The Perception of Music

July 1, 2010

Franz von Scober

Pat Metheny

Jimmy Katz

Hector Berlioz

Mason Daring

Paul Cary Goldberg

John Bavicchi

Mark Small

Danielle Cumming

Music has the unusual power to stir deep emotions, bring images to mind, stimulate memories of other times or places, and more. Franz von Schober’s poem set to music in 1817 by Franz Schubert in his lied “An die Musik” (“To Music”) expresses a common sentiment.

Oh gracious Art, in how many grey hours,

When life’s fierce orbit encompassed me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,

Carried me away into a better world.

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,

A sweet, blessed chord of yours

Opened up for me the heaven of better times,

Oh gracious Art, for that I thank you.

For millennia, humanity has celebrated the powerful and ineffable effects of music. Truly inspired music lives well beyond the time period and culture from which it springs. While no one work, style, or genre is guaranteed to move all listeners, those susceptible to the lure of music share a universal experience. Even after the theorist lays bare a work’s architecture and reveals how the component parts work together, the source of depth and profundity in the “gracious art” remains elusive. A substantial bit of mystery will always surround the intangibles that make some music seem to be drawn from the celestial realm.

The core elements of music are simply melody, harmony, and rhythm. The interaction of the three in the hands of an inspired musician produces transcendent effects. But the countless examples of a cappella melodies, stand-alone harmonic progressions, and unaccompanied percussion pieces that are deeply affecting only heightens the mystery.

A simplistic description of the composer’s tools and their use might go as follows. Melody notes go up and down and sustain. Block chords or polyphonic lines combine to form vertical harmonic structures that change when one or more of the notes move. Rhythm adds structure and momentum. Instrumentation, dynamics, articulation, accents, vocal and instrumental timbre, vibrato, and other expressive nuances provide infinite amounts color, flavor, and texture. To one extent or another, these basics are employed by Gustav Mahler in his Ninth Symphony, Miles Davis in “Freddie Freeloader,” T Bone Walker in “Stormy Monday,” Franz Gruber in “Silent Night,” and more.

The formula for creating music capable of moving listeners, however, is hard, if not impossible, to explain. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain. . . . Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”1

How Music Affects

Because music is what it is, philosophical explanations for its emotional power are more advanced than are scientific explanations. Scientific research on the effects of music on the human brain is still in its early stages, according to Oliver Sacks, a physician, an author, and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center. “There was virtually no neuroscience of music prior to the 1980s. This has all changed in the last two decades with new technologies that allow us to see the living brain as people listen to, imagine, and even compose music.”2

When the sensory neurons in the ear convert sound waves into electrical signals that are then transmitted to the auditory cortices of the brain’s cerebral cortex, a marvel of the human experience occurs. The three auditory cortices form the pathway to music cognition. The primary auditory cortex is believed to process such basics as pitch and loudness. The secondary auditory cortex discerns patterns of harmony and melody. The tertiary auditory cortex interprets these patterns, creating a listener’s overall perception of music.3 For most the higher levels of musical perception take place in the right hemisphere of the brain, but the emotional response to music is processed by structures distributed widely throughout the brain.4

Historians point to an episode at a music festival held in ancient Greece in 586 B.C. at the Pythian Games as the beginning of program music, or the telling of a story through musical means. Sakadas, who played the aulos, a double-pipe reed instrument, performed a piece illustrating the combat between Apollo and the dragon. Interestingly, the event was also significant in the genesis of virtuoso performances. And from this starting point, composers throughout the ages have used instruments to imitate nature, depict events, and express countless aspects of the narrative of human life.

Going beyond the portrayals of nature in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or the landscapes musically illustrated in a number of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works, Hector Berlioz took 19th-century romanticism and program music to a new place with his Symphonie Fantastique. Its five movements follow a story line chronicling a young man’s infatuation, unrequited love, dreams of his own execution, and a witches’ Sabbath. It’s not a large conceptual leap from the programmatic works of Berlioz; the music dramas of Wagner; or the tone poems of Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius, and others to music composed for film in the 20th century.

