Outro #2: On Landscape Metaphors in Music Appreciation

I see now that another of my favorite moves when I try to bring out the import of a music passage, as pleasing to me as virtually skipping or leaping, is to call up a dramatic landscape-based activity like mountain climbing or deep sea diving or zooming through the sky in a jet.

Am I like E. M. Forster’s character Helen, the sort of listener to Beethoven’s Fifth who “can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood,” appreciating music by turning it into an entertaining nonmusical story?[1] No, I think I’m unpacking the music, inverting a form (a complex of pressures and permissions) that’s inside the musical experience. The music itself establishes the arena for those fun kinetic actions.

Was I wanting all along to romp in such landscapes, with music as my pretext? I don’t think so. My love of the hooks was definitely linked with romping impulses, but I felt the impulses in the music before I thought of any landscape. Actually it was nice to be affected that way by the music without any clear picture of how I would act. Is some poignancy lost, then, when I go ahead and describe a landscape? No, because the landscape is so obviously a whimsical sketch, not a diagram. I’m not forming a “clear picture”—just a visual vibration.

Is it just me? Does no one else inhabit music in this way? I think a comparative study of rock music criticism would disclose relatively little landscape imagining at hook level. But there is plenty at album level, and this makes me think that a natural sensitivity of ours has been underexpressed so far simply due to a lack of dedicated attention to hooks.

And what’s happening out there on the dance floor? It looks like people are starting to climb, swim, fly.


[1] E. M Forster, Howards End (Mineola: Dover, 2002), p. 21 (Chap. 5). Peter Kivy uses Helen as the mascot of the representationalist view of musical meaning, which he argues is inadequate, in Music Alone (Ithaca: Cornell U., 1990), Chap. 4.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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