Music and Memory Part 3: A Musical Memory

Pierre-August Renoir, Jeunes filles au piano, 1892, cropped from source.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

In this last of three articles on music and memory, Young-Jin Hur looks the relationship between memory and the form of music itself.

The link between music and memory goes beyond the domain of commemoration and historic imageries. Memory, too, resides in the narrative of music itself, free from extra-musical references.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that at the core of enduring forms in music lies memory, in particular with relation to the logical construction of familiarity.

One example is sonata form. A movement in a Classical sonata form involves the contrasting of two theme groups to emerge and evolve together, as a unified musical essay. Whenever a theme re-emerges, either in disguised form or in exact repetition, it evokes a sense of familiarity and belonging, and ultimately delight. This moment of familiarity-based joy is most deeply and profoundly felt in the recapitulation – there is a sense of welcoming relief, as if to signal the end of a journey.

Similar things can be said about the variation form, where a vigorous musical argument is achieved through variations of a single theme. Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) intimately monumental Goldberg Variations are an appropriate example. The 30 variations of the initial Aria are based on elements of the theme itself, and the music flows naturally. But when the Aria is repeated note-for-note in the last movement, there is an ineffable sense of delight. I often find myself listening to the whole work to experience this moment of magic, where nothing has changed in the music but everything else has.

If there is an experience of pensiveness here, it is of a sort of nostalgic reflection, born perhaps of the passing of time and place, manifest in the world preceding the musical transformation. Further examples of forms can be given, such as the cyclical form (i.e. a certain fixed idea is repeated throughout a multi-movement work) and the Rondo-Allegro form (i.e. akin to cyclical form but within a movement). Common in these Classical forms is the notion that bringing back themes and motifs from earlier times is a crucial element of musical narrative.

The idea that familiarity leads to a sort of delight is one that is largely congruent to the psychological theory of ‘mere exposure effect’. The theory argues that simply repeating the exposure of a certain idea, or object, to an individual is enough to make him/her like what was presented – regardless of the characteristic of the object in question. Familiarity, then, is a powerful vehicle in the creation of preferences and liking, which can be applied to music.

Yet things are unlikely to be as simple. An excessive degree of familiarity will lead to monotony, whereas too little familiarity will damage cohesion. The logical construction of familiarity, thus, must be accommodated with an extra impetus of some kind.

I believe that in order for familiarity and memory to thrive in the construction of an immersive musical narrative, there must be some accompaniment of subtlety and organic unity. When Jean Sibelius, in a discussion with his contemporary Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) of the nature of symphonies, expressed ‘I admire the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives,’ his ‘inner connection’ can have two meanings: the logical understanding of a manipulation of familiarity and memory, and the creation of a bounding coherence in the work. And it is likely that both elements are interactive: what gives rise to familiarity will likely contribute to giving a sense of coherence to a work, and vice versa.

Sibelius’ very own second symphony proves an embodiment of his quote. When the sweeping melody of the last movement arrives, the rhythmic structure is not changed from that of the third movement – the listeners are in a familiar plane, and a feeling of unity prevails. What’s more, the melody itself is patched together from the opening motifs of the first movement. If listeners are moved, it is not despite of the tight logic in the piece, but rather because of it. Sibelius has earned his victory through the ideal manipulation of familiarity and sense of unity.

If one understands, however, that Sibelius’ quote is not an explicit comment on any Classical forms – and he seems to have been fairly averse to them anyway – one can wonder to what degree the role of memory is integral in musical form per se.

Form, technically, is the logical structure that underlies a work of music. In experiential terms, however, is not form that which denotes what will happen after what came before? And the awareness of what comes after can be achieved only through one’s memory-driven familiarity. Memory, then, is the essence of form itself and the story told within a piece of music.

Can there be music without form? A deep analysis would be beyond the scope of this essay. In questions regarding the relationship between art and nature, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) wrote that art is contained nature, and that a sense of beauty can arise from art only. Here, nature is seen as a chaos, an unorganised source of raw materials, the soil upon which the elegance and beauty of art is created.

