Music that sounds like [something]?
August 23, 2018 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Is there an official name for this phenomenon, and what are some of the classic examples of this?

There are music pieces (typically songs but also classical compositions or orchestral arrangements) where the music makes you feel like what it's supposed to be about. I am talking less about when it's obvious such as traffic sounds in a song about life in the city or a choo choo rhythm in a song about riding a train, and more about when it's subtle such as a song about summer that just *sounds* like summer for some reason. (To be clear this question is about music that's going to evoke the same feeling in everyone and not those times when you personally have associated a certain song with a certain thing.)
posted by rada to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"Mimesis" might be as close a term as any, but that is a bit closer to "sounds like a train/is about a train." Could you give an example? I think it'd be easier to find other instances if we had an example of what you're talking about.
posted by Smearcase at 10:37 AM on August 23, 2018

The idea of embodiment could apply here, "a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling." In this case, an audible form of a feeling.

Sometimes there are patterns in things that mimic familiar patterns of how we experience the world. A beat that matches a heartrate, strings that vibrate in a way that mirror tension in the vocal chords, a sudden key change that mimics how we experience dread in the pit of our stomach. Or a light plunking of a piano, whimsy and fluttering alongside a nearly whistling, breezy continuant of a flute.

Some of this is clearly shaped by language and metaphor, which further helps put it all together in our minds as evocative of a particular, specific experience within a culture and context.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:50 AM on August 23, 2018

is olivier messiaen's oiseaux exotiques along the lines of what you're looking for?
or grieg's morning mood? (this one may be conditioning or suggestion more than evocative mimesis)
the overture (and likely the specific themes there previewed) of wagner's der fliegende hollander evokes the sea reasonably well, for me.
posted by 20 year lurk at 11:00 AM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Could you give an example?

I was going to give an example but then a bunch of people would chime in to disagree that it evokes that particular feeling so I thought I'd better not.
posted by rada at 11:01 AM on August 23, 2018

I'm assuming examples of what OP is talking about would be e.g. Beethoven 6, "Pastoral", which is about the countryside and which ostensibly sounds like the countryside. Or Beethoven 3, which is meant to be heroic. Or Vivaldi's Four Seasons etc. This is distinct from "program music" which is narrative-based, as opposed to merely evoking some more abstract sense of meaning or emotion. Related, no doubt, but program music is really about telling a story rather than evoking a feeling in a more abstract way.

I don't know. There is not a specific word that I know because this topic is really complicated and highly debated in the music perception literature. What exactly is the relationship of feeling some way when hearing a piece of music and the piece of music itself? The closest word I could think of is "musical meaning," because that's really what you're asking about. What does it mean for music to mean something. How does this work and what is the nature of this phenomenon?

There are many things which complicate this phenomenon. It's a big assumption first that such pieces evoke the same feeling in everyone. What about someone who wasn't raised in a Western music culture? Would Beethoven 6 sound like the countryside to them? How do we know the composer intended such pieces to sound some certain way, and if we didn't know the composer's intentions would we have the same beliefs about the work? Does Beethoven 6 sound like the countryside or does it sound light and happy and those are things we associate with the countryside, rather than being properties of the countryside itself?

It's a big question. Perhaps there is a term in vogue these days but I am not aware of it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:04 AM on August 23, 2018 [9 favorites]

I don't know if there's a name for it, but what I remember on this subject from the book How Music Works by John Powell, which delves a little into the psychology of music, might interest you.

Generally, music forms 'associations' in one of two ways. There is the inherent association that is universal across cultures and concerns things like a faster rhythm = more 'urgent' feeling; minor key = more 'complicated' feeling versus major key = more 'sure' feeling. There are mathematical, neurological, and biological reasons behind those feelings (which are fascinating to read about).

Then there is the culturally-produced feeling. If you hear strings in a movie, you're cued to think 'ah, emotional moment.' An accordion, 'ah, baguettes and berets.' There's no inherent reason why strings = emotion or accordions = Paris, it's just the result of accumulating so many cultural cues over our lifetime.

I'm sure he delves into more detail in his book Why You Love Music, which I haven't read yet.
posted by perplexion at 11:14 AM on August 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Listen to French Impressionists. Claude DeBussy, I get tears even thinking of his music.
posted by Goofyy at 1:00 PM on August 23, 2018

Absolutely Debussy. And hey, it was his birthday yesterday so have a little celebration!
posted by acidnova at 1:31 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yea, the first thing that came to mind was Impressionism in music, which is different than program music. Broadly speaking, program music is more overt and, like Lutoslawski said, narrative-based. Impressionist music seems more in the line of what you're looking for, in terms of its subtlety and its objective of portraying a certain feeling, image, or just a more abstract concept.

a song about summer that just *sounds* like summer for some reason - the reasons can be pretty concrete - there's a lot of deliberate craft and specific techniques that go into creating a piece of music to make it evoke a certain feeling/image. Analyzing and studying these techniques is a big part of why music theory and music scholarship exist.

anyways - you could try reading up on Impressionism in music. and other periods/movements in music too, if you're interested...

(also... minor quibble, but the major key = "sure"/happy/less "complicated" vs minor key = "complicated"/sad association is somewhat modern (well - western 16th century onwards)/Western, and not universal. medieval music, for example, didn't even have the minor/major distinction - it was mode-based. even today, there are many non-Western cultures that don't really have that major/minor/happy/sad association in their native music, because they are also basing much of their music off other modes/scales.)
posted by aielen at 3:26 PM on August 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

(minor quibble, but the major key = "sure"/happy/less "complicated" vs minor key = "complicated"/sad association is somewhat modern (well - western 16th century onwards)/Western, and not universal. )

Didn't want to overcomplicate my explanation, but yes, you're right that the concept of 'major key' and 'minor key' is a relatively recent Western invention. Their association with complexity vs surety (note that I didn't say happy/sad in my original post) is, however, universal. I use 'universal' in the sense that these associations would be perceived even if you were playing such music to teenagers raised by wolves in the forest, because they have mathematical underpinnings, not in the sense that all music across cultures use the same scales (they don't).

...At least, according to Powell! If you happen to know of any sources that contradict that information, I'd be interested.
posted by perplexion at 3:42 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seems like a good place for a coupke of my favorite links. MeFi threads Musical Cliches and What Is That Music They Always Use...
posted by Miko at 8:30 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another different but related concept is "word painting"--which generally refers more to making the music or melody reflect some particular aspect of the musical text it is setting.

This is a little different from a whole piece that is supposed to sound like butterflies, or spring, or pensive thought, or whatever. But it's still related and might shed some light.
posted by flug at 8:34 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

See also “tone poem” a.k.a. “symphonic poem”.
posted by D.C. at 10:02 PM on August 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

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