDIT: Double post

Edited by Gylfi
double posted

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Indeed using a story for compositional inspiration is perfectly fine, but even after that is done and a piece of music comes into being, without being informed, the listener will not be able to identify the "source" material. Such is the tenuous nature of these links; they are not in any way "absolutes" themselves...

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45 minutes ago, rendalli said:

Indeed using a story for compositional inspiration is perfectly fine, but even after that is done and a piece of music comes into being, without being informed, the listener will not be able to identify the "source" material. Such is the tenuous nature of these links; they are not in any way "absolutes" themselves...

 

It doesn't matter, neither are "absolute" connections. There are many cases where careful study of a piece causes me to listen to it in a completely different way.

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I have heard a thousand times about the "eroticism" in several passages of Wagner's music, or the "irony" in Mahler and Shostakovich. Yet I have always wondered what are, exactly, the traits that make a particular passage "erotic" or "ironic" (so that I might be able to borrow them on occasion).

Nevertheless, I still support the notion that music is communication - only that its dynamic nature means that this communication is always veiled, cyphered, without ever being unequivocal or explicit. If music were only a progression of sounds and rhythms in purely physical terms, I'd be hard-pressed to explain the strong emotional reactions it begets, no matter if these reactions vary from one person to another. But - at least to me - there's still a bit of "storytelling" in music (and if you listen to my works, you'll know why).

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1 hour ago, Austenite said:

I have heard a thousand times about the "eroticism" in several passages of Wagner's music, or the "irony" in Mahler and Shostakovich. Yet I have always wondered what are, exactly, the traits that make a particular passage "erotic" or "ironic" (so that I might be able to borrow them on occasion).

I personally leave Shostakovich entirely alone. His reputation is too polluted for it to be possible to have any meaningful discussion about his music. That being said, I think irony is definitely an appreciable quality of music.* Not so much an evocation of irony but rather the ironic intent of the composer. Check out this Beethoven scherzo (2:29:49):

At the end of the trio, he very jarringly modulates to the parallel minor (2:32:14) and then immediately repeats the scherzo da capo, which is in the parallel major to that! I refuse to believe that he was in any way sincere when he wrote this, and the same can be said for countless other very funny passages. It is almost sinful not to mention Haydn in this discussion, who without a shadow of a doubt is king among composers when it comes to musical irony. I would say that Shostakovich's music, if anything, is more bitterly sarcastic in its character than inherently ironic. Mahler is a different story though, there are many moments of awe-inspiring irony in his music; I don't even necessarily find it funny, in fact I think it is usually quite poignant or even terrifying.

I actually find the adjective "erotic" to be more appropriate for Mahler than Wagner. I'm not saying it means anything, but I do subjectively agree with the assessment.

* Generally speaking.

Edited by Gylfi
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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)?

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