In his essay “De l’Imitation musicale” (“On Imitation in Music”), Berlioz discusses the imitation of the sounds of nature instrumentally and the preferred use of musical metaphors that “arouse in us by means of sound the notion of several passions of the heart, and to awaken solely through the sense of hearing, the impressions that human beings experience only through other senses.”5

A Question of Title

Interestingly, while program material frequently inspired Berlioz, he often composed the music first and his titles afterward. Many contemporary composers and songwriters in various musical genres do the same. For Pat Metheny, it’s common practice to sit with his music and then retrofit a title. In interviews he has described how he plays his compositions a while before finalizing their titles. (The song “Unity Village,” which appeared on Metheny’s debut album, Bright Size Life, previously appeared in the first edition of the Real Book under the temporary, generic title “Exercise 6.”)

Many fans of Metheny’s music say it evokes images in their minds as they listen, a phenomenon that’s somewhat of a puzzle to the composer. In an interview for the Summer 2004 issue of Berklee today, Metheny said, “It seems that early on, there was an element in my music that I wasn’t really aware of. People felt it had a cinematic quality and evoked imagery. That wasn’t intentional; the music just came out that way. It was a surprise when people started asking me about scoring movies.”6

In addition to his prodigious output as a composer of music for music’s sake, Metheny has written about 10 film scores, although he doesn’t seek out such work. “My personal view of music exists entirely within the realm of music itself,” he says. When asked to comment for this article about his approach to writing music that alludes to extra-musical things, Metheny gave a surprising reply.

I actually envy those composers or performers who

can see a beautiful sunset and are inspired by that to gather together groups of notes and then feel that the transaction with their inspiration is complete. For me, it is far more abstract. I have never been able in any practical way to make earthly result A show up as musical result B.

[There are moments when] I can sort of understand what people are talking about regarding my music having a “cinematic” effect on them as listeners. For me, the narrative, storytelling aspect of what I am interested in doing is abstract, but I would hope that if it were done in an effective enough way, it should translate to lots of different people in lots of different ways. But I also have to add that, even for me as a fan of lots of different kinds of music, there is music that I have listened to for years and years that sounds different to me every single time I put it on. I then find myself asking yet another question; “How does that variance fit in with everything?”

Eliciting a Reaction

Given the variety in perceptions of listeners, there can be no intrinsic or absolute meaning for a piece of music. In the area of composing for film, however, the ideal is to elicit a near-universal reaction among an audience. A film’s visual images give an audience much more to go on than a lone title or the text of a solely instrumental programmatic piece. Still, there are endless options for matching image and music for the right emotional response.

Berklee Visiting Professor Mason Daring teaches the class “Scoring the Moment” in which he explores the relationship between music and images on the screen and the many options for a composer. As a successful film composer, Daring has scored more than 60 theatrical and TV movies as well as numerous documentaries and other projects. And he understands well the psychology of creating the right music for the screen.

“In a dramatic film, the composer has to think about who the characters are, what they represent, and whether the viewers should like them,” Daring says. “You also have to think about context. What time period is the film set in? Is the story line about robots or two people or a war? Every film has its own inherent rules regarding the score. A composer is usually about halfway through the score before he figures out what those rules are.”

Daring attests that in film scoring, the picture is supreme and leads the composer. He often uses unusual or authentic instrumentation in his scores to create the appropriate effect. Sometimes the film just calls out for it; other times the director may suggest it. “I do a lot of period movies with director John Sayles that are set in unusual times and places,” Daring says. “I’m writing a cue now for a type of Philippine lute called a hegalong for John’s new film. It’s set in 1900 in the Philippine jungle. I’ve never written for hegalong before, but it’s the appropriate instrument, and I’ll figure it out.”

In one of his classes this spring, Daring shared his thoughts on how listeners have been conditioned by how certain instruments have been used. A composer can capitalize on that. Daring described the plaintive voices of the oboe and English horn—perfect for accompanying scenes with sylvan landscapes or poignant moments. The low, woody sound of the bassoon can be perceived as ominous. “Should we blame Tchaikovsky because he used the bassoon to depict the wolf in Peter and the Wolf?” Daring asked rhetorically.

