How Old Do You Have To Be To Use Musically Musical Imagery

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Musical Imagery

Since I live in Louisville, Kentucky, it’s pretty hard not to get caught up in Kentucky Derby fever every spring. I’ve already eaten my obligatory chocolate pie. This type of chocolate pie is almost a giant chocolate cake that is poured and baked into a pie crust. Anyway, it got me thinking about horses and horse racing, and one thing led to another, and as usual I started thinking about music. Specifically, I began to think about how composers and musicians can use musical imagery to create or mimic other images or feelings.

My connection to the Kentucky Derby came about because one of the best examples of musical imagery is the racehorse. It’s in Franz Schubert’s The Elf King (although it has other great images). A father and son ride wildly through a dense forest as they are being chased by a spectral elf-king. The low note represents the elf king. Notes ebb and flow as you race through the woods. Sometimes the notes are far apart. Other times they are very close. Finally, the note slows down as the father reaches home. He realizes that his son is dead. The music becomes very sad, sad and solemn.

Several other musical horse image songs come to mind. Of course, you have ZZ Top’s La Grange, where you can imagine the hero galloping through the dusty Texas town of La Grange to Billy Gibbons’ guitar riffs. Aerosmith adds their song Back in the Saddle. (This is one of my favorite songs for guitar filler). Weiss’s guitar riff sounds like a horse tearing up the ground with its hooves. Then to get even higher, he uses his hooves to add to the sound of the horse neighing.

Musical imagery, or the intentional use of the imagination by musicians, has traditionally been seen and considered as the ability to imagine sounds even when no sounds are audible.

– From the book “Musical Imagery and Imagination: The Function, Measurement, and Application of Imagery Skills to Performance”

Since we’re on this approach, we might as well stick with the animals. Heart’s song Barracuda has a great galloping guitar riff that depicts a fast little ferocious fish surging through the water. [You know somebody should compose some musical imagery for the scene where the nihilists drop a ferret in the bathtub in The Big Lebowski.] Speaking of water, you also have the theme of Jaws, a low ominous beat. Like Pavlov’s dog, when we heard the topic of jaws, we were promised to look for fins.

Creatures don’t have to be natural either. You have Godzilla from Blue Oyster Cult. The main musical riff to me sounds exactly like a 50,000 ton lizard tripping like Frankenstein, a 1 year old toddler. (In other words, it sounds exactly like it’s supposed to.) Blue Oyster Cult also used slide guitar to make Godzilla pick up some strings. Movies sometimes have great musical imagery. There’s Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho where you have Eek! eek! eek! In the shower scene. In Riders of the Storm, The Doors used a recording of thunder. However, the keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, also used musical imagery to create rain.

Our belief is that musical imagery is at the core of music as a phenomenon, because, after all, what would music be if we did not have an image of sound in our minds.

– from the book “Musical Image”

There are many other great examples of classical music. When Mozart’s wife Constanze was in labor in a nearby room, Mozart wrote the crescendo to his Andante (K. 421) in the D minor Quartet. Then after the birth of the child, he wrote a menu and a trio. Richard Wagner, in the opening of the ring cycle Das Rheingold, tries to represent the creation of the world musically. He does this in about three minutes using variations on the E-flat chord.

One development in this direction is the merging of music with science. Some symphonies have begun to combine classical music selections with multimedia presentations of the latest images from space. One popular choice is Gustav Holst’s planets. Holst was an amateur astronomer, so he based his musical imagery on planetary astrology rather than astronomy. However, some selections were not originally written with heaven in mind at all. This is where the flexible, abstract nature of music can come into play. It’s like lying on your back on a sunny day and looking at the clouds. You can see many different things in the clouds.

So pay more attention the next time you watch a movie or TV show. Really listen to the music. Think about how music is used to reinforce what you are seeing, what the characters are feeling, what is going to happen or has already happened. If you’re writing music, start thinking about how you can create a musical image of what you see and feel. How would you musically depict a flock of geese flying over your head? I’m still trying to think of what it would sound like when the nihilists threw a wheelbarrow into the bathtub for The Big Lebowski…

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