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Metaphor, Memes and the Cartesian Music-Hall


A few months ago I gave a talk about the role of metaphor in music. Specifically, I suggested that metaphor and analogy were convenient terms for the description of the different levels of explanation and justification available in musical composition and analysis. So, for instance, an analyst might see music in terms of particular groups of pitches, particular melodic sequences, or particular structural groupings. This is of course how many composers see things as well. Alternatively, a psychologist specialising in music might express things in much more technical and lower level responses - or they might not attempt to interpret them at all, preferring to rely on purely experimental data. A neuropsychologist might see things at a still lower level - investigating which particular areas of the brain are stimulated by which aural stimulus. At still another level, a musicologist might interpret things in terms of much higher level events - social or more global musical events, physiological data and so on...

Much time and effort may be spent discussing the relative merits of different approaches, usually within one of the above areas and rarely across areas. A recent TV program discussing the results of a public poll concerning 'music of the millenium' distinguished itself by singularly failing to discuss or even point out that none of the artists chosen were older than sixty or seventy years. It was clear that the majority of people polled as well as the majority of those commenting had any clear idea or interest in the fact that music might have a slightly longer history than this period. The inclusion of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in the final 'top ten' was rather spoilt by their inclusion beneath the likes of Robbie Williams and John Lennon. This discomfort was only emphasised by the way in which the commentators too carefully avoided any mention of these characters - they stood out like a black sheep at a family gathering to whom noone else is talking.

I am going to propose a tentative hypothesis as to why these divisions arise - not just in terms of popular or classical music, but in terms of different ways of perceiving levels of operation within music and also, potentially, why there can be a certain tension between the varying explanations.

My hypothesis is tentative because it involves areas into which I am only now making investigations - areas in which I am neither particularly experienced or skilled. It involves incorporating viewpoints and understanding from areas not normally associated with music appreciation or analysis but which I am increasingly convinced are essential for the understanding of music's role in society. These areas are consciousness and the role of evolution in consciousness.

The three principle investigators I wish to remark on are Steven Mithen, the archeologist, Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and Daniel Dennett, the philosopher. Each of these authors and thinkers have spent a large part of their professional lives advocating approaches to the problem of consciousness implying that we are unable to truly understand this phenomenon and therefore by definition any phenomenon that we then perceive we understand without considering the roles of our brains as the intermediary of this experience. At the same time, neither authors presupposes a necessity, at least at one level, for the precise, low level understanding of the neuroscientist.

As a consequence of these deliberations I shall also be touching on the role of 'program' music and why so many musicians have such a problem with certain forms of this, and also the roles of justification and explanation in the academic study and appreciation of music.

Richard Hoadley, June 2000