Music has a meaning. What is this meaning?

When we say something has "meaning", we might mean that it has meaning as an example, as a tool, as a pattern, as a feeling, or anything else. Discrete works of music can and do carry this kind of meaning. A song might remind us of a particular person or place. A chorale might be used as an example of correct four-part writing. But these examples of symbolic musical meaning do not illustrate the meaning of music as music. If someone says that a piece of music reminds him of something, there is no guarantee that someone else will have a similar memory stirred. It may awake one entirely different or perhaps none at all. For these reasons, the symbolic meaning of music, though usually the first to suggest itself as an answer to the above question, cannot serve as an explication of music’s intrinsic meaning.

Therefore, and not surprisingly, we have to look inside music itself for its own meaning. But we do not escape subjective interpretation by discarding extramusical meanings; for reasons that will be made clear later, it is impossible to separate the visceral, emotional impact of music from the technical assembly of its sounds. Any analysis of music’s meaning that is truly devoid of subjectivity would no longer be a musical analysis. On what grounds, then, do we analyze music? How do we decide what is germane to an analysis of music’s meaning?

For the subject of this analysis to retain its existence as music, both subjective and objective elements must be present. The danger of subjective analysis is that assertions about the music itself from such grounds can easily seem to carry more weight or mean more than they were intended to. But it seems that while there may be argument over how something in music makes us "feel", there does not seem to be much argument over what is causing us to "feel" something. One listener may be saddened by one note while another might be happy about the same note, but both agree that the note has a special effect on them. More will be said later on the role of the subjective in musical analysis, but we will allow ourselves to reason from musical events which cause an effect rather than trying to say exactly what that effect is.

Another pitfall to be avoided is the use of technobabble to answer questions. If a listener wonders why an unresolved dominant chord feels unfinished, it does absolutely no good to answer that the tonic chord has been suppressed. This does not answer the question. The tonic chord (assuming the listener has any knowledge of harmonic theory) may well "finish" the sound, but it does not explain why this particular sound called a tonic chord "finishes" another sound called a dominant chord. Still less does it answer the listener’s original question: why does this thing, which you want to call a dominant chord, in and of itself leave me wanting more?

With these things in mind, we can proceed with the search for music’s meaning. This will be the work of the essay’s first section. The second section will talk in general terms about what kind of knowledge is desirable for best access to music’s meaning and how it would be best to use this knowledge in listening to music. The third section will apply these methods to an actual piece of music.

Section I: What Is The Meaning Of Music?

In searching for the meaning of music, it is absolutely necessary to take into account all the ways in which music has an effect on us. In fact, the meaning of something might be thought of as a description of how it affects our experience of that something. Music affects us on a number of levels because it is perceived on a number of levels. We will start by naming and examining the levels on which we perceive music. Then we can look for the one or ones of prime importance and discover how best to increase awareness of these levels; this will amount to a general description of how musical education should proceed.

Sensually, music is a special case of the perception of sound, or simply hearing. Perception of sound is a special case of sense-perception in general. Sense-perception is the method by which objects outside ourselves affect us. Since music is a member of the two classes of hearing and sense-perception, its "effect" should logically contain all the characteristics of hearing and sense-perception in general as well as its own characteristics. What, then, does music have in common with all other sense-perceptions? It comes to us through a sense-organ. What does it have in common with all things heard? It comes to us through the ears. What are the effects or characteristics of a sense-perception?

For one, perceptions cannot be ignored. We cannot turn off our ability to hear, see, smell, etc. They force their way onto our consciousness. Any noise or light will be heard or seen by everyone within range. A consequence of this is that perceptions cannot be isolated among themselves or from each other. We see and hear and smell all at the same time; we see everything that is in our visual field. We have the ability to focus our attention on one perception among the many, but we cannot entirely disregard them.

Second, perceptions do not vary in their effect. A piece of paper that I first see as white will still look white the next day (unless I change its color myself). The sound of each note on a flute never changes. There is no way of knowing, of course, if the actual experience of perceiving is the same for everybody; the color I perceive as blue may be perceived as orange by another. But no one mistakes one perception for another; no one sees what he usually calls blue and mistakenly calls it orange.

Third, the effectiveness of perceptions has a definite range. This range stretches from near- or total lack of perception to one so potent that it overloads the power of perception itself. One sees nothing in total darkness, but one also sees nothing if there is too much light. Food may have no taste or be so spicy that it provokes tears.

