The Symbolic and Emotional Power of Dramatic Music (1998)

Roger Bissell

Recommended Posts

[This is an early version of my essays in Journal of Ayn Rand Studies entitled "Music and Perceptual Cognition" and "Art as Microcosm." These essays are posted on my website at:


Thoughts on Musical Characterization and Plot:

the Symbolic and Emotional Power of Dramatic Music

by Roger E. Bissell

It was Aristotle who first spoke of the similarity between our experiences of music and drama. In the Politics, he referred to music as the most "imitative" of the arts: ". . . music produces by its sounds the same effects that nature produces by human character in action. A good poem or a good song arouses in us the same feelings and emotions as do the actions of a man." More recently, German physiologist and physicist Hermann Helmholtz held that music can imitate and express not only overt physical motions but also "the mental conditions which naturally evoke similar emotions, whether of the body or voice . . ."

Unfortunately, the insights of Aristotle and Helmholtz have not had a great influence upon modern music esthetics, which view music as wholly emotive with no base in reason, or wholly mathematical and formalistic, devoid of emotion. But in fact music can be grounded in realist and representational esthetics. Dramatic music (meaning music with a plot structure, music that builds to a climax and seeks resolution) has emotional power specifically because its musical characterization and plot symbolize a world in which human life is purposeful. Such music arouses emotions by setting up an aural microcosm in which one can view and respond to an image of human experience and goal-directed action.

In general, symbols are concretes that stand for and thus bring to mind some idea. Linguistic symbols (language), can be used to symbolize any and all ideas. Music and the other arts, by contrast, are comprised of esthetic symbols, which are radically different from linguistic symbols. They do not rely upon conventionally accepted and memorized meanings, but instead present images or feelings that are automatically seen as embodying a meaning. As such, the greatest usefulness of esthetic symbols lies in their ability to stand for certain deep abstractions about reality and human existence -- and thus to symbolize a world or microcosm that exemplifies that abstraction. Music can also present a microcosmic view of human experience and goal-directed action. It does so, in striking parallel to great literature, by employing musical characterization and musical plot.

In order to effectively utilize musical characterization and plot, the composer must organize the musical "events" so that the listener can perceptually integrate them. An arrangement of tones of varying intervals, pitches, durations, articulations, etc., becomes a melody. A multilayered progression of melody and harmonic-rhythmic accompaniment becomes a musical form. Musical characterization, then, is the composer’s means for inducing listeners to experience a melody as if it were a single dynamic musical entity behaving in a certain way and/or having things happen to it -- and musical plot is the composer’s means for inducing listeners to experience a musical form as if it were a single dynamic musical process, an intricate system of means and ends (or causes and effects) aiming at a certain musical goal(s).

Both of these elements are present in dramatic music, and a listener is able to fully benefit from its symbolic and emotional power by engaging with these elements. This is done by adopting what John Hospers calls "the esthetic attitude:" detaching from one’s own real-world concerns and absorbing oneself in the "world" of the musical piece.

In this manner, listeners are thus able to "identify with" the musical entity (melody), its physical behavior, and its goal-directed action -- much as they do when reading about or viewing a dramatic character. They can then evaluate the things that happen to the melody and in the musical form (and, vicariously, to themselves and in their lives) as good or bad, and respond accordingly -- again, as in their experience of literary or theatrical drama.

Presuming, then, that dramatic music is often experienced as presenting analogies to human experience and goal-directedness, how is it able to do this so effectively? The explanation lies partly in the fact that underlying these purposive analogies is a more basic physical one: our perception of musical tones as having a location, and being in motion.

It is sometimes thought that our awareness of musical sounds is a process not of perception but of sensation. Helmholtz himself speaks of "sensation" and so gives the impression that music is a matter of raw sense -- following philosopher William James, a chaotic, undifferentiated, "bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion." This could not be more unlike our experience of music. Although sound waves are physically mixed together, we are capable of perceptually singling out a given physical sound. By suppressing the physiological effect on our hearing apparatus of the other sound waves, we thus experience it as a sound (e.g., a chirp, tweet, rattle, buzz, honk, voice, tone, etc.). Since we definitely hear musical sounds as discrete, differentiated units of awareness, musical awareness is clearly a form of perception, not sensation. Our perception of tones, or sounds of definite pitch, is particularly important to music. While we have little or no auditory awareness of the actual spatial location of a sound wave or the entity emitting it, tones can present a striking metaphor or analogy to location and motion. This analogy is experienced in relation to the tonal attribute of pitch.

