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Music as Symbol

Updated on August 10, 2012
Orpheus
Orpheus | Source

Music is symbolic of nature in its transitory and ever-changing aspect; it is the relative, but contains an underlying reality, the music of the spheres and of life. An auditory rather than a visual symbol, it is a tonic against the darkness.

Sounds shape the images in our minds. Music is an objective symbol but it is felt personally. The sounds that developed our ancestors’ brains—the inter-woven symphonies of weather, landscape, birds, plants and animals—sculpted acoustical images in humanity’s psyche.

Music has come to symbolise the order and harmony behind creation. Hindu philosophy views the primal nature of sound as the first manifestation of objective consciousness. In ancient Greek thought, there were close connections between the mathematics of music and the mathematics of the cosmos.

Music has important cathartic and socialising roles. Rhythm and dance are widely believed to imitate the process of divine creation and to bring us closer to our instinctive natures. Singing and myth are effective tools for harmonising group tensions, and for integrating those emotional and intellectual energies that may pull individuals and cultures in contradictory directions.

Musical instruments can symbolise felicity, and it’s interesting that, in China, the same written character represents either ‘music’ (yueh) or ‘happiness’ (lo), depending on how it is pronounced.

Music has mythical powers. Arion’s lyre brought the dolphins to his assistance. Strains from Amphion’s lyre moved stones to build the city of Thebes. Blasts from the priest’s rams-horn trumpets caused Jericho’s walls to fall.

The Greeks believed that music came from the gods. Using the lyre that was Apollo’s gift, Orpheus could soothe wild beasts, make trees dance, and cause rivers to stand still. The power of Orpheus’ music was great enough to persuade Hades, god of the Underworld, to release Eurydice. And, to this day, music leads us to the underworld of feeling. When we are grieving, music that mirrors our sadness gives meaning and dignity to our experience and remind us that we are not alone. When we are bursting with high spirits, music gives focus and form to our joy.

Dorian Mode
Dorian Mode | Source

Apollo is associated with music that brings beauty, clarity and purity. The orderly Dorian mode stabilised and strengthened; you could say it evoked an Apollonian state of mind—a state of contemplating the dream world of eternal ideas. Bach’s music echoes Apollo. Casals, for example, in describing his experience of playing Bach, said it was a spiritual epiphany, as if the god came through the music and unerringly hit the mark.

The Death of Pentheus [public domain]
The Death of Pentheus [public domain] | Source

Dionysus is associated with music that expresses chaos, ecstasy, turbulence, emotional conflicts and passion. The inspirational Phrygian mode was Dionysian—a state of participating in the external world through feeling and sensation. Androgenous Dionysus embraces both animus and anima. His music is shamanic. He called the Bacchae out of their ordinary lives to revel in nature and discover the ecstasy within.

Phrygian Mode
Phrygian Mode | Source

Gwen Harwood’s poem‘Alter Ego’ evokes Apollonian sensibilities. One of music’s qualities is to symbolise both the world about us and the spirit within that is ‘beyond / time’s isolating drift’. The protagonist in Harwood’s poem uses music to symbolise her timeless spirit—her ‘life’s Star’ as Wordsworth phrased it. The narrator of the poem plays Mozart on her piano: the imagery in these lines is notable for its precision and delicacy. As the narrator returns to consciousness of the present, she realises that she must go on—‘on paths of love and pain’—to meet her alter ego, her transcendent other self, summoned by the music.

The film the Witches of Eastwick provides an example of the use of Apollonian and Dionysian musical symbolism. Jane Smart has Apollonian precision in her fingering of the cello; but her bowing sucks, as Darryl Van Horne says, because it lacks passion.

Commenting on the experience of music, Jung said: ‘I sat and listened, fascinated. For far more than an hour I listened to the concert ... soft music, containing, as well, all the discords of nature. And that was right, for nature is not only harmonious; she is also dreadfully contradictory and chaotic.’ [Memories, Dreams and Reflections]

And well before Jung, the seventeenth century poet, Dryden, in his poem ‘Alexander’s Feast’, describes how the bard Timotheus uses several different musical modes to conjure up a variety of emotions in Alexander and his guests:

'Timotheus, to his breathing flute

And sounding lyre,

Could swell the soul to rage, or kindle soft desire.'

Traditional Celtic music had its modes too: one for sleep—sad and mournful; one for laughter—manly and martial; and one for tears—exultant and Bacchic.

Today, we can measure the chemical changes in the body stimulated by music. For example, music that we like can trigger the release of endorphins, the natural opiates.

Muse Playing the Lyre
Muse Playing the Lyre | Source

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