Abstracting Language in Music

Something strange happens when we listen to music in a foreign language. Usually we’ll have the text on stand by. A quick scan of the text will do and listening resumes.

What we keep in our head usually isn’t the text word by word. It’s only an inkling of what the text means. If I’m watching an opera without subtitles I’ll quickly scan the libretto of the scene I’m on.

How about “Ah, chi mi dice mai” from Don Giovanni? In this aria, Don Elvira feels betrayed by her lover, wanting to tear his out if he doesn’t change. Sure enough it’s Don Giovanni who was her lover. He doesn’t know that it’s Donna Elvira and wants to console the woman.

She’s angry. He’s trying to be a womanizer. Got it! I don’t have to hang on each word. I can just listen to the music and watch the drama ensue. This is a curious exercise in abstraction, one that we do all the time. It saves time trying to learn a new language.

Although it’s useful, this abstraction has to effect our listening in some way. If we didn’t understand English and just got the general gist of what a Dylan song meant and listened, then we’d miss most of the small subtleties that make Dylan rich. If listening to an Italian opera, the poetry exclusive to the language, including play on object gender, is lost.

Local inflection can be sacrificed for universal meaning. It’s up to us to figure out how much that cost means for our appreciation of the music.


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