Fourth, the effect of perception is qualified as pleasant, painful, or indifferent. A touch might be pleasant and a blow might be painful. However, these qualities are not always the same. The context of the perception has most of the say in determining how the perception comes across. Sometimes a touch is unpleasant because it is unwelcome and sometimes a blow is pleasurable because it adds to an already charged situation. Because it is contextual, the pleasantness of a perception may depend on different things each time. However, it does have a pleasurable, painful, or indifferent feel to it.

Hearing is simply the perception of sounds. Because sounds are sense-perceptions themselves, all the characteristics of sense-perceptions in general apply to sounds. What are the characteristics or effects of hearing?

Sounds are always heard if produced near enough. Their "sound" is always the same - the sound of a flute playing is always the same. They have a range, called "volume", that stretches from silence to cacophony. The comparatives "loud" and "soft" describe a more intense and a less intense sound respectively in terms of volume. Sounds also have a pleasant or painful effect -- they can be relaxing or soothing, startling or agonizing.

Music, insofar as it is made from sounds, is a sense-perception. Therefore, the effects outlined above, which are common to any sense-perception, should also be found in music. When considered together, these effects form the first and most basic plane of musical awareness; it is the most primitive way that man may experience music, and it is the first one that he experiences it in. Any effect of music that originates from its nature as sound belongs on this plane of awareness.

A second level of music, occurring simultaneously with the first, is its power to move us emotionally. This effect is plainly obvious whenever we refer to a piece of music as being "sad", "happy", "powerful", "funny", or with any other analogy to an emotional state. Opera and film composers depend on this power when they write. Some music, of course, is designed to exploit the listener’s emotions to the fullest while other music may concentrate on a different plane, but it sounds odd to try to imagine a music completely without expressive power.

The range of feeling music is capable of provoking is quite wide, even to the point of verbal inexpressibility. We may not be able to say in so many words how a piece of music makes us "feel", though it certainly does make us feel something. Our reaction to such music is like a reaction to a Great Book: we come out with definite, if often inarticulate, ideas about what we have heard as well as an emotional response to it. Different pieces of music express different things; it might be easy to find a word for one piece and very difficult for another. Even if one listener is lucky enough to say exactly what some music makes him feel, no one else is required to feel the same thing. This expressive power is music’s second way of affecting us.

Music exists in a third way, and therefore affects us in a third way, but again I stress that it is not a separate state of being but a simultaneous aspect of the same existence. This third way comes from its nature as an art. Art may be defined as the application of a human structure or design to natural materials. Music exists in terms of its structure and the way in which it is put together. We can understand music as existing in terms of melodies, harmonies, meters, rhythms, sonatas, symphonies, concertos, and notes on a page; in other words, we can understand music as an order governing events of sound.

This third way is the last of the musical levels to come to us, but it is also the most important of the three. It is on this level that the possibility of music is realized. Without a driving principle to organize the hundreds of notes, chords, melodies, and all the other raw sound material, there is no music, but rather a noisy, chaotic mishmash of sound. Such is the importance of this ordering principle that the first two aspects of music, the pleasure of the musical sound and the expressive power it carries, derive their effectiveness from it. The pleasant sound created by music is dependent on the arrangement of the notes by the rules of this principle. If the order were not present, there would be only random noise and no pleasure would come from the confused sound. For the same reason, unorganized sound alone simply cannot exert an expressive power. Every piece of music is given its life, purpose, and definition by its organization. It makes music possible.

A review of what we have found so far is called for before moving on to the next section. Music has the power to affect us in three distinct ways. These ways arise from the nature of its raw material, its power to express feeling, and its structure.

This ordering of music’s three effects is proper for these reasons: it is the order in which we feel music’s effects, and therefore it is also the order from least to greatest of attention required from the listener to hear each effect. The sound, naturally, is the first thing we hear, and we cannot help but hear it. Its effect, therefore, is inescapable, even if we do not pay much attention to what follows. If we listen to the succession of sound for a while, we hear the feeling expressed by the music. Then we will feel sad, happy, comical, or whatever emotion the music expresses to us. Any other reaction, emotional or intellectual, will come from the structure of the music itself.

With what we have learned in this section, we can move on to the next section. Its function will be to search for the best way to increase the listener’s understanding of the meaning of music and to outline how he might use this new understanding on an actual piece of music.

Section II: How To Find This Meaning In Music

The listener listens on all three planes of musical awareness simultaneously. At any one time he is aware of the sound’s effect on him, the feeling expressed by those sounds, and he has expectations of how the music yet to come will unfold itself. Let us assume we have a listener who wishes to know more about the meaning of music. What do we teach him about listening and how do we teach it?

