Thoughts on Musical Characterization and Plot:
the Symbolic and Emotional Power of Dramatic Music
by Roger E. Bissell


  It was Aristotle who first spoke of the similarity between our experiences of music and drama. In the Politics, he referred to music as the most “imitative” of the arts: “. . . music produces by its sounds the same effects that nature produces by human character in action. A good poem or a good song arouses in us the same feelings and emotions as do the actions of a man.” More recently, German physiologist and physicist Hermann Helmholtz held that music can imitate and express not only overt physical motions but also “the mental conditions which naturally evoke similar emotions, whether of the body or voice . . .”

Unfortunately, the insights of Aristotle and Helmholtz have not had a great influence upon modern music aestheticians, who view music as wholly emotive with no base in reason, or wholly mathematical and formalistic, devoid of emotion. But in fact music can be grounded in realist and representational aesthetics. Dramatic music (meaning music with a plot structure, music that builds to a climax and seeks resolution) has emotional power specifically because its musical characterization and plot symbolize a world in which human life is purposeful. Such music arouses emotions by setting up an aural microcosm in which one can view and respond to an image of human experience and goal-directed action.

In general, symbols are concretes that stand for and thus bring to mind some idea. Linguistic symbols (language), can be used to symbolize any and all ideas. Music and the other arts, by contrast, are comprised of aesthetic symbols, which are radically different from linguistic symbols. They do not rely upon conventionally accepted and memorized meanings, but instead present images or feelings that are automatically seen as embodying a meaning. As such, the greatest usefulness of aesthetic symbols lies in their ability to stand for certain deep abstractions about reality and human existence—and thus to symbolize a world or microcosm that exemplifies that abstraction. Music can also present a microcosmic view of human experience and goal-directed action. It does so, in striking parallel to great literature, by employing musical characterization and musical plot.

In order to effectively utilize musical characterization and plot, the composer must organize the musical “events” so that the listener can perceptually integrate them. An arrangement of tones of varying intervals, pitches, durations, articulations, etc., becomes a melody. A multilayered progression of melody and harmonic-rhythmic accompaniment becomes a musical form. Musical characterization, then, is the composer’s means for inducing listeners to experience a melody as if it were a single dynamic musical entity behaving in a certain way and/or having things happen to it—and musical plot is the composer’s means for inducing listeners to experience a musical form as if it were a single dynamic musical process, an intricate system of means and ends (or causes and effects) aiming at a certain musical goal(s).

Both of these elements are present in dramatic music, and a listener is able to fully benefit from its symbolic and emotional power by engaging with these elements. This is done by adopting what John Hospers calls “the aesthetic attitude”—detaching from one’s own real-world concerns and absorbing oneself in the “world” of the musical piece. In this manner, listeners are then able to “identify with” the musical entity (melody), its physical behavior, and its goal-directed action—much as they do when reading about or viewing a dramatic character. They can then evaluate the things that happen to the melody and in the musical form (and, vicariously, to themselves and in their lives) as good or bad, and respond accordingly—again, as in their experience of literary or theatrical drama.

Presuming, then, that dramatic music is often experienced as presenting analogies to human experience and goal-directedness, how is it able to do this so effectively? The explanation lies partly in the fact that underlying these purposive analogies is a more basic physical one: our perception of musical tones as having a location, and being in motion.

It is sometimes thought that our awareness of musical sounds is a process not of perception but of sensation. Helmholtz himself speaks of “sensation” and so gives the impression that music is a matter of raw sense—following philosopher William James, a chaotic, undifferentiated, “bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion.” This could not be more unlike our experience of music. Although sound waves are physically mixed together, we are capable of perceptually singling out any given individual sound. By suppressing the physiological effect on our hearing apparatus of other competing sound waves, we experience it as a sound, as a chirp, tweet, rattle, buzz, honk, voice, tone, or whatever. Since we definitely hear musical sounds as discrete, differentiated units of awareness, musical awareness is clearly a form of perception, not sensation. Our perception of tones, (or sounds of definite pitch), is particularly important to music. While we have little or no auditory awareness of the actual spatial location of a sound wave or the entity emitting it, tones can present a striking metaphor or analogy to location and motion. This analogy is experienced in relation to the tonal attribute of pitch.