Pitch is not experienced as a quality similar to color, even though both are correlated with frequency of energy waves. Instead, we experience tonal pitch as having a definite spatial location, one experienced as being in a vertical dimension. Tones of greater frequency are heard as "higher" in pitch, and tones of lesser frequency as "lower." We further experience change in pitch as being along a vertical dimension and in a forward direction, analogous to actual spatial motion.

But what is moving? An entity? Is a single tone an entity? If so, then why is a melodic succession of tones not perceived as a succession of discrete entities, but instead as one entity extended in time and moving through musical space? Or, if a single tone is not an entity, how does its combination with other tones allow it to be perceived as one?

The analogy to motion in music is due to an aural version of the phi-phenomenon. This is the process whereby the brain integrates into a single unit a series of events sufficiently similar and close enough in space and time. This is why we experience a semblance of motion in television and movies, which as we know are made up of many single picture frames. Thus, because musical awareness is not the sensation of a single tone but rather the perception of a complex of overtones built around a single tone (and because changes in pitch are interpreted as motion) we, in effect, perceive music as entities in motion.

Yet, the mystery about music is not how it symbolizes motion, but how it symbolizes e-motion. Motion as such doesn’t reliably convey emotion in literature -- we don’t weep merely at being told someone opened a door, or shown it on a stage -- so how can it do any differently in music? It doesn’t. Even though music often symbolizes motion of perceivable entities, there is no strictly musical reason why perceiving a musical image of entities in motion should have value significance. The answer lies in how music builds on the image of motion and location to achieve a further image of human experience and goal-directed action.

In theatrical drama, we are presented with suggestions of the emotional states of the characters. These emotions are not usually suggested by verbal description but instead by inference from gestures, posture, facial expressions, and so on. We associate these with certain feelings and moods from real-life experience. Then, seeing them on the stage, we infer the presence of those feelings and moods in the dramatic characters. In this sense, staged gestures and expressions, can suggest an emotion. The actress stands bolt upright, turns in surprise, goes forward, hesitates, then resumes her motion with a rush. "Yes," we might say, seeing her stance and expression, "that's a convincing expression of that emotion. That actress looks like she would if she were really feeling that emotion." (Which, depending on her method, she may or may not be.) Through the medium of body language, this can take place without even a single word of dialogue being uttered.

By analogy, the same can be true in music. This mode of suggesting emotions in music rests on the analogy to motion and position in space, conveyed mainly by the elements of melody and rhythm. The sense of motion and position evoked by a given combination of tones bears striking analogy to gestures and postures accompanying an emotion in real life. A master of this gestural aspect of music was Franz Liszt, particularly in his Hungarian Rhapsodies, put to particularly effective use in numerous mid-20th century cartoon sound tracks. This factor is a basic reason why music can so naturally be combined with dance. Abrupt changes in the range of pitch spanned by the harmony, sudden melodic changes in pitch, etc., all have direct counterparts in choreography--and in human emotions. Tchaikovsky’s ballets The Nutcracker Suite and Swan Lake come to mind here, the former playing a prominent role in the classic Disney animated feature, Fantasia. As somewhat of an historical irony, Liszt was a prominent proponent of this practice in music, prefixing passages of explanatory material (programmes) to his symphonic poems. There was a 300-year tradition of such programme music preceding him -- which continues today in concert notes and liner notes for recorded music -- but Liszt could well have dispensed with the literary appendages and allowed the emotional directness of his music to speak for itself.

Literature -- and art in general -- usually is much more effective when it portrays emotional states indirectly by conveying physical concomitants. This approach leaves it to the reader to infer in a personal manner what emotional state is intended to be conveyed. In this way, literature -- no less than acted-out drama and music -- becomes a "language of the emotions," not just talk about emotions. More precisely, each of the dramatic arts can function in its own peculiar way (verbal reference, acting out, or aural analogy) to convey an impression of the physical concomitants of emotions. However, the essential characteristic they all possess is: the suggestion of emotions by conveying an impression of the physical concomitants of those emotions. How they convey those impressions is a result of their sensory differences, but this relationship between music and the emotions exists on the concrete level of music, i.e, the short-range level of musical events and emotional experiences. Another mode also connects music to the emotions, and it, too, bears close similarity to the one operating in literature and drama, but it functions on more abstract levels of music -- i.e., higher levels of perceptual integration.

Neither (meaningful) dramatic music, nor literature, nor drama is merely a series of events in temporal succession, like beads on a string, with no significance beyond the range-of-the-moment. In all of these, there is a principle at work which allows the events to be viewed as connected in a progression. The progression, moreover, is not merely a concrete-level one; it builds up around a central point of climax, in much the same manner as a goal-directed series of events in real-life.

