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EDITORIAL | Why Do We Need Mental Pictures to Help Us Appreciate Music?

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On Friday night, the host of a concert where I was playing stepped in front of the audience after one of the pieces and asked people what sorts of mental images the music had stirred up in them. About a dozen people came up with a variety of answers.

The host then turned to me. “As a former critic, what sorts of images did this music stimulate for you?”

Sitting facing the audience, I was on the spot – doubly so because that’s not how I relate to music, either as a listener or an interpreter.

I didn’t want to start a debate or undermine the sort of audience interaction that our host was trying to foster. But I also didn’t want to play the game. So I said, “I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.”

That, of course, wasn’t true. I tend to focus on the structure of the music, meaning the interplay of voices, the progression of harmonies, the shape of musical phrases. Even in pieces that are known as programmatic (meaning that they tell a particular story or describe a state of being) I prefer to deal with music on its own terms rather than engage in some sort of act of translation, where the sound becomes associated with words or images in my brain.

I thought about it some more on my way home that night and still while doing my stretches the next morning: Does it help both listeners and musicians to associate sounds and images?

I know that it’s common to tell young music students to associate the piece they are learning with images, so that they can make the leap from merely playing the notes to shaping the sound into a narrative.

Music appreciation classes do the same thing. There is even a school of psychotherapy that, since the 1970s, has used musical imagery as a means to help people recognize and cope with various sorts of emotional problems and traumas.

Clearly, many people believe there is something good to be gained from associating music and images. But I worry that telling people to make these sorts of associations creates new barriers rather than demolishing old ones.

The older and more experienced I get, the more I come to see that each person brings their own set of perceptions to bear on the world around them. A golden fall sunset is a romantic climax for a young couple that has just fallen in love. That same sunset stimulates a deep melancholy in someone who has just lost a loved one. The smell of a slice of Roquefort cheese can make one person drool, and another want to throw up.

More to the point, one person’s idea of listening to something relaxing can be very different from someone else’s. For some people, the patternrepetition of some minimalist pieces can induce a meditative state. For others, that repetition can make them want to scream in frustration.

Yet we expect one mental image to fit several different sets of ears.

The first time I became conscious of the disconnect between the images that people expected me to see when listening to or playing certain pieces of music was in high school.

I was learning the Op. 79 Rhapsodies by Johannes Brahms on the piano when I went to a recital that included both pieces. Unusually for those days, the pianist spoke to the audience before she played. For the second Rhapsody, she explained how she saw the musical narrative as opening with a shining knight riding boldly on horseback. She went on to tell a whole fairy tale about the work.

What she was describing was at odds with my experience with the music. I was seriously pissed off that this artist, who I am sure had thought very carefully not only about her interpretation but also about how she would describe the music to the audience. I spent the whole time she was playing trying to imagine alternate images and ended up not savouring the performance properly.

Although my piano teacher and I spent a great deal of time talking about it, I don’t think it would have been more helpful for the pianist to stand in front of us, explaining the intricacies of Brahms’s musical architecture. That would have been deadly dull for anyone not versed in musical language. It might also have been a case of too much information.

But what about simply letting the music be what it is?

To create a bit of a personal bond with the audience, we could have a few words about Brahms, and about where he was in life at the time he wrote these pieces. The performer could also say a word or two about where this music fits into the continuum of classical styles.

And then, just play it, so we can just listen to it.

I’m thinking about how liberating it might be to so many listeners to suddenly realize that they do not have to hear anything in the music, that it can just be a mess of sounds that sometimes have momentum, and at other times slow down. No need to explain or rationalize or categorize. Beauty does not need a face. It can just be.

Let’s give it a try.

Here is Murray Perahia giving deliciously full-bodied interpretations of the two Op 79 Rhapsodies, as food for further thought and debate:


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John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and is working on his fourth book, a history of the Canadian Children's Opera Company. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, and was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

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