Film composers subtly inject their points of view and can affect a viewer’s opinions. Daring scored a documentary on the life of Dolley Madison for PBS’s TV series American Experience. “I didn’t do much to hint at sounds of the era,” Daring says. “I wrote a romantic electronic orchestral score to make people really like her and care about and her husband. The score could have been dry and neutral to accompany the dialogue by historians, but Dolley was a wonderful and colorful subject, and I wanted people to see that.”

As articulate as Daring is about the mechanics of crafting the perfect music for a film, when it comes to explaining how he draws out inspiration, he is as much at a loss as anyone else. “It involves getting in the zone,” he says. “The only way to that is to do it. I often start playing guitar or with string sounds on the keyboard, then I play something else and start to improve upon it. Sooner or later—guaranteed—I am finally there. I find myself knee deep in a natural moment, and it’s working. I used to jokingly say it feels like I’m channeling some composer who lived 200 years ago, and he’s sending me stuff.”

The Modernist’s Take

At the opposite end of the court is Professor Emeritus John Bavicchi, who has taught composition at Berklee since 1964. Born in 1922, he grew up admiring Beethoven, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky, but came of age musically during the flowering of 20th-century musical innovation. He’s strictly a classical composer, and his music reflects a largely intellectual approach. Audience reaction isn’t part of Bavicchi’s calculus. “I write a piece and hope someone will like it, but I’m not hoping to convert them to something,” he says.

Bavicchi considers the majority of his work to be in the realm of “absolute music,” meaning it’s not subordinate to a program, prose, film, or a preconceived emotional expression. Many of his pieces bear nondescriptive titles such as Music for Small Orchestra or Trio for Flute, Viola, and Cello. “I am not of the school of thought that you need a program for the music or that the music necessarily engenders emotions. It does, but I don’t write a piece that makes people think of thunder. Basically, I’m an abstract composer. The form of the piece and the compositional techniques are paramount to me. But that doesn’t mean it can’t have emotional content. It was the same for Beethoven.”

The affable Bavicchi writes what he wants and follows the dictates of his own personal muse. “My music isn’t defiant,” he says, with no hint of attitude. “If people don’t like it, they can join the crowd. A lot of people don’t like it.” But a number of people do like Bavicchi’s music, as evidenced by the large and appreciative audience that turned out for a retrospective concert of his music in November 2009 at the Berklee Performance Center. Additionally, his orchestral, chamber, and vocal works have been published by at least eight companies, including the prestigious Oxford University Press, and have been performed widely in the United States and abroad.

Many general music listeners find contemporary classical music hard to grasp emotionally. A smaller yet deeply engaged group of aficionados has a different experience with this music. It’s an acquired taste. Modern music is often deemed unmelodic, but Bavicchi maintains that melody guides his writing. “It might sound strange to those who have heard my music,” he says, “but as far as I’m concerned, all of my music is melodic. If you think of it, the 12-tone system is all melody if you accept the fact the row is a melody. [Arnold] Schoenberg felt it was.”

Over lunch in June, Bavicchi asked me, “Do you know the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto?” I answered yes. “It’s a pretty good piece, don’t you think?” he wondered aloud. I agreed. “It was premiered in Boston, and in a review the next day a critic asked, ‘Could anyone could ever love such modern music?’” Bavicchi suggested I check out Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective to gain a perspective on how “new music” has been received in its day.

Later, thumbing through a copy of the book in the Berklee library, I read a quote about Beethoven written by a British critic in 1825.

“We find Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.”7

Debussy was scorned a few pages later. “Rhythm, melody, tonality, these are three things unknown to Monsieur Debussy and deliberately disdained by him.”8

The cost of living on the cutting edge is often misunderstanding. “Contemporary music has historically been put down, and then later people discover its emotional content,” Bavicchi maintains. “Music is emotional, there is no way around it. I get so emotional over music sometimes; it’s amazing how it can affect you.”