On cursory consideration, we realize that education about the first plane is not only impossible but unnecessary. It is heard and its effect felt without conscious effort; indeed, due to its nature as a sense-perception, it cannot even be ignored. If the listener has functional ears, he will hear music on the first plane. A similar argument may be made for the second plane: assuming the listener devotes enough attention to the music that he can hear a melody or some other expressive part of music, he will have an unconscious reaction to what he hears. He may like it, love it, or hate it, but he will feel something. To attempt to teach anything on this plane would amount to preaching how something should make someone feel; hopefully it is unnecessary to explain why this is a bad thing, especially in the arts. While such "education" might be theoretically possible, it is quite undesirable.

We are then left with the third plane of musical awareness. It is not immediately perceptible to the casual listener. Despite its supreme importance, its existence may never enter a listener’s consideration. It may never have occurred to him that musical progression is ordered just so that he may follow and understand it at all. This is unfortunate and should be remedied.

Educating the listener on the third plane is desirable so that he may participate in the musical experience instead of simply being subject to its whimsical effects on him. Music is music, after all, because it is ordered; knowing how it is ordered will bring a listener to the highest degree of communication with the composer and performer. What kind of communication? The composer chooses a specific structure for his raw material, which may include melodies, harmonic progressions, rhythms, or anything else that stimulates his imagination. He designs his music to bring out the qualities he sees as most important in that raw material. Music is made when the composer forges these individual elements into a cohesive, flowing whole.

To see how the composer joins these pieces together is a source of intellectual satisfaction and pleasure; it is the pleasure of seeing a craftsman at work. The feeling is similar to the satisfaction one experiences when one understands a geometrical proof. When you finally understand how Euclid uses a shape to forward his argument, you are thinking the way Euclid was thinking when he wrote the proof. In the same way, when you finally understand how Mozart uses a theme to develop a movement of his symphony, you are thinking the way Mozart was thinking. The feeling, inarticulate though it may be, is the result of intellectual exercise and its value is self-apparent.

When someone listens to music in this way -- as a participant in the thought being expressed via the structure -- he is communicating with the composer on the highest level possible. This is the true experience of the third plane, and it should be the goal of all intelligent music listening.

Once the listener has realized the value of this kind of listening, his question is how he should go about raising his awareness of this aspect of music. In other words, the way to bring a listener closer to the meaning of music, as defined above, is to search for the best way of increasing his understanding of music on the third plane. Before considering exactly how this should be done, we should first consider how far we should lead him.

It will probably be best to start the listener on the largest scale and show him how to work more closely on his own if he so desires. Like all endeavors of value, closer inspection will be rewarded with greater understanding. Therefore, it is up to the listener how far he wishes to proceed with his search for the music’s meaning. Put another way, the point of sufficient knowledge of a piece of music for the listener is when he has explained the meaning of the music to his satisfaction. If he is lazy, he may reach a given point and give up. If he is curious and industrious, he may continue to probe until he has exhausted all that the piece has to offer. In either case, it is his choice.

What is there to know about musical structure on the largest scale? We can confidently tell the listener that almost all music is built on a few tried-and-true blueprints. These blueprints have names: aria, concerto, symphony, sonata, fugue, song, theme and variations, etc. The listener must be familiar with the major blueprints and the formal conventions that come with them. This kind of information is useful because if we have reason to expect a certain kind of musical form, we can listen for clues based on our understanding of that form. The composer even gives us hints about what to expect in the musical "plot".

For example, when a composer titles a piece of music a "symphony", there are traditional expectations of the form that fall out from this naming. A listener who knows what the large-scale structure of a symphony is will have the following knowledge in mind. He will know that the work likely has four movements. The first movement will likely be in sonata form; of the second and third movements, one will be slow and stately while the second will be moderate and active; the fourth will be fast and snappy, perhaps a three-part sectional or a rondo.

However, there are things that are not important about the musical form called the symphony. He does not need to know how the symphony attained its present form. He does not need to know the historical development of the symphony to understand the rules of its organization. Such information may help him develop an appreciation for the different eras in symphonic construction, but unless the form is drastically affected by these concerns -- unless he can’t make sense of it otherwise -- this sort of information is not necessary to his information. We should not spend time on side issues like historical information.

The listener’s education, then, should begin with his making acquaintance with the basic musical forms. He should know them by name, so as to recognize them by name, and he should know something about how music is organized in those forms. He should know enough about a symphony to know what to expect from the general character of the music, such as is outlined above.

