Describing music – in words and sound

Note to readers: this post started out as a consideration of the way we write about music, but has morphed into something rather more fanciful and personal. Now read on…..

This week, I signed up to The Musical Adjectives Project, the aim of which is to collect and categorise adjectives to “create a reference to aid pianists and musicians in describing and understanding the emotions and character within repertoire.”  As a writer as well as a musician, this interests me greatly. Describing music can be tricky, trying to convey the meaning of the music, the emotional content or what it feels like, physically, to play a certain piece is not an easy task. Music has its own ‘language’ – an analytical language which can be quite impenetrable to non-musicians. I have “be there and done that”, at school. Then there is the language of the programme or liner note, again sometimes quite difficult for the lay person.  The best programme notes describe the structure of the music without being overly analytical, while also offering the origins and inspiration (if known), the context in which the piece was written, and some biographical/historical background. As part of my Diploma, I will need to write programme notes of the pieces I will be presenting (as yet undecided, though I have made notes on each piece as I start work on it: this aspect of the learning process does not faze me at all. Rather, the note-learning, fine-detailing and finessing is more difficult!).

Thinking about the descriptive words one might apply to a piece in one’s head while considering the music can actually aid the learning process, and can help one conceive of the sound one wishes to produce. When I’m teaching, I often ask students to imagine a particular sound, or to pick a certain instrument whose sound might be appropriate: a cello, a trumpet, a flute, a harp, for example. I’ve also had nightingales, hunting horns, dinosaur footprints, “little shoes”, and gypsy guitars. These are quite simple, but very effective ways of imagining sound and putting it into descriptive words. The music that results from a few moments spent on this exercise is interesting and proves that this activity of “visualising sound” has a purpose. Conveying emotion and mood can sometimes be more tricky, though.

Interviewing a professional pianist some years ago, I asked him what it “felt like” to play Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata (the ‘Funeral March’), a piece I had heard him perform some weeks previously. Nevermind the iconic theme of the third movement, which has, in our time, become associated with the death of Soviet leaders; he replied that it was “horrible”, as if one was “utterly exposed”, “like having one’s entrails picked over in public”. This is partly because in the final movement there is, for the pianist, literally nowhere to hide: it is a whirlwind of unison notes of unvarying and unremitting tempo (speed) and dynamics (sound), an elusive, enigmatic stream of musical consciousness. But I think there is a more existential meaning in his comment: that this music is visceral, and gut-wrenching, and, playing it, you lay yourself bare, humbled by it. The words we might use to describe this music are those more usually applied to the human body, particularly the body in pain: visceral (literally “relating to the viscera”, i.e. the nervous system), gut-wrenching (painful, stomach-turning, extremely unpleasant or upsetting). Of course, we can never know if Chopin had those words in his head as he wrote this music, but this movement is painful: its briefness, the swirling motif that turns back on itself and never seems to fully free itself of its tethers, the unsettling notation. Compare this with the famous Marche Funèbre which can sound grand, stately, resolute, and then, in the trio section, by contrast, elegant, intimate, charming.

If these are the words which spring to mind as one works on this piece, there is a very good chance one is like to convey those feelings and moods to the audience in performance, and, for the audience, this makes for a far more involving concert experience. And, believe me, I have been to concerts where the performer has perhaps not done this kind of exercise. Result: the music sounds flat, merely typed. Sure, the dynamics, the articulation, the fluctuations in tempo are there, but some of the depth, the philosophy, of the music is lost….

At other times, we may describe music in terms of colours or other visual elements: warm, dark, light, bright, chiaroscuro, muted, shiny, glittering, sparkling, twinkling, brilliant. Or textures: velvety, silken, rich, woolly, jagged, prickly, sharp, smooth, soft. These are not necessarily words to describe the pianist’s physical touch or attack on the keys; rather the ‘sensation’ of ‘texture through sound’, which the performer endeavours brings to the music.

