Analysis and its Limits

Submitted by Robert M. Suits on Monday, 1/30/2012, at 5:38 PM

            Music is among the oldest of arts in the world, and yet somehow it remains one of the most arcane. A bizarre barrier seems to stand between a piece of music and our best efforts at analysis – no matter how hard we try or the methods we use, something is always lost in the transition from notes to words. The magic we feel listening to a Beethoven sonata – an almost pure expression of mood, character, and ideas simultaneously – is never replicated by an analysis of that sonata.

In some respect, this is probably unavoidable. A masterful composer is an artist of the highest degree. Analysts, with sincere apologies to all the analysts who are reading this, are not. We cannot expect every scholar to be a poet. Admittedly, this isn’t a problem confined to music: in visual arts we can discuss balance or symmetry, but (to steal a somewhat clichéd example) we would be hard pressed to define exactly what is so compelling about the Mona Lisa’s smile. But it is a problem that is more pronounced in music than in the other arts. If I might go out on a limb, a part of all great art exists on a subconscious, meta-cerebral plane, a plane that humans have never been able to put into words satisfactorily.

            So, all that being said, what is the point of analysis? If we can’t hope to capture that subconscious level of understanding, we can still try to capture it on a less ephemeral level. Perhaps we do not understand why music moves us so, but we can try to understand how.

            Here we get into the realm where musical theory can help us. We can understand how a passage falls apart – for example, an E natural in Schubert’s Op. 94 no. 6 we studied, introduced early in a piece in A flat major, is barely resolved several phrases later, and never quite firmly resolved in the entire piece. Conversely, we can understand how musical tension is built up. Devices like ostinati, over the course of a piece – say, the underlying chords played by the strings in Holst’s Mars (from The Planets Suite) – leave the listener in anticipation of some kind of resolution or “solution.” We can expand or contract analysis as we see fit – we can thoroughly deconstruct a single phrase or even a single measure, or we can do a broad, sweeping analysis, like the apposition of B major and C major in Strauss’ Also Spracht Zarathustra. But no matter what, we’re always looking to explain how music accomplishes that leap from sound-waves to magic – whether in exploring the tool-box the composer draws from, or exploring the nuance that a performer adds which gives a chord that special ring.