Think, for example, of certain involuntary interpretations that we give to one or another passage in a piece of music. We say: this interpretation forces itself on us… And the interpretation can be explained by purely musical relationships: — Very well, but our purpose is, not to explain, but to describe.
Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol I., 22.
This hits on a point which troubles me from time to time about music analysis. Music analysis involves relating musical relationships in a piece to more abstract, or general, concepts. These abstract concepts are what endow a piece with meaning. A musical cadence by itself, as the notes itself, is meaningless. It is the cadence with its abstract meaning of “bringing to a close” which makes the cadence meaningful. So then, my naive thought was (and possibly is), why analyse to death the musical details which makes music sound this way or that? Isn’t the point just that it sounds this way or that? Doesn’t the experience come before the interpretation, as Wittgenstein says? We experience musical meaning before we interpret it.
Now, of course, there are more complex layers of musical meaning which are not immediately experienced, and do require explicit thought (they are not forced upon us in the way an image of a three dimensional cube is forced upon us when we see a Necker cube). My beef is with how, in a typical introductory harmony class, one plays over and over again certain stock figures, and learns to associate them with certain emotions or abstract concepts (this cadence sounds complete, that one sounds fake, etc.). And then learns all these explanations for why one sounds complete and the other doesn’t (the “tendencies” of leading tones and so on). However, none of these explanations are psychological. They are completely based on the geometry of musical notes. Which always seemed to me to be missing the point altogether. We do not experience the geometry of musical notes when we interpret a harmonic progression as sounding resolute. The interpretation forces itself upon us. Even upon untrained listeners, as long as they have, presumably, been brought up in an environment of Western tonal harmony. So how, then, can mere geometry be an explanation for what we hear? An explanation would answer why we would tend to hear the leading tone as “wanting” to move up a semitone. That the leading tone “wants” to move up a semitone because of its intervallic relationship with the tonic scale degree is something we conclude after the facts, after the interpretation we make immediately has been analysed on paper, laid out in neat black soundless notation. I don’t mean that it’s an insufficient explanation. I mean that it’s not even an explanation. It misses the point altogether. It could be there is some universal instinct to treat small intervals in sound frequency as “wanting” to close up. But more likely reactions to music are an acquired habit, at least for more geometrically complex musical entities which still elicit emotionally immediate (unintellectualized, “forced upon us”) reactions, such as the minor mode. Music is a language. We have learnt to associate certain flavours with certain musical patterns, the way words have flavours to us. Therefore the answer cannot lie in the specific patterns, but in how the association came about.