Monthly Archives: November 2016

How do we express music in words?

Within that question is this idea that we can separate words from music in the first place.

What if we cannot?

An unlikely analogue to such a conclusion can be found in Antoine Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry. In the preface of the translation, Lavoisier makes the claim that chemistry, like any science, cannot let go of the words which describe it:

“The impossibility of separating the nomenclature of a science from the science itself, is owing to this, that every branch of physical science must consist of three things; the series of facts which are the objects of the science, the ideas which represent these facts, and the words by which these ideas are expressed”.

These three things are interrelated. “…[A]s ideas are preserved and communicated by means of words”, Lavoisier writes, “it necessarily follows that we cannot improve the language of any science without the same time improving the science itself; neither can we, on the other hand, improve a science, without improving the language or nomenclature which belongs to it”.

While music is not chemistry, we can transcribe Lavoisier’s statements onto its mold. There is a series of facts that are the objects of a music, the ideas which represent said music, and the words by which these ideas are expressed. ‘Series of facts’ is not a snug fit but we can take it as the characteristics of a music.

What forms is a network of relations that play out in any musical category. As an example, the music of the Baroque era is steeped in tracts which expound on how music operates, feeding back into the compositions themselves. Many composers’ prefatory remarks to their works, especially Giulio Caccini’s to his Le nuove musiche and Monteverdi to his madrigals, ‘improved’ the language of the ideas that would lay the foundation for music made in the early Baroque style.

Lavoisier’s three things could also serve as a way to diagnose problems in music. How about the disinterest in classical music seen in younger audiences? No matter how well the music is performed or the program notes are organized, if the ideas that the music expresses are not in line with the teenager’s values, why would she bother?


‘Tone color’ and ‘word painting’ both refer to sound and sight. Program music attempts to convey imagery in sound. And even in theory we ‘build’ chords, evoking a sense of touch with sound.

Inherent in our discussion of music is a synesthetic vocabulary.

That is to say we are not confusing this vocabulary with actual synesthesia. It does beg many questions though.

So say I listen to Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. Would I experience the same thing as someone with synesthesia? Are the images I see from the sound sincere? Were they not artificially induced from the program notes Berlioz wrote?

If that is the case, do these notes, along with the aforementioned vocabulary, play with if not rewire the brain of a non-synesthetic to have a synesthetic experience? The question then comes back to whether that experience is sincerely synesthetic.

Either way, something fascinating happens when music and the other senses converge.