Stravinsky on expression in music

In these extracts Stravinsky discusses the meaning of music.

Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value.

Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.163.

I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.

Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53.

For the phenomenon of music is nothing other than a phenomenon of speculation…..The elements at which this speculation necessarily aims are those of sound and time…..consequently music is a chronologic art……All music is nothing more than a succession of impulses that converge toward a definite point of repose.

….my freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings.

I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…..The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, Harvard University Press, 1970 ed. (original edition 1942), pp. 35, 36 & 49.

8 thoughts on “Stravinsky on expression in music

  1. Pingback: Stravinsky, Expression, and Musical Codes | Limina.Log

  2. Rob Roy McGregor

    The first quote in this column, “Most people like music….” appears in a book I am preparing for publication. I want to contact the owner of that copyright to secure permission to use those three sentences. Any help you can give would be much appreciated.

    1. Stephen Kennamer

      As long as you make the proper attribution in your text, crediting Stravinsky’s autobiography, you really do not need the publisher’s permission — as long as a quote does not go on for a page or more, “fair use” doctrine allows you to incorporate it.

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  4. Bernd Willimek

    Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

  5. yahyaaa1

    The reductionism in Stravinsky’s assertion that:
    “All music is nothing more than a succession of impulses that converge toward a definite point of repose”

    must be profoundly unsatisfying to all lovers and makers of music. Indeed, in your related post on “Stravinsky on the purpose of music”, Stravinsky himself makes much more of music, writing:
    “The phenomenon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the co-ordination between man and time.”

    Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether “music is given to us” or “we make music”, his view is that: “music [has] the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly, the co-ordination between man and time.”

    Now, regardless of its music, each society is perfectly well able to “[establish] co-ordination between man and time.” It does this by observing the changing of day into night, the cyclical return of the seasons, the passage of sun and moon across the sky, the phases of the moon and of birth, growth and death; then creating conventions that name, account for and exploit those changes. Such conventions are, of course, cultural creations, rather than simply being “given”. As such, they may change, grow, die, be supplanted or replaced, or transformed gradually into previously unrecognisable and undreamt forms.

    Much more immediate, however, is the coordination each of us must necessarily establish between our body and the physical rhythms of the world – which includes our bodies and indeed, all of our being. As infants, we must learn to crawl, walk and run. Even a newborn baby has various rhythms firmly established within its body during the recapitulation of evolution that is its gestation. The heartbeat is detectable by others after only a few weeks, and early establishes a driving rhythm for the whole of that person’s life.

    In daily movement and in dance, we match the rhythms of our body to conform to both the earth we tread on and the rhythms of other bodies. Before a word is uttered or sung, we beat a rhythm with our feet, walking, running, leaping. We create rhythm, but our creation is not free; it is constrained by the exigencies of the body and its immediate environment. Thus, we create music first as a response to our environment through the medium of our bodies. We coordinate our bodies to our environment, and in so doing, we create our first notions of time.

    Let’s not deceive ourselves: even such apparently simple concepts as past, present and future, and the linear arrow of time, are not cultural universals. They are cultural creations, every bit as much as are Mayan pyramids and space telescopes.

    Music arises in us from necessity: our need to move through our world to do whatever is necessary for or survival, whether that be hunting for food, for a mate, or for meaning.

    Why is birdsong so endlessly fascinating to us? I think it’s because we feel that the bird is a kindred spirit since it also marks time by making music; a music different from ours, but one that equally responds to its life needs.

  6. Pingback: Elliot Galvin: The Influencing Machine CD review – brilliantly executed bright ideas | Naija Upgrade

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