Suppose the listener wishes to know more about what to listen for in a fugue. For a further grasp of the fugue, he might look into the details of fugal treatment: where the countersubject enters, when the free voices should enter and when they should yield to the main subject, when the exposition ends, and how to tell the different episodes apart.

Examples ought to be prominent in this education as well. Following a melody’s permutations through a theme and variations should be something experienced in order to be properly understood. At the same time, though, the individuality of each piece of music, and therefore its utilization of a particular formal blueprint, should be stressed. Composition is not simply a matter of picking a structure and then plating it with nice-sounding melodies, innovative orchestration, and a showy finish. There are many great works of music which are defined by how they use or abuse our expectations of how they should formally. It is important to demonstrate that the musical material itself -- the melodies, harmonies, etc. -- determine the aspects of the form and not the other way around.

Not every listener, of course, will hear everything there is to hear on the third plane on just one hearing. For most forms of art music, in fact, repeated hearings will most likely be necessary. The first hearing will present a completely new experience. It will be nearly impossible to analyze fine structural details on the first hearing, and the listener should not concern himself with them at that point. He can listen for the large-scale structure. Is it sectional, fugal, or variational? On the second hearing, he can try to pin down aspects of the form more closely. Say the piece is sectional. Is it binary, tertiary, or a rondo? Is it a sonata form? Through clues like these, the listener on subsequent hearings can then look for things like groups of themes, motifs, or other details. Once these are found, it will be easier to track their development through the piece. At this level, the listener will be thinking as the composer did when he wrote the piece: What does this melody do? How does it fit in here?

We should take some time to consider Zuckerkandl’s thoughts on the same subject. What we say here will certainly throw light on what he says and will help to illuminate his meaning where it is less clear than it could be. A clear grasp of the differences of our approach and his approach will be of much help in understanding the two separately.

In The Sense Of Music, Zuckerkandl makes several general remarks that are deserving of close attention and illuminating to our purpose. While his analysis and observations are geared toward the same end as the observations of this essay -- namely, the search for a meaning to music and what the listener’s best approach to this meaning is -- there are more than a few careful and close distinctions that must be made between what is being said here and there.

On page 4, Zuckerkandl speaks about music’s appeal to the common man and recognizes the same forces outlined above which are acting on the listener:

One cannot insist too strongly on the truth of the assertion that the experience of great music does not presuppose a special gift or special learning. This is precisely the unique thing about music: it speaks a language that is understood without learning, understood by everyone, not just by the so-called musical people. Many a person has felt the full impact of a great work of the tonal art and been moved by it from bottom to top at the first meeting. If there had not been some understanding, some communication, he would not have felt the impact, he would not have been so moved.

Zuckerkandl is describing a specific type of experience caused by music. He is quite right in pointing out that "great music", and arguably any music, has an immense power to move its listener, sometimes to a great extent. What is being described here is a listener’s reaction to music on the first plane established above -- music’s effect to move that derives from the pleasant nature of its sonic raw material. He is further correct in pointing out that no special knowledge or experience is necessary to experience music on this level.

But there is a very important addition necessary in order to be quite clear. It is not clear, in Zuckerkandl’s terms, what "understanding" or "communication" has passed from performer to listener. Any effect of music that derives from its nature as sound is based in a perception, and such an effect cannot be ignored. It seems strange, then, to characterize this perception as some form of communication if it is truly one-sided, or any perception as an "understanding". Moreover, simply because the listener has heard something in the music does not mean that he has heard everything, or even everything that the composer or performer wants him to hear. If the listener considers himself satisfied with the first plane of musical awareness and sees no point in exploring his reactions further, he shortchanges himself on the meaning -- the whole reason behind the music’s existence. He will not know anything about the forces that have moved him, however slight the information may be.

I should state at this point that I do not mean to suggest by these remarks that Zuckerkandl is unaware of the effects or the need for their awareness that I have raised. In fact, later in the Introduction at page 9, he demonstrates how careful a listener he wishes to cultivate. My intention here is to guard against a possible misinterpretation that might arise from his words, not his ideas.

Zuckerkandl also has something to say about a listener’s knowledge of music and how people attempted to teach it in the past. The following remarks are quite illuminating on this subject:

To teach means to impart the knowledge available at the time. The only knowledge available was that assembled by the European scholars in the course of their professional pursuits. If this was the right kind of knowledge for the people on the stage, it could hardly also be the right kind of knowledge for the people on the other side of the curtain. The questions that preoccupy the actors who perform a play are not the questions the play performed raises in the spectator’s mind. One answer cannot possibly be meaningful to both actor and spectator.

