MUSIC: Music And Metaphor by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

Music And Metaphor by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I am indebted to my friend and colleague Martin Jean for introducing me to this Kendall Walton quotation that summarizes many of the ways we describe the expressive qualities of music:

We call passages of music exuberant, agitated, serene, timid, calm, determined, nervous. We speak of rising and falling melodies, of wistful melodies and hurried rhythms, or motion and rest, of leaps, skips, and stepwise progression, of statements and answering phases, tension and release, resignation and resolve, struggle, uncertainty, and arrival. Music can be impetuous, powerful, delicate, sprightly, witty, majestic, tender, arrogant, peevish, spirited, yearning, chilly. As we listen to it we imagine agitation or nervousness, conflict and resolution.

Walton captures the vividness of the imaginative response many of us have to music. Although there have been schools of thought that stress the purely sonic character of music, for me at least they do not leave adequate room for the dramatic action set off in my imaginings as I sense and create a world of meaning from the world of sound in which I am immersed. If it were all a matter of pure sound, it would be difficult to account for the extreme reactions that many people have to different pieces and different styles of music. Their passion reveals that the music has touched off something inside them at a level of profound meaning. Perhaps this is why music supplies so many of the primal metaphors that are common to our everyday speech. By a primal metaphor I mean a figure of speech that grows out of the elemental sensory experience of life, such as “the storms of life,” “the dark night of the soul,” or “I’m on solid ground again.”

Music is an elemental sensory experience that awakens a host of metaphors that occur again and again in common speech. Consider, for example, how people talk about things being “harmonious” or “discordant,” the tempo of life” or “the need to improvise,” something that is “finely tuned,” the “major motif” or “theme song” of someone’s life, “marching to a different drummer,” getting the “rhythm” of an athletic activity or describing how “the beat goes on,” a voice that “pipes up,” “performing your part” in some “well-orchestrated” human endeavor, a “crescendo” of support for someone or some cause, the work of an artist as “variations on a theme,” “striking just the right note” in a talk, the “fevered pitch” of an argument or a conflict that is “finally resolved.” In a similar manner we speak about gadgets that “come with every bell and whistle,” events having more “fanfare” than warranted, things really “humming,” an idea that “resonates” with us, “drumming” something into our memory or calling a piece of good news “music to my ears,” “jazzing up,” a party, being “in tune” or “out of tune” with the spirit of an occasion, “modulating” the “tone” of a discussion or the “overtones” of meaning, speech that is “melodic” or “songful” or “slurred” or “percussive,” or a feast that is a “symphony” of flavors.

Walton demonstrates how we create meaning from music by the language we use to describe it. But the process also appears to work in reverse: the sonic properties of music feed many of the metaphors that mark our common speech even when music is not sounding in our presence. I cannot help but wonder if this dialogical process – describing music with dramatic terms and enriching language with musical metaphor – might help us to comprehend more accurately why making and listening to music is an activity so filled with meaning.

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