Or how about nature and the weather? Forget the obvious – Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. There’s sunshine in the ‘Trout’ quintet with its “holiday” melodies; or Debussy’s “misty” harmonies, his water-drenched Cathedrale Engloutie, his fogs, winds and snowflakes. The sounds of the countryside around Nohant, or the rain in Majorca, in Chopin’s music, or Messiaen’s birdsong? Beethoven’s thunderstorms, the serenity of the “great river” in the opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata….

Inspired by The Musical Adjectives Project, I set myself an exercise, to describe the pieces I am working on currently. Not in pure analytical terms, but in descriptive terms – and in no particular order, i.e. the adjectives do not relate to particular measures or passages. What words and feelings spring to mind as I play the music, and do these inform my learning or help my performance?

Liszt – Sonetto 123 del Petrarca: floating, ethereal, muted, hushed, gentle, singing, rich, grand, climactic, far away, urgent, fluttering, delicate, graceful

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Prelude: Throbbing, urgent, febrile, energetic, giddy, swirling, washed (as in ‘colour wash’), lyrical, sonorous, playful, teasing, witty, light, bright, adventurous, exuberant, riotous, far away, kaleidoscopic, majestic

Debussy – Pour le Piano: Sarabande: Serene, sublime, hand-filling, velvety, stately, courtly, choral, sonorous, sustained, understated, plaintive, lofty, elegant, rich, celestial, tranquil, reminiscent, mysterious, historic

Bach – Toccata from Partita No. 6, BWV 830: Stately, grand, dramatic, ancient, swirling, graceful, sophisticated, undulating, serious, determined, architectural, decorated (not necessarily in terms of Bach’s mordents!), hypnotic, scholarly.

Why not try this exercise on some of the music you are working on? You may be surprised by the results….

Next up – a synaesthete’s response to Chopin’s First Ballade

Playful With a Hint of Brooding

The Musical Adjectives Project

7 thoughts on “Describing music – in words and sound”

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for that. I find this area particularly intresting, since, as a music lover, I would like very much to be able to express in words what music makes me feel. (I have to express it in words, since I do not have the ability to express it in performance!) But any attempt I make falls so painfully short! This is, I think, because music and words are very different languages, and I don’t know that it’s possible to find the equivalent of one in the other. Perhaps one can no more find averbal equivalent for a Bach fugue than one could find a musical equivalent of a Shakespeare sonnet.

    Music also has the ability to express so may different things at the same time. (I suppose poetry can do this as well.) And different performances may bring out different qualities. So if I think, say, of the scherzo of Schubert’s B flat sonata, Brendel, in his recordings, makes it sound quirky, and playful; but when I heard Pollini play it recently, it was imbued with deep sadness. And this is possible because the music itself contains within itself both possibilities: both are right!

    And sometimes, even a single performance can convey different things at the same time. And it depends upon the listener as well: even when we consider the same performance of the same piece of music, I could find it, say, gently nostalgic and melancholy, while another listener could find it tragic and gut-wrenching. And neither is necessarily wrong!

    Sorry – I’m rambling … I’m writig this of fthe top of my head, without having really given the matter too much thought. I’ll try to think about this, and then, maybe, I could come up with something a bit more coherent!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts – very interesting and considered, as always! I have found it so helpful to think of music in this way. Too often we have to read dry programme notes or analytical studies, which don’t take us to the real heart of what the music is about. When I write about music, I want to try and convey what it “feels” like: as a performer, the physical sensations of playing certain pieces and the emotions and thoughts which run through one’s mind in the process; as a listener, what thoughts and emotions, and images, are conjured up by the performance….

    1. Thanks, Gail. I think it is a wonderful idea – and it sits very nicely with the ‘visualisation’ and ‘story-telling’ techniques I use when I’m teaching. Sometimes, I think younger students need a different “way in” to the music they are learning. I will add a link to your article to my post.

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