Like the previous quote, these sentences need qualification at least. Zuckerkandl is stressing a distinction between two types of questions and their respective answers. The listener has one set of questions that need answers and the performer has another set of questions that need answers. The questions are most likely different for each, so the answers will most likely be different for each. The answers to these different questions -- i.e., the knowledge that each is seeking -- will not be the same. But this conclusion is drawn too hastily. This question deserves closer examination.

What kind of things do the performers (cast and crew) and the audience care about? A performer’s role is to bring the character to life. He memorizes his lines, dresses for the part, and rehearses with the other actors. He is concerned with rehearsal time and costume designers. The director of a play must worry about props, lighting, cues, entrances, sound design, and curtains. Zuckerkandl seems to be dismissing such concerns as entirely different from the audience’s concerns. Questions like "When should the lights accent moment 'X'?" certainly do not occur to a casual audience, while they are very important and ever present for the director. The audience’s concerns will revolve around the look and sound of the set, the feelings of excitement and diversion that the play affords, and thoughts on the plot as it unfolds and climaxes.

But what leads the performers to ask their questions? Don’t they want to bring out what they see in the characters? It is only by knowing what a character should be doing that the performer knows to use a specific technique to illustrate it. Suppose an actor is studying a character. In the process of figuring out how to play that character, he sees that the playwright has indicated that the character should be portrayed as frightened beyond belief. The actor then uses things like a shaky voice, shifty eyes, nervous twitches, quick steps, and wringing hands to bring that across to the audience. The audience sees that the character is scared and wonders why. The actor, of course, is concerned with how to make the character look scared while the audience is wondering why the character is scared. But what led the actor to figure out how to make the character look scared in the first place was the desire to communicate the playwright’s intention -- namely, of making the character look scared. To communicate something effectively, it seems necessary to have some understanding of what is being communicated. In order to do his job properly, the actor must ask himself a question like, "Why is my character scared here?" This is the same question the audience asks when they see the actor portray a scared character. The answer to this question is even more important for the actor’s technique than it is for his believability. Figuring out what kind of "scared" the character is will shed light on what techniques should be used to convey that particular kind of fear.

Now let’s reverse the analogy and consider a performer and a listener. A violinist is one member of an ensemble preparing a string quartet for a recital. As he prepares his own part, he notes that the composer indicates a long strain of melody specially marked to be played with great expressiveness. He makes decisions on how to use his technique to bring this out -- things like bowing and finger pressure on the string. The listener hears the result of this attention as a line of great expressiveness and emotion. Now the performer is, of course, concerned with how to use his technique to convey the expressiveness called for by the composer and the listener is wondering why the line should be so expressive. But to effectively communicate the emotion of the music, the performer must ask himself why the emotion so indicated is proper or how it makes sense that it is there. So he asks himself the same question the listener poses to himself: why is this line so expressive? The performer may even gain insight into how to bring out the particular kind of expressiveness the composer intends to come across.

Zuckerkandl has insisted in the previous quote that the uneducated listener feels the impact of a great piece of music -- that some communication has happened between the performer and the listener. The common language is surely music: one is speaking in music and the other is listening to that music. This assertion is undoubtedly true. But what Zuckerkandl does not say -- and what should happen to make this communication the most effective -- is that the performer’s questions become, at a certain point, those of a listener. For the performer hears the music he performs. While his attention may be focused on technical details of his playing, he will not know how best to utilize these skills without a clear idea of how to answer the listener’s questions. At the end, the performer is simply a privileged listener: a listener with the opportunity to communicate his insights on listener’s questions to other listeners.

With these insights and ideas on how to proceed with analysis of a given piece of music, the next logical step is to show these methods in practice. This is the work of the third and final section of this essay.

Section III: The Method in Practice -- Formal Analysis & Examples from Beethoven’s Op. 59 #1

To better show how the techniques I advocate should be used in analyzing an actual piece of music, I want to provide an analysis of a piece of music. The best example for these techniques would be a piece of music that seems a little odd and less-than-obvious formally. But it should also contain hints for the attentive listener; as I stated above, the composer wants to be understood and provides extra help when he deviates from pre-established, familiar, easy-to-understand forms.