Pitch is not experienced as a quality similar to color, even though both are correlated with frequency of energy waves. Instead, we experience tonal pitch as having a definite spatial location, one experienced as being in a vertical dimension. Tones of greater frequency are heard as “higher” in pitch, and tones of lesser frequency as “lower.” We further experience change in pitch as being in a forward direction, analogous to actual spatial motion. But what is moving? An entity? Is a single tone an entity? If so, then why is a melodic succession of tones not perceived as a succession of discrete entities, but instead as one entity extended in time and moving through musical space? Or, if a single tone is not an entity, how does its combination with other tones allow it to be perceived as one?

The perception of motion in music is due to an aural version of the phi-phenomenon. This is the process whereby the brain integrates a series of events (sufficiently similar and close enough in space and time) into a single unit. This is why we experience a semblance of motion in television and movies, which, as we know, are made up of many single picture frames projected in quick succession. Thus, because musical awareness is not the sensation of an indistinct flurry of activity but rather the perception of an integrated series of similar distinct tones (and because changes in those tones are interpreted as motion), we in effect perceive music as entities in motion.

Yet, the mystery about music is not how it symbolizes motion, but how it symbolizes emotion. Motion as such does not reliably convey emotion in literature—we don’t weep upon reading that someone opened a door—so how can it do any differently in music? It doesn’t. Even though music often symbolizes motion of perceivable entities, there is no strictly musical reason why perceiving a musical image of entities in motion should have value significance. The answer lies in how music builds on the image of motion and location to achieve a further image of human experience and goal-directed action.

In theatrical drama, we are presented with suggestions of the emotional states, intentions, and expectations of the characters. These emotions are not usually suggested by verbal description but instead by inference from gestures, posture, and facial expressions. We associate these with certain inner states that we know from real-life experience. Then, seeing them on the stage, we infer the presence of those emotions, intentions, and expectations in the dramatic characters. The actress stands bolt upright, turns in surprise, goes forward, hesitates, then resumes her motion with a rush. “Yes,” we might say, seeing her actions and expressions, “that’s a convincing portrayal. That actress looks surprised, upset, purposeful.” Of course, depending on her method of acting, she may or may not experience such emotions in fact. Yet through the medium of body language, she can establish the character’s values, goals, and inner states without even a single word of dialogue being uttered.

By analogy, the same can be true in music. This mode of suggesting emotions or goals or mental states in music rests on the analogy to motion and position in space, conveyed mainly by the elements of melody and rhythm. The sense of motion and position evoked by a given combination of tones bears striking analogy to gestures and postures accompanying such states in real life. A master of this gestural aspect of music was Franz Liszt, particularly in his Hungarian Rhapsodies (put to effective use in numerous mid-twentieth century cartoon sound tracks). This factor is a basic reason why music can so naturally be combined with dance; abrupt changes in the range of pitch spanned by the harmony, sudden melodic changes in pitch, etc., all have direct counterparts in choreography—and in human emotions. Tchaikovsky’s ballets The Nutcracker Suite and Swan Lake come to mind here (the former playing a prominent role in the classic Disney animated feature, Fantasia). As somewhat of an historical irony, Liszt was a prominent proponent of the practice of prefixing passages of explanatory material (programmes) to his symphonic poems. There was a 300-year tradition of such programme music preceding him—which continues today in concert notes and liner notes for recorded music—but Liszt could well have dispensed with the literary appendages and allowed the emotional, plotful directness of his music to speak for itself.

Concrete-level emotions are suggested in music by a musical impression of the physical accompaniments of the emotions. This works well because emotions are motivational, they have implications for physical motion such that, in retrospect, motion of a certain character is taken to imply a certain kind of emotion. (As another example of this point, consider the music for the dance scenes in Bernstein’s West Side Story.) Abstract-level progressions of emotions are suggested in music by a series of musical events that generate, develop, and resolve (or thwart) the listener’s expectations. This works because emotions are a response to value-judgments, and value-judgments are the basis of purposeful action, as symbolized by plot—in music, as in literature. Much of the continuing popularity of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, for example, probably lies in the power of its Finale movement, which works in just this way. The manner by which certain melodic fragments are developed in the first three movements should not be overlooked, however, for they are the seeds of the full-blown theme of the Finale. Thus there are two levels: first, each of the dramatic arts can function in its own peculiar way (verbal reference, acting out, or aural analogy), using very compact sequences to convey an instant impression of some physical concomitant; each has its own “language” on a concrete, short-range level. Second, the more abstract level involves higher forms of perceptual integration—the progression to the climax and the subsequent resolution of the action, using the “words” or musical events to form a story. Each of the vignettes or elements or “words” in this “language” takes on additional color and depth because of where it is placed in the overall sequence.

