Music. Music is bound within a web of outside influences which brand themselves onto each song we listen to. In essence, music is always shaping itself according to its context. It is like a paint that is frequently mixed with other colors; its effect is seen in the other
pigments, but the other pigments are seen in it as well.
Most types of media placed in conjunction with musical effects create a fusion from which neither media nor music can be fully separated. For instance, placing certain images and scenes together with melodies brands the combination of melody and scene into the audience’s mind. Consider this passage from Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies:
With or without lyrics, music can be more specific when juxtaposed with film images. In fact, many musicians have complained that images tend to rob music of its ambiguity by anchoring musical tones to specific ideas and emotions. Some music lovers have lamented that Ponchielli’s elegant “Dance of the Hours” conjures images of ridiculous dancing hippos, one of Disney’s most brilliant sequences in Fantasia. (212)
In a way, I can agree with the musicians Gianetti mentions. If images have the power to root our minds to one set of notes, then we can learn to dislike pieces of music simply for their relation to images we loathe. I have a friend who grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. These cartoons made frequent use of classical pieces and works because classical music pieces were public domain and thus royalty-free.
Observe this juxtaposition of Johan Strauss’s “Tales From Vienna Woods” with Bugs Bunny
My friend still swears that Bugs Bunny ruined classical music forever for him.
Images “rob music of its ambiguity,” according to the musicians referenced by Giannetti (212). Television ads with pop music backgrounds can become rooted in the readers mind so that one cannot listen to a song without thinking of a brand name. Soundtracks to movies can become so deeply embedded within the context of the corresponding movie that a listener’s mind automatically places each song alongside the scene in which it was played. Even a single image can become intertwined with the music itself, shaping our perception of musical movements.
While it is true that image and videos narrow the setting in which we view music, I would argue that the very naming of songs anchors them to a particular idea. The earlier-mentioned piece by Strauss, “Tales From Vienna Woods,” inserts an image into the reader’s mind before the piece is even played. The instant Strauss gave his piece a title, he anchored it to a specific place within a specific country.
Try this: open up to this music video of a piece by composer Lind Erebros, but don’t watch the slideshow or attempt to find the title. Listen to the music alone. Don’t even watch the background images for the music video.
What entered your mind? Where did your thoughts wander?
Now, the piece is called “Under the Shadow of the Oak,” or, in some translations, “Under the Shadow of the Tree.” Try listening again.
When I listen to this short piece, I imagine a wind-swept field of grain where the only tree in sight is an ancient oak, branches spread wide under the warmth of the sun. The image is rooted in my mind, blended into the song until I could not possibly listen to it without thinking of its title.
If titles establish a strong image-based context for songs, and I would contend that most do, lyrics create an even more defining context for musical pieces. The written words sung to the beat and melody line create messages which dominate the song. There is very little room for interpretation unless the artist leaves the lyrics vague.
Listen first to the instrumental version of Globus’s song “Europa” and then to the version featuring the male voice.
The strong-lyric version has a clear anti-war message, voicing the sentiment that almost nothing will stop humans from killing each other. The other is a pulse-pounding instrumental piece with a light chorus. The title of the two is the same, yet the one featuring dominant lyrics bring forth an expository message that cannot be ignored unless the reader doesn’t listen or doesn’t understand the language spoken. One is left open to interpretation, the other as clearly defined as a black line on white canvas. Both versions have followers who claim their version to be better.
Did the insertion of lyrics into the song “Europa” force upon it a set context? Definitely. The anti-war lyrics are not in the least vague. But was Globus’s decision to anchor the song in a specific idea detrimental to the listener’s experience? It all depends on who listens to it.
Titles, lyrics, and images form a lens through which we “see” the music we listen to. They inform our interpretation of the piece. Yet there is an even more subtle framework which surrounds and blends into the songs we listen to, one which we ourselves bring to the listening experience. This framework is formed by where and when we listen to the songs we do. I was reminded of this as I stood atop Mount Pilchuck in Washington’s mountain ranges after a long hike. From the top of the lookout, I took in the view which extended from the mountain ranges to the Puget Sound of Washington itself. The carpet of trees swept over the surrounding hills, their expanse only occasionally broken by the occasional town or city. The sight from that mountaintop was spectacular, stunning even.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out my earbuds, and slipped them in. The first notes of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” began to play as I took in the scene again. Perfect, I thought, the view now has a soundtrack. At the time I thought nothing of playing the “Canon” in that moment. I had forgotten how soundtracks tend to remind the listener of the movies they complement. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” now transports me back to that panoramic view from the top of Mount Pilchuck whether I wish to be there or not.
Like the “Canon,” there are songs which will instantly remind us of a certain trip, or a job we used to work, or a time at school where we listened to a type of music. Perhaps we remember the song we first heard at a party or that we listened continually through seventh grade. Once again, the music does not stand alone. When we hear it, we hear it as part of a larger background of the history of our listening. We listeners unknowingly incorporate what we hear into our memory of our lives.
But sometimes context overwhelms music. After listening to Pachelbel’s “Canon” on the top of Mount Pilchuck, I switched to the soundtrack of The Return of the King. I could only listen for a few minutes before turning off the mp3 player again. My mind became too filled with images of the Lord of the Rings movies. Scenes played in my head, dragging with them the emotionality inherent in the ending of the movie trilogy. The songs brought their context with them, tugging at my mind, demanding that I turn my mind towards them. I finally had to leave the music alone and walk back down the mountain in silence.
Silence. In a world of music, silence can feel uncomfortable. Music is a river with a current that pulls our mind towards certain images or ideas. It becomes narrow, focused. Silence is a calm sea, a blank map for the mind. It gives no suggestions, carries no weight of history and ideas. Music and its context leave little room for ambiguity. Silence is room for ambiguity. Yet more than that—silence is room for immediacy. Music’s current drags the mind toward other contexts and ideas, to titles and times and pasts and places. Silence allows the mind free reign. When I descended Mount Pilchuck, my earbuds swung from my breast pocket.