For my example, I wish to refer to the second movement of one of Beethoven’s best string quartets: no. 7 in F major, Opus 59 number 1. No commentary on the circumstances of the quartet’s composition is germane to this discussion, but it may be helpful to say a few things about the quartet itself before examining one of its parts closely. The work is one of three quartets written together and published under the same opus number. It dates from the years 1804-06; other Beethoven works from this time include the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto, and Beethoven’s sole opera Fidelio. Readers may wish to look to those works for similar music and to get an idea of what was going on in Beethoven’s musical imagination. These works also have the reputation of being "heroic". One very odd and noteworthy thing about this particular quartet is that all four movements are written in sonata form. The second movement is the scherzo of the quartet; it is a brash, vigorous escapade in three-eight time, yet it is marvelously well crafted and shows no trace of youth or inexperience in its sound.

There are four parts to the movement according to the sonata form principle: an exposition to introduce the movement and the principal thematic material, a development section to experiment with the material, a recapitulation to bring back the original material, and a coda to bring the movement to a close. We will examine each section in detail, commenting when necessary, and following this a discussion on how to make sense of the whole movement.

The exposition stretches from bars 1-154. Since the exposition’s function in sonata form is to introduce the material to be used later in the development and recapitulation, the important things to listen for are themes, harmonies, or rhythms. These may occur separately or in groups. To help the listener realize them when they occur, they are usually stated on one instrument or section in a monophonic or light homophonic texture. In this case, we will hear two groups of themes, some of which will be expanded on later while others will merely be repeated.

The movement starts with the first group. The first thing we hear is a rhythmic figure in the cello that will pervade the entire movement. Following this in bars 4-8 is a more lyrical-sounding melody in the second violin. The rhythmic figure and the melody are then repeated a minor seventh higher on the viola and first violin. The rhythm is shared by all four instruments, this time building a C flat major chord, before bringing in another lyrical theme in bars 23-7. An emphatic B flat major chord finally establishes the tonic key at bar 29. We hear this as a tonic chord because the next theme, beginning at bar 39, is in D minor, and we hear this new key as a departure. Beethoven experiments with the consequences of this D minor theme for twenty or so measures before bringing back the rhythmic figure from the beginning and modulating back to the tonic B flat. At bar 68, the cello repeats the rhythmic figure. The last theme of the first group now makes its appearance at bar 72 in the second violin, sounding like a question. The viola immediately pops up with the obvious answer at bar 74. This last theme is obviously derived from the first lyrical theme in the beginning of the movement. The next forty measures consist of interplay between this new derivative theme and the rhythmic figure before an audible fall and pause in bar 114. This closes the first group of themes.

The second group begins at bar 115 with a F minor theme in the first violin, which covers bars 113-22. It is repeated an octave higher before yielding to a new theme at bar 123 that climbs the thirds of the A flat triad. Again, these two themes are very closely related; the only real differences are a relocation of the downbeat and the continuation after the first bar and a half. The exposition then comes to a close, featuring a quite poignant statement of the second theme by the cello in bars 135-42.

The exposition, then, features these points of interest. There are two groups of themes that grab our interest. The first group contains four themes and rhythmic figures. The themes are found in the following bars: 1-8, which contain first the rhythmic figure and then the first theme; 23-7, which contain the second theme in the first violin; 39-44, which contain the third theme (in D minor, whereas the first two are in the tonic of B flat); 72-6, which contain the question-answer theme, again in B flat, which is derivative of the first theme from bars 4-8. The second group contains two themes. The first is heard in bars 115-18 and is in F minor. The second is in A flat major and passes through bars 122-28.

The development section is next; it stretches over bars 155-258. Its entry is a little obscured since Beethoven does not repeat the first section nor cadence firmly on the dominant F major to clearly indicate the end of the exposition. But it can be recognized at bar 155 because of the fortepiano D flat chord, which is a new key, and the return of the first theme from the first group in the exposition. The development section is typically the most interesting part of a sonata-form movement. There are few, if any, rules as to what must happen in it; having established his working materials in the exposition, the composer is now free to show us what he and his ingenuity can do with them. But precisely because there are few predictions that can be made about the development, it is here that the composer runs the most risk of losing his listeners. Again, Beethoven takes pains to let us know where he starts a section in the development and what he starts with. With these we are never left in danger of feeling lost but instead are free to follow the path laid out for us without fear.

This particular development section has three mini-sections, which I will call paragraphs. The first goes from bars 155-69. The second violin introduces the first theme from the first group in a variation of its original form, which the first violin takes up immediately afterwards. The highest note in this version of the theme, an A flat, is syncopated in sixteenth notes with the help of the second violin and slides down a tone at a time while sixteenth-note figures bubble up from the other three voices. The music gains strength as the first violin shifts back to the beat, leading to a stunning, crazy-sounding unison F sharp in bar 169. A dramatic pause stops the momentum for a second and ends this paragraph. After the pause, the music interprets this F sharp as the fifth in the B major scale and recalls the second theme of the first group to begin the second paragraph.