If one sides with Schiller, music must assume form, for this is the very essence of art. Form, here, is not a mere structural layout of a work, but also a basis of aesthetic experience with the intention to mitigate and logically pursue what is inherently irrational and disjointed.

Beethoven’s Walk in Nature, by Julius Schmid, source.

Even serialist music, which may sound like disjointed clusters of noise upon first hearing to some, has careful calculations of formulas and restrictions lying within. Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), a pioneer of chance in music, spent efforts to reject the notion of total chance and improvisation by setting restrictions in his music.

One man who stretched the boundaries of the link between music and form was the American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987). When the composer Christian Wolff sat down with the score of Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952, he exclaimed, ‘What is there to say? The music appears to be unanalysable. I don’t see any system.’ Wolff also believed that the composition lacked any perceivable formalistic intentions – ‘I see no interest such in pitch class or interval pattern organisation’. But Feldman rebuked him: ‘there is not one organisational procedure more advantageous than another, perhaps because no one pattern ever takes precedence over the others.’

Even Feldman, with his adventurousness, could not resist the importance of form. That Feldman further linked form with memory is not the least surprising – ‘music is essentially built upon primitive memory structures’, he remarked.

In the sparse echoes of the piano work, we might just be able to understand what this means.

Issues of memory, therefore, lie deep in musical experiences. But an immersive narrative is never a unidirectional process. In as much as the composer contributes structure and form to a work, it is the audience themselves that relate to the logic by involving their memory structures. Form translates into memory insofar as there is a deep involvement which triggers the listener’s memory.

The perception of music involves a process of co-creation, both from its author and its audiences. The listener constantly builds up expectations based on what was heard, which is confirmed or denied by the given form of music. This in itself is a musical joy. Indeed, recent works in psychology have demonstrated that the presence of expectation in itself plays an important role in the creation of musical emotions.

And how are expectations and imagination related to memory? Recent psychological research has also shown a close link between memory, expectation and imagination, represented by neural connections in the brain. In other words, these psychological functions may have a common biological source.

When philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797) illustrated the unique powers of imagination, he emphasised the role of memory:

[…] the mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like […] the imagination is the most extensive province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears and our hopes, and of all our passions that are connected with them. 

Or as the White Queen says in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass: ‘it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’.

Alice with the White Queen and Red Queen.

Memory, then, is both the starting point and the endpoint to an intricate and dynamic musical experience. Audiences build up a narrative of music based on both memories, imagination and expectations, and a composer will, consciously or not, have this reflected in his/her musical forms.

In these three articles, I have observed that memory is represented in a wide range of works in music, that memory and yearning for the past occupies a special aesthetic category in its own right, and that memory may be an essential quality in the narrative of music itself.

Memory is the past seen from the present. But memory can never be solely an act of reliving the past – it is also a powerful reminder of what we are at the moment of looking back. It is an ephemeral glimpse between the boundaries of the past and future, between what will be and what is no more. It is something forever unsettled whilst being firmly grounded in the indifference of passing time.

Hence when the dead are remembered, it is the living that become aware of both life and its fragilities. When older times are idealised, it is a critical appraisal of the present state of things. When ruins are admired, the transience of the present in front of the monumentality of time is made palpable. And in the narrative of music, the notes that play now sound inspiring and valuable as a result of the memories of all that came before. And this brings about a feeling of a unique kind, something both distant yet closely felt, elusive yet definitive, sad yet joyous.

Through the appreciation of memory, one finds promise in the past, the present, and the pasts and presents that are to come. Some way or another they inform us of who we are within the now. Memory is thus a human achievement of mastering the various presents. It is a recollection of all that is.

We exist in our true knowing selves insofar as the present is within our knowing. Yet we are all too aware that without the present, there would be no past nor the future. There would be no time, the passage of it, nor our awareness of the present – in other words ‘life’. For this reason, the lines of Frederich Leopold, set in Schubert’s song To Sing On The Water, are not only admired because of their vivid imagination, but also because of the sympathy toward life and memory they procure:

Ah, with dewy wings
On the rocking waves, time escapes from me
Tomorrow with shimmering wings
Like yesterday and today may time again escape from me,
Until I on towering, radiant wings
Myself escape from changing time.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur on Corymbus:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).

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