Basso: A low point in the study of musical meaning and metaphor

Robert Hugh Nelson

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Recent literature encourages an exploration of musical meaning throughmetaphor, as the affective character of music is allusive, evocative and seldomliteral. But while in theory metaphor can explain aspects of musical meaning, inpractice the definitions of metaphor are as vague and various as the abstractsounds that they would elucidate. Scholars have not handled the awkwardhistorical slipperiness of metaphors which, like language, change over time. Usingthe example of low notes, this article historicizes the metaphorical motif of deepsounds, showing how ‘high’ and ‘low’ follow a suggestive vein of poetic intuition.Historically, ‘high’ and ‘low’ carry persistent social and moral connotations.Examining the philology behind conceptions of lowness from antiquity to thebaroque, this article proposes that low notes—and low instruments and theirparts—have different meanings to their higher-frequency counterparts; inparticular, it inquires into how much the prevailing associations of evil andinferiority are induced upon low registers and under what conditions this‘baseness’ may be redeemed. Proposing patterns for the simultaneous terror andbenign authority of lowness from fields beyond music, the article argues that thebackdrop of evil in bass and base (basso) is a necessary semantic element in theaesthetic development of European multi-voiced music. The moral orpsychological metaphor is thus integral to the aesthetic content of music
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-120
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Music and Meaning
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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