This second paragraph, brilliant and brash, is concerned with embellishing the rhythmical figure that opens the piece and pervades the whole movement. This paragraph encompasses bars 171-212. Instead of repeating the same note, it ascends to an E natural and falls to an A sharp at bar 182. Near the end of the phrase, the tempo slows just enough to be perceptible. The pause on B flat major at bar 183 turns to B flat minor. The same approach is then used again; the first violin climbs to a C flat and works its way down again. This time the music pauses on a C major chord, which unexpectedly crescendos. Suddenly, here at bar 193, the music seems to catch fire; the first violin rings out with C major arpeggios. The unadorned, monotonic rhythmic figure sounds fortissimo on C in the cello, then is passed, still fortissimo, to the upper voices by fifths: first on G, then D, and then A. Along the way, the key modulates to D minor. The music grinds to a D sharp diminished 7th chord before relaxing for the return of the derivative melody in A minor at bar 213. This signals the beginning of the third paragraph and thus the end of the second.

The third and final paragraph of the development has the usual elaboration of a melody, this time the fourth theme of the first group, but it also does something unexpected. The technique here is not to expand but to contract. The theme is first stated in its entirety. It then is reduced to six notes in bar 218. It is whittled down to five, then to four, and finally groups of two notes by bar 226. All four voices take a sixteenth-note rhythm, scraping out staccato notes and slowly increasing the volume until an A diminished 7th chord brings everything to a stop, exactly as the unison F sharps did at the end of the first paragraph at bar 169. Just as the second paragraph immediately followed the F sharps of the first paragraph with a lyrical theme, a lyrical theme is introduced, but this one is an entirely new creation in G flat. For the rest of the paragraph, this new idea is never heard without the rhythmic figure in one of the voices. Pieces of the derivative theme are used almost like stitches to bind the new idea together, and the music proceeds to a F major 7 cadence in bar 257. This ends the third paragraph.

So how do we keep ourselves oriented through the development? Each of the three paragraphs is clearly marked by quoting a theme we already know from the exposition. In the first, he syncopates the highest note in the melody, in so doing never allowing the memory of that note’s origin to fade. In the second, he quotes a familiar theme directly, then keeps all or part of the rhythmic figure at all times to guide us through the exciting fortissimos. Finally, in the third, he takes a familiar theme and fragments it, doing it in such a way as to bring a cadence similar to that ending the first paragraph. This creates the perfect opportunity to introduce the new idea in G flat. It is really amazing that not only does he not lose us, his skill is sufficient to bring in a new idea in the development and have it feel like it belongs there.

The third section, the recapitulation, begins at bar 259 and extends to bar 393. In the sonata form, the recapitulation is designed to remind us of where we came from to put the journey from theme to development in perspective. In its most pedantic form, it is a simple repetition of the exposition in the tonic key, but most works introduce slight variations or change some parts of the themes, rather like applying lessons learned in the development. This particular recapitulation is on the whole a repeat, but it incorporates some new elements to keep our interest.

A trill in the first violin starting at bar 259 calls for our attention; under this we hear the second theme of the first group being repeated in the tonic key of B flat. This is followed by another statement of the rhythmic figure in a B flat tonic chord, just as in bar 29. The music moves to G minor, the relative minor of B flat, for the almost literal repetition of bars 39-65. Here, though, at bar 300, Beethoven elaborates the modulation from before and drops us into F major. There is also a nice touch here -- the G flat idea that was new in the development’s third paragraph is quoted here in F. After the derivative theme is repeated, a second modulation brings us to E major and an even more pleasant, beautiful sound is evoked by that same new idea. Things then continue normally until just after the fortissimo in bar 337. Instead of simply repeating the derivative theme as he did in the exposition, Beethoven elaborates by appending the progressive fragmentation of the theme used in the development’s third paragraph, around bars 215-225. The rest of the recapitulation holds no surprises; the second group enters and exits. The recapitulation ends by modulating to G flat at bar 394 on a fortepiano chord, echoing the beginning of the development and signaling the beginning of the coda. Beethoven keeps our interest throughout this section by the additions and embellishments described in this paragraph.

