Universality in Classical Music: Composing with thoughts toward the emotional empact

My son and I were having an interesting discussion talking about art. We started by talking about a number of other things, but eventually wound up talking method acting and truth in art. The point being there is no such thing as a truly method actor, because at some point the actor has to be aware they are just an actor on stage; they are not actually the character they are portraying. If they really were that character they would be confused as to why they were on stage and completely break from where the performance needs to go.

Sure, there is something to be said for getting “in” to a character, for understanding what their motivation is and how they are thinking in any given scene. If you’re playing a drunkard, then some understanding as to what it is to be drunk or an alcoholic might be important to making the role realistic. But that doesn’t mean you need to become an alcoholic to do the role well. What is really important is to find some element within yourself that resonates with the character you are portraying. Even more important, you need to find something your audience will resonate with so they believe your character is real. Chances are most of your audience will not be alcoholics so the “truth” you are looking for is perhaps more stereotypical, or as my son said, universal.

As humans, we are locked within ourselves, unable to actually experience what anyone else in the world is experiencing. We can occasionally share experiences, but this is more finding something within us that resonates with an external truth that also resonates with something within that other person. The external event may well be the same, but the experience internally is not. When our family pet died some years ago, although this event was difficult for everyone in the family, we all felt something slightly different and responded to it differently. Yes, we all cried and may still occasionally do so when we think back on the loss, but the feelings are not the same. However, what we do is “share” the experience by connecting with each other via some element through a universal feeling of loss.

Music is much the same way. Performers are trying to connect to the audience via universal truths, touching some element of their listeners emotions through moments of sound. Unlike film or stage, music doesn’t have words to convey these sentiments. Even in music with words, such as opera, the music is trying to communicate more than just what is written in the libretto. The music is trying to express the thoughts and feelings of the characters, to give insight into more and thereby reach a deeper plane of emotional response. Regardless as to how touching the story or wonderful the lyrics, if the music fails to strike an emotional chord with the audience the music fails.

One of the problems with some of the “new” music of today is the concept of cerebral composition, music written to excite an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. So much time is spent making the composition technically interesting, mathematically intriguing that the music fails to connect with the audience emotionally. However, because the composer is so emotionally excited by the intellectual pursuit they have an emotional connection to the music (and fail to understand why other’s don’t). This emotional excitement in their composition is not the same as music that emotionally connects with the audience.

There may not be a “universal” chord or melodic line that will reach each and every person on the planet (although, I’m not willing to say there isn’t one either). However, I do believe a composer needs to be aware of who their audience is when they are composing something. They need to think what sort of connection the music will have with that audience and how best to try and make that connection work - to be universal. This doesn’t mean cerebral music fails to connect. This just means that composing a piece of music without thinking of the emotional universality of it, means the connection is left to chance - and therefore more likely to fail to appeal, to connect, to resonate with the audience.


Rebecca said…
I completely agree that a lot of contemporary music is intellectually, but not necessarily emotionally, stimulating. This is exactly why I am a huge skeptic of contemporary music; I simply cannot connect to it. I love the good old classics that really tug at your soul, and performers who find ways to elicit emotional responses from the audience- that is music... that is art.

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