Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Music and bodily metaphors

Why do we say that music “ascends” with “high” notes – or “descends” with "low" notes? Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen discusses bodily metaphors.
Hi, how is music listening and our understanding of music influenced by how we move? