View Full Version : The Paradox of Musical Description

02-12-2016, 09:39 AM

Unlike the visual or literary arts, music seems to be impossible to describe in words — we’re forced to choose between the senselessly subjective and the incomprehensibly technical. Rutgers philosopher Peter Kivy cataloged four common types of music criticism:

Biographical: a description of the composer rather than his music. “We are allowed to gaze upon a deeply agitated life, that seeks, with strong endeavour, to support itself at the high level of the day.”
Autobiographical: a description of the critic’s impressions rather than the music. “I closed my eyes, and whilst listening to the divine gavotte … I seemed to be surrounded on all sides by enfolding arms, adorable, intertwining feet, floating hair, shining eyes, and intoxicating smiles.”
Emotive: a subjective description of emotions in composers or listeners. “The first episode is a regular trio in the major mode, beginning in consolation and twice bursting into triumph.”
Technical: the coldly clinical: “The joint between the second movement and the third can hang on the progression D-B♭-B♮, which is parallel to F-D♭-D♮ between the first and second.”

There just doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to convey the experience of hearing a piece of music without actually playing it for someone. “Description of music is in a way unique,” Kivy writes. “When it is understandable to the nonmusician, it is cried down as nonsense by the contemporary musician. And when the musician or musical scholar turn their hands to it these days, likely as not the non-musician finds it as mysterious as the Cabala, and about as interesting as a treatise on sewage disposal.”

(From The Corded Shell, 1980.) via Futility Closet (http://www.futilitycloset.com/2016/09/17/paradox-musical-description/)

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I think dissensus generally wanders around the 2nd & 3rd categories, occasionally straying into the first or last

02-12-2016, 10:16 AM
Well, it's true, but then it's true of every other type of writing and of language itself, innit

I've struggled with these issues a lot. I think you've got to see the value of the discussion itself rather than in terms of vs. music itself.

Saying that I do think talking about/writing about/reading about music has done irreparable damage to my appreciation of music over the years.

Luckily music is too good for me to have entirely ruined it by pontificating about it.

02-12-2016, 10:57 AM
it is almost like saying, listen, but do not talk about music.

02-12-2016, 11:24 AM
I blogged something for the ICA on these lines. I feel that descriptors for sonic 'objects' are overly visual and tactile. We add appearance and feel to sound inadvertently in our language.

(do not bring up sub-bass, I bet the majority of album reviews do not stem from the full funktion-one experience)

02-12-2016, 11:44 AM
Writing about anything = drawing attention to aspects of, 'meaning' of, connections between, etc.

I agree with 'YOU' that writing about music tends towards finding misleading physical analogues

02-12-2016, 12:15 PM
Not to harp on, but... to draw up a subtlety... sure writing is to make surrogate glyphs, signifiers for the real world object. But this is slightly more convoluted for sound because of how immaterial sound is.

If I say the dog is brown you can check that the dog is, in fact, what we both agree to call a dog. Same goes for brown. You can check, I can bring out a dulux colour chart. Our word choices can be validated empirically.

But sound cannot go through this process. If I say the synths are 'smooth' or the vocals 'bright' or 'harsh' then how can we check? We only get to a face off of subjective takes - the importing of descriptors from visual and tactile for something we hear.

This (https://www.ica.org.uk/bulletin/sounding-dark) is the blog.

UFO over easy
02-12-2016, 12:32 PM
I blogged something for the ICA on these lines. I feel that descriptors for sonic 'objects' are overly visual and tactile. We add appearance and feel to sound inadvertently in our language.

(do not bring up sub-bass, I bet the majority of album reviews do not stem from the full funktion-one experience)

sound is absolutely physical and textural though, and that's not just confined to sub-bass. that doesn't tell you anything about whether or not its any good, and i dont know whether it could form the basis of any criticism but the physicality of a sound can certainly be used as a descriptor.

i don't think your comparison with the dog is fair - the equivalent to someone verifying that there is a dog would be someone saying "listen, that's music", and you verifying that it is indeed music. maybe if you went more detailed - "that dog is fluffy, isn't it?" "yes, i suppose it is in relation to something less fluffy". same is true of music.

problem sufi identifies makes sense of the idea that discussing music/critiquing it only works when you're talking with people who have some shared reference points already. it doesn't work as well online because the audience is too broad but when you're reading reviews anywhere some kind of shared perspective is often implied eg if you're reading resident advisor going to house and techno parties is a common thread

02-12-2016, 01:30 PM
yeah i find myself reacting against what you is saying too. i think hes missing something quite profound about the nature of sound.

02-12-2016, 01:41 PM
Sound is physical in the sense that it is the compression and rarefaction of air in waves, but the human experience of sound, especially organised sound is, apart from some very basic qualities, utterly subjective and dependent on the accuracy of the sense organs, and the context, memory, environment or previous experiences of the listener.

The brain is a physical process as well, billions of connections, an endless stream of electrical signals, but thought, memory & consciousness are non physical, and no two people will have an identical picture in their head when they hear or read a description of even the most mundane scene - say an apple on a table, in a room.

So music, like thought, is essentially an intangible subjective manifestation of a physical process.

02-12-2016, 01:52 PM
Having said that I would be interested to see you write about music in a way that he suggests. It would be a fun experiment.