The coda is meant to close a piece however it feels best to close it. Like its brother section, the development, the coda has few rules governing it. It may be very short and consist only of a four-measure perfect cadence. Or it may be quite long, sometimes taking the role of a second development section. This coda runs through bars 394-476, making it a moderately long one. It borrows from the development section but does not do any real development of its own. It waits for the opportune moment to wind up the music and bring it to a logical close.

At first, the coda proceeds just as the development, but we are alerted to the fact that something new is happening at bar 402. As the music repeats the bubbling sixteenth-note figures from bars 159-66, the bubbles start rising simultaneously as they become compressed here at bar 402. The cello then takes up some wandering in sixteenth notes. Soon it is joined by the others, and the music begins to wind up for the conclusion. The new development idea in G flat, the rhythmic figure, the figure that introduces the development and coda, and the bar 23 theme are all summoned at some point. The music pauses on an F diminished 7 at bar 446, just as before on the unison F sharps in bar 169 and the chord in bar 237. The music gains energy and momentum with sixteenth-note runs and closes triumphantly on a unison B flat.

I wish to hold up analyses like the preceding as examples of what I mean when I talk about the search for a listener’s knowledge of music. It will help to show the process of analysis from start to finish: what questions I began with, what answers I found, what questions still remained, etc.

The first thing to listen for in a piece of music is the large-scale structure. Is it two-part or three-part sectional form, fugue, rondo, theme and variations, or sonata form? The composer will usually help by naming his work in accordance with tradition. Being the second movement in a string quartet, tradition would suggest a scherzo, a minuet, or perhaps some other dance. Indeed, the piece’s most general structure is A-B-A: a section of material, a contrasting section, and a repeat (more or less) of the first section. Is it simple ternary form or a more complicated species? Once we recognize a contrasting section in the middle, we then hear that its material is derived from clear melodies and a rhythmic figure presented in the first section. Later, in the third section, these melodies are brought back in the tonic key. All these factors indicate a sonata form -- unusual for the second movement of a quartet, but there nevertheless.

The melody from the first group, first heard at bars 23-7, is never literally repeated for the rest of the movement. But pieces of the melody and derivations of it do show up constantly. The question-answer theme from bars 72-6 is derived from the first theme, and this theme is repeated literally in the recapitulation. The third paragraph of the development is basically a progressive compression and fragmentation of the question-answer theme.

This observation is an example of the understanding to which this method of listening is designed to lead. In most sonata-form music, the most interesting part is the development. Figuring out what is going on in the development is often the most interesting part of listening to sonata form on the third plane. When the listener recognizes that the theme from bars 72-6 is compressed, fragmented, and recycled for the development’s third paragraph, he has understood Beethoven’s thought process at that section of the development. He now knows where the ideas for that section came from, and now it will be much easier to see how they fit together.

The first and second paragraphs of the development can be understood in precisely the same way, but they are a little easier to recognize. In the first paragraph, Beethoven draws the structure from the melody itself. The idea there is simply to syncopate the highest note and make things happen underneath it. In the second paragraph, the idea is to probe the energetic potential of the rhythmic figure. Again, the idea in analyzing this way is to bring the listener into contact with how Beethoven designs the musical structure. When the listener understands in ways like these, he is in direct communication with the composer’s intention; he is experiencing the music just as Beethoven conceived it. This is where the listener knows the meaning of the music.


I am quite aware that the approach to music I am proposing in this essay is quite difficult and requires independent research on musical form; the listener must seek to educate himself on basic principles of form and the expectations that come from them. I am also aware that this approach makes impressive attention demands on the listener. Why should this approach or one like it be developed or even employed? What is to be gained?

Unless someone has asked the question, the presentation of the answer seems rather worthless. This method of listening is designed to allow the listener greater access to the music’s meaning insofar as that phrase is understood above. It was designed to answer the question, "What gives music such power over me?" While I cannot hope to answer why a dominant harmony wishes to resolve to a tonic chord or why a beautiful melody is beautiful, I believe that the fundamental structure of any piece of music -- unique to every piece of music -- is accessible and discoverable. Music’s existence as an art is dependent on its structure. It is when questions about music as an art are asked that one begins to explore answers like the preceding.

I do not mean to suggest, of course, that this is the only way or the best way of finding the meaning in music. Others may disagree with where I find the meaning of music, but they cannot deny the exalted place that musical form holds. I feel that my approach has been of great help to me in understanding countless pieces of music and in allowing greater access to a composer’s thought. It is my hope that someone else may find as much meaning through my observations as I have.


  • Aaron Copland, What to Listen For In Music
  • Victor Zuckerkandl, The Sense of Music

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.