In a goal-directed progression, events on one level are related as means to events on a broader level, which are the ends. In turn, these ends serve as the means to events on the next higher level. And so on, up the hierarchy of events, to the ultimate goal of that given progression. The mental process one uses to grasp such a multi-level progression -- whether projecting it, viewing it, or carrying it out in real life -- is very similar to that involved in grasping a literary, dramatic, or musical progression. This process -- technically known as identification -- is the means by which one temporarily suspends one’s own personal context and puts oneself in the place of other persons: whether in real life, characters in drama, and music. On this level, as on the concrete level, emotions are suggested by virtue of music’s presenting not the emotion itself, but one of its concomitants. One grasps a progression of events and has an emotional response to it -- the perceived events -- rather than the music alone.

Theme, melody, and harmony shape the musical progression, and conflict typically is found in all three. One cannot construct a very interesting plot by arranging for an undistinguished, humdrum, non-dissonant march straight to the musical goal; this would convey the impression that there are no obstacles, no excitement in life. Instead, the musical plot dramatizes goal-directedness by employing conflict -- whether in the implied goals of a single melodic idea, or between two or more melodic ideas, or in the corresponding harmonies, or in other ways. The analogy of plotful music to literature and drama is profound and vivid.

The seminal figure in music history for this aspect of the composer’s craft was Beethoven. The first movement of his Fifth Symphony (referred to during World War II as the Victory Symphony, for the similarity of its opening motif -- da-da-da-daaaah -- to the Morse Code symbol for the letter "V") is a perfect example. The way in which he delays and then unexpectedly resolves the first movement presents the listener with a suspenseful, intense conflict of the first order. Beethoven was a master at using smaller structural units as building blocks, joining them together into a logical succession by the common rhythmic and melodic features they shared, and then using them to develop toward points of climax and resolution in his musical works. The kind of perceptual structure Beethoven provides the attentive listener is the basis of the analogy to goal-directedness in music. Because of how the system of musical relationships develops, one expects certain events to follow others, one's expectations are fulfilled or denied, and one responds accordingly. The music strains to rise, falls, rises again; it surges forward, pauses, clashes, swoops and soars.

The core of goal-directedness in music, then, is our perception of entities as being in motion and our expectation that these entities will find an appropriate point at which to resolve their motion. The resolution of a chord progression and the resolution of a literary plot are fundamentally similar -- enough so that it is altogether reasonable to extend the concept of plot to apply to progressions of musical events.

We may postulate, if music is to function as a "language of the emotions," it must follow the same general procedure as literature and theatrical drama at their most effective. The pattern of motions, gestures, and stances implied by the musical intervals in a melodic motif or melody, and the sequence of value-judgments implied by the conflicts in a purposeful musical progression, act together to determine the emotional tone of such music and, hence, its emotional theme.

Concrete-level emotions are suggested in music by a musical impression of the physical accompaniments of the emotions. This works well because emotions are motivational, they have implications for physical motion such that, in retrospect, motion of a certain character is taken to imply a certain kind of emotion. (As another example of this point, consider the music for the dance scenes in Bernstein’s West Side Story.)

Abstract-level progressions of emotions are suggested in music by a series of musical events that generate, develop, and resolve (or thwart) the listener’s expectations. This works so well because emotions are a response to value-judgments, and value-judgments are the basis of purposeful action, as symbolized by plot -- in music, as in literature. (Much of the continuing popularity of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony probably lies in the power of its Finale movement, which works in just this way. The way in which certain melodic fragments are developed in the first three movements should not be overlooked, however, for they are the seeds of the full-blown theme of the Finale.)

By means of musical characterization, the melodic-rhythmic aspect of dramatic music symbolizes physical motion and arouses empathetic feelings appropriate to the character and durations of the musical intervals used. By means of musical plot, the harmonic-rhythmic aspect of dramatic music symbolizes goal-directedness and arouses emotions appropriate to the way the progression develops and resolves.

This does not imply that all worthwhile music must have goal-directed action, but it does suggest that one’s response to dramatic music is not just a knee-jerk and does have a rational basis in form. Such music does not mean just anything the listener or composer wants it to mean; the meaning arises from the events.


This essay appeared in ART Ideas, Vol. 5, No. 1, and is copyright 1998 by Roger E. Bissell. To order a copy of the magazine in which this essay appeared, write to American Renaissance for the 21st Century, Inc., FDR Station, P.O. Box 8379, New York, NY, 10150.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now