Sound and Sense?

The Post Below was written early on in the Brothers’ experimentation with the blog essay. The Younger, probably rightly, often rails against me for my egg-headedness. As the Greek poet Pindar writes (to prove my brother’s point): “not even the tawny lion nor the red fox can change the color of their kind”.

The post below is one of an infrequent series where I try to figure some things about popular music out. When my brother first read this he told me he felt like he was back in English class and was being forced to respond to a prompt. I apologize to him and anyone else for flashbacks.

“The Sound must seem an echo to the sense”

The epigraph above comes from poet and translator Alexander Pope and represents a dominant trend in interpreting and teaching poetry from Ancient Rome (where similar sentiments can be found in the Latin poet Horace’s Ars Poetica) through Pope’s 18th century right up through the 20th century where it resonated with New Criticism and Formalism.

Alexander Pope, no slouch

What this phrase means is a little more complicated that it seems (although, at times, just as simple). For Pope and others, if a line of poetry is about a whisper, it should be metrically light and full of susurration. Weighty matter (war, violence, etc.) should come in long syllables and harsh consonants. Mourning poetry, similarly, should evoke sounds of grief with nasal consonants and wide open vowels.

Of course, this is a brief and insufficient illustration of the principle as a way of asking whether or not we can expect the principle to work in music as well as it does or doesn’t work in poetry.

(I, for one, don’t think it matters if it works perfectly at all. The value of a theory isn’t its universal application or truth but whether or not the idea persuades you to consider something in a new way. For that reason, interpreters who cleave tirelessly to one theoretical approach—or for that matter politicians who embrace and espouse one governing philosophy—leave me bored and suspecting that they have let ideology get in the way of clear thinking).

I think we all realize intuitively that music regularly matches “sound” with “sense”—for this reason, dance songs are typically filled with happy beats and unimportant lyrics; love songs are pretty; and angry songs are, well, angry.

My question for pop songs, however, aims for more than their atmosphere and attitude. It is more a question of the extent to which the sounds of a song may be able to reflect the sense of its lyrics. If we want to claim (as I do) that pop songs have not only cultural and historical relevance but also the aesthetic complexity to rival conventional forms of ‘high art’, then their amenability to the same types of questions as those posed for the conventional forms is an important litmus test.

The song that first made me think about this question was The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” (Give Up, 2003). (Warning: to observe some parts of this songs you should listen on decent speakers not on headphones.) The song is generally about separation—as made clear in the initial lyrics with their repeated motifs “… when I am missing you to death / when you are out there on the road/ for several weeks of shows and when you scan the radio /I hope this song will guide you home”. The chorus returns to the concept of separation and distance (“They will see us waving from such great Heights / ‘come down now,’ they’ll say”).

Part of the reason this song works so well lyrically is because of the intersection between the particular narrative (the lovers/friends divided by a musical tour reunited metaphorically through a song on the radio) and the universal sense of separation anxiety and alienation from loved ones. The lyrics are simple while developing a more complex series of ideas and emotions that resolve into a memorable and repeatable chorus.

But, I don’t know if this song would be as successful without its music. (The Iron and Wine cover is interesting and a nice change, but over time it has lost its shine for me.) What I think is most interesting about this song (after many listenings) is the way the music anticipates the content (here, the sense may be an echo of the sound).

When played on decent stereo speakers the opening tones are spread out—they seem dislocated from one another and syncopated enough to be nearly out of phase. The rhythmic popping sounds mask a quiet melodic introduction underneath. As the song moves on and the rumbling bass line is introduced a unity comes out of an initial chaos. The introduction, it seems, starts with separation and division and builds to a subtle unity. This, I think, also introduces the true theme of the song.

(And the feeling, even the prominent theme of the song, changes with instrumentation as shown in the Iron & Wine Cover)

Gibbard’s vocal, once the verse starts, seems similarly at odds and out of place. Each line slightly overlaps the last thus emphasizing the recorded nature of the individual tracks and the separation of the different types of sounds (a feeling encouraged by the piano notes introduced during the verse). The chorus, however, draws all of these sounds together into a new, and by now, altogether anticipated unity.

The final verse seems to draw all of this together. The vocal complains that the song is too complicated and layered for an answering machine—his evocation of “the shrillest highs and lowest lows” indicates the paradox of the song itself, namely, that the unity we hear is built from a series of contrasts and differences. At this point, the metaphor of the song makes sense—it is the song that rises to such great heights and through identification or even communication with the song that the identity of the singer and his addressee is created.

The music of the introduction and the gradual integration of solo vocal and group vocals with an accompaniment that levels from near-chaos to a cooperative and airy soundscape in the chorus anticipates, advances and supports the essential meaning and transformation of this song.

Now, a reluctant reader and skeptical listener might protest that it is I who reads this complexity into the song—that by sheer dint of the compositional method of this music (through distance) and the difference of the artists the contrasts and complements I have identified occurred. This objection, I would reply, is merely a reflex of the intentional fallacy. I don’t trust what artists say about their work. As a fan in the potential of Reader Response criticism to teach us more about the art we experience and ourselves, I reject out of hand the suggestion that since the artist did not explicitly intend a meaning it cannot be attributed.

Regardless of this, I feel fairly assured that great songs will show some level of accord between their “sound and sense”. Of course, it is equally possible to create similar meaning through contrast and dissonance of meaning and form. I welcome examples of either categories. I will entertain cries of ‘bullshit’ as well. Which is, of course, exactly what I expect from you, my brother.

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