02-12-2016, 01:57 PM
A lot of problem is sound interpretation based on the social interpretation of tones, how we've associated them with what moods or whatever. Like the standard western idea of minor keys being 'sad', rhythmic sensibilities, timbre, etc.

I actually picked up Nuttiez' "Semiotics of Music" but right now he's still going through the whole 'explaining complex semiotics' part so I'm not getting any closer to comprehending how to deal with that.

02-12-2016, 02:01 PM
Audition has roots in tactility. Alfred Tomatis explored the intra-uterine resonance of the womb. He felt the organs and spine were vibrating conduits - that sound was originally as much tactile as it is sonic. I know sound is a physical phenomena, I know it is waves moving air, but perceiving it as such is markedly different to how we perceive colours and textures. And just because it is a physical event does not mean we experience it as such. I know there is a physical and empirical difference between a C note and a an F note, but do I perceive this difference in terms of tactility? No.

Anyhow, I feel the 'sound' based discussion is off-topic. Music is very different to sound.

02-12-2016, 02:07 PM
Sure, in the way that a drop of water is different from the sea.

02-12-2016, 02:21 PM
Take up the gauntlet you threw down you. Show us how it's done. I'm intrigued.

02-12-2016, 02:41 PM
It is interesting...how do we experience music? I imagine it's something to do with pattern detection as well as, of course, emotion. But rhythm seems to me innately physical, we understand it as something dictating motion...

Is this too abstract though? Are we talking about the purpose of music criticism/discussion?

I'd say it's analogous to art criticism. You're pointing things out. You're pointing out technical achievements. You're drawing out influences, contextualising. But nothing can replace the painting/sculpture itself. A description of the Sistine Chapel ceiling couldn't capture the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but it can teach you how to look at it.

02-12-2016, 02:45 PM
Steering away from the obvious retort - that all perception is only tenuously related to physical events be they surface, light or sound - I think what is key here (and more related to the OP) is that ways of talking about sound are limited. We have an impoverished sonic vocabulary for sound (and music) so tend to rope in descriptors from sight and touch.

Below is a section of text that didn't make the edit:

For describing sound in purely sonic terms, we can delineate some general categories: four, to be precise. Sound words often refer to the extremities of sound in terms of pitch and volume (boom/beep and bang/tap respectively). Onomatopoeic words form the third type, we all know these from comics: swoosh. The last category is curious; many sounds tend to be described as voices. It seems that if a sound is significant enough to be remarked upon then we allow a syntactical slip that grants agency and intent (we lend the sound a living genesis). Pipes groan, streams gurgle, winds howl: quite Dickensian, no?
So, we can describe the extremities of volume and pitch, imitate or tell a ‘white lie’ that something is a voice when it’s really just a sound: old pipes and strong gales do not complain – we just think they do. For sonic objects our descriptive repertoire is impoverished and limiting. Our vocabulary has no sonic equivalent of magenta, yellow, curved or dappled. But that doesn’t mean we do not hear in a way that grants sound the kaleidoscopic dynamism of the visible world. Upon audition we colour sounds, we shade and render them from our experience of the marvelous and awesome visual world. If I was to say an Em7 chord sounds ‘dark’ my clichéd description would be allowed by all but the most pernickety killjoy – no one would take the phrase literally, no one believes I can somehow ‘see’ a sonic object that no one else can. It goes without saying.

This is probably just an elaboration of what has previously been said. Corpsey for example.

Has anyone seen/read Bernstein's lectures about music

He touches on how some musical passages have universal origins... around the 26/27 minute mark...
here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3HLqCHO08s

02-12-2016, 02:45 PM
Also things like the use of reverb as intended to evoke a physical space. Before synthesisers before recorded sound, music WAS physical.

I've seen it written that music is the most sublime and pure art-form because it has no real equivalent in language. It even seems something MORE than or DIFFERENT FROM the human world.

02-12-2016, 03:23 PM

ive maybe recommended this before but this is the best essay to read for eye vs ear.

02-12-2016, 04:51 PM
What happens when you work the first with the fourth?

A big problem I've had of late is the technical is often driven into the realms of traditional music theory; scales, tonalities, modes, chords, dynamic, pattern... The Mathematics of Music if you will. There are of course more amateur or field specific notions... Pitchshifted drum breaks on Goldie's "Terminator" dealing with a musical concept that's built out of an unnatural generation thanks to recording, whereas it'd be seemingly impossible to do that in a self-generated method.

But then you have the idea of the technical being applied to the social; songs are responses to other songs, modeled after others, quote from preexisting songs/tunes etc. You have the Eno "Scenius" concept, following the development of music along not lines of "genre" as its been classically defined, but genre as "style".

In a sense, you're describing the technical and the biographical but on one hand you're not necessarily interested in the artist's self-expression (unless you are, and that's a big return field for a lot of music critics who are getting very invested into the idea that records are extensions of an artist's personal politics and so even if their work isn't inherently political somehow it still is). And on that other hand, the technical has less to do with the tune/song's generation/design and more its function/relation to its field, audience, or even the artist as a 'tool/device' just as much as it is artistic in nature.

I know that doesn't necessarily work where the thread's going but I'm dwelling on that a lot because I recognize while it could technically be lumped under those areas, for some reason (I.E. its nerd shit) people don't particularly tend to this method of analysis/relation.

04-12-2016, 06:24 PM

this is a good video to watch and think about this silly thread