Neither dramatic music, nor literature, nor drama is merely a series of events in temporal succession, like beads on a string, with no significance beyond the range-of-the-moment. In a goal-directed progression, events on one level are related as means to events on a broader level, which are the ends. In turn, these ends serve as the means to events on the next higher level, and so on up the hierarchy of events to the ultimate goal of that given progression. The mental process one uses to grasp such a multi-level artistic progression is very similar to that involved in experiencing real life events. This process—technically known as identification—is the means by which one temporarily suspends one’s own personal context and puts oneself in the place of other persons—whether in real life, characters in drama or through harmonic developments in music. Identification is also involved in recognizing the individual elements of the piece—again, the separate “words” of the musical “language”—but it is called upon much more fully in grasping the musical plot. These two responses then work together to heighten the impact of the music. A dashing and defiant melody can strengthen the effect of a victorious musical progression, significantly more so than a dignified and stately melody. The fact that there are distinct layers of meaning—that a passage joyful in itself can be expanded to an even wider context to suggest irony, or counterpoint a deeper triumph, or portend doom—means the potential for conflict, which is vital.

Melody, harmony, and rhythm shape the musical progression and every segment of it. Conflict typically is found in all three. One cannot construct a very interesting plot by arranging for an undistinguished, humdrum, non-dissonant march straight to the musical goal; this would convey the impression that there are no obstacles, no excitement or challenges in life. Instead, the musical plot dramatizes goal-directedness by employing conflict—whether in the implied goals of a single melodic idea, or between two or more melodic ideas, or within corresponding harmonies, or in other ways. The analogy of plotful music to literature and drama is profound and vivid.

The seminal figure in music history for this aspect of the composer’s craft was Beethoven. The first movement of his Fifth Symphony (referred to during World War II as the “Victory” Symphony, for the similarity of its opening motif—da-da-da-daaaah—to the Morse Code symbol for the letter “V”) is a perfect example. The way in which he delays and then unexpectedly resolves the musical progression in the first movement presents the listener with a suspenseful, intense conflict of the first order. Beethoven was a master at using smaller structural units as building blocks, joining them together into a logical succession by the common rhythmic and melodic features that they shared, and then using them to develop toward points of climax and resolution in his musical works. The kind of structure Beethoven provides the attentive listener is the basis of our perception of goal-directedness in music. Because of how the system of musical relationships develops, one expects certain events to follow others, one’s expectations are fulfilled or denied, and one responds accordingly. The music strains to rise, falls, rises again; it surges forward, pauses, clashes, swoops and soars.

The core of goal-directedness in music, then, is our perception of entities as being in motion and our expectation that these entities will find an appropriate point at which to resolve their motion. The resolution of a chord progression and the resolution of a literary plot are fundamentally similar—enough so that it is altogether reasonable to extend the concept of plot to apply to progressions of musical events. This does not imply that all worthwhile music must have goal-directed action, but it does suggest that one’s response to dramatic music is not just a knee-jerk and does have a rational basis in form. Such music does not mean just anything the listener or composer wants it to mean; the meaning arises from the events.

On this matter, as so many others, Aristotle was right: dramatic music and dramatic literature are profoundly similar.

Roger Bissell is a professional musician and writer on psychology and philosophy, whose work has appeared in Reason, Objectivity, and numerous other magazines. This essay is adapted from a longer manuscript on the nature of aesthetics, originally commissioned in 1971, and appears with the permission of the Equitarian Associates (Milo Schield, Douglas Rasmussen, and Joel Myklebust), without whose encouragement and generous financial assistance it would not have been written.