Truth in Music

Truth in music is a vast topic. In Led Zeppelin and Carlo Domeniconi: Truth Without Authenticity? Danielle Cumming discusses the results of incorporating musical elements of other cultures in Western music including jazz, global pop, classical, and rock music. Her title comes from a quote by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla about Claude Debussy’s Spanish-influenced piano piece “La soirée dans Grenade.” As de Falla said, “We are actually given Andalusia, the truth without the authenticity.” De Falla declared that without literally quoting Spanish folkloric music, Debussy was able nonetheless to transport the listener to Spain.9

Cumming’s discussion centers on the adoption of musical elements from other cultures and whether the resultant music can represent truth, even when the music lacks authenticity. Since at least the 19th century, composers have borrowed elements from other cultures to inject a sense of exoticism and produce impressions in the minds of listeners that could not be produced with purely Western musical elements.

Since that time, there have been arguments about the value and success of such hybrids. Does appropriating another culture’s musical traditions indicate a composer’s respect and a desire to learn about the music, or is it “colonizing” musical elements and subjugating them to Western music, diluting the original in the process?10

The crux of Cumming’s thesis is an examination of works by composer and guitarists Carlo Domeniconi and Jimmy Page, inhabitants of very different musical worlds. Domeniconi, an Italian-born classical guitar composer, received formal composition and guitar training at a university in Berlin and has penned many evocative guitar works reflecting musical influences from Turkey, Iraq, Japan, and Brazil. His most popular piece, Koyunbaba: Suite für Gitarre op. 19, was inspired by sounds he absorbed during the years he lived in Turkey (where he married a Turkish woman). Cumming notes that Koyunbaba houses a blend of Occidental and Middle Eastern traditions, and Domeniconi reveals his facility with many local practices in borrowed musical elements.

Cumming juxtaposes Domeniconi’s work with that of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and his instrumental medley “White Summer/Black Mountain Side.” Page and other members of Led Zeppelin had listened extensively to Indian and other non-Western musical forms. A trip to Morocco inspired the group’s song “Kashmir.” The band’s philosophy that there should be no musical boundaries informed a drawing on an array of sounds and styles, from Celtic to Indian to Arabic to the blues. Led Zeppelin’s approach was typically more intuitive than intellectual.

Ultimately, Cumming concludes that while Domeniconi’s “Journey to India” and Page’s “White Summer/Black Mountain Side” might “sound Indian to the Western listener, neither are actual ragas. If authenticity were the measure of success, if essence depended on authenticity, both pieces would be failures. But is that meaningful to the listener?”11

The popularity of Domeniconi’s music among the top guitarists who perform it and their audiences indicate the work is successful. Cumming cites Page’s live recording of the medley and the cheers from many thousands in the audience as evidence that Page’s piece is hardly a failure.

“In India, a performance is considered good if the artist creates an atmosphere,” she continues. “The Western listener places the same importance on atmosphere, but without being educated in what to listen for in Indian music, is satisfied with essence. Essence becomes a stand-in for truth; the truth without the authenticity, or close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.”12

In the final analysis, listeners own their musical experience and are the final arbiters of the significance of a given piece of music to them. Whether many or few agree with a listener’s assessment is ultimately immaterial.

End Notes

1. Cited in Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, New York: Vintage, 2007, xii.

2. Ibid, xiv.

3. See the Music to My Brain blog ( and Daniel Williamson, “Processing Sounds,” Connexions blog (

4. Alison Abbott, “Neurology: Music Maestro, Please!” 416 Nature, March 2002 (

5. Hector Berlioz, “De l’Imitation musicale,” translation reprinted in Hector Berlioz: Fantastic Symphony, Norton Critical Scores, Edward T. Cone (ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1971, 43.

6. Mark Small, “Pat Metheny: No Boundaries,” vol. 16, no.1, September 2004 Berklee today (

7. Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, New York: Coleman-Ross Company Inc. 1953, 44.

8. Ibid p.90

9. Danielle Cumming, doctoral paper, McGill University, 2005, revised 2010, (

10. Ibid, 47

11. Ibid, 50

12. Ibid, 51

This article appeared in our alumni magazine, Berklee Today Summer 2010. Learn more about Berklee Today.
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