Getting Abstract


Music is always Abstract

Music is just about the best vehicle we have for conveying abstract thought. Take fish, for example.


Fish out of water?

If somebody wanted to communicate to you the idea of a fish, they could say or write the word ‘fish’. If we hear or read that word, we will probably all think of a fish. We may not think about the same fish, but the essential concept of ‘fish’ will be understood by all (even linguists and philosophers).


How about if someone painted a fish? Or sculpted one? Looking at that, we would should agree we all see pretty much the same type of fish. In other words, painting a fish takes us somewhere towards making the concept of fish from the abstract into something more concrete.


This is inevitable, since it is through our visual perception that we most engage with the outside world.

Hearing, we use far less. At least consciously.



Musical Fish

So where does this leave the composer? They could compose a fish symphony, but could any piece of music give you a fish?

They’re probably best going in the opposite direction, that is towards the abstract. By composing about his feelings towards fish for example, or about nature in general.


Here is an excerpt from Saint-Saens carnival of animals, a section titled ‘The Aquarium’:



Fish out of water in water?


This is as close to a representation of fish as I know in classical music. And even then, it’s not really trying to describe a fish. Rather it evokes a place where we go to see fish.

Hence, the Aquarium.

And even then, this is no particular aquarium. It isn’t describing glass or air pumps, or even the fish. Rather, it paints something of the way light plays in water in a darkened aquarium. This is all about gentle brushstrokes and impressions, rather than hard concrete lines.


Music inevitably tends towards the abstract, and that is one of its very greatest strengths. It can be used as a means of describing emotions and thoughts, things that when reduced to words can seem rather more sterile and lifeless. It can describe the indescribable.


That immediately points to a problem: using words to describe the process and power of music can be very tricky. I have to admit that’s a problem I’ve encountered many many times attempting to write this website.

Words, descriptions, definition, explanations: all these can sound clunky or pretentious against the beauty, majesty, power, brilliance, depth and whatever other superlatives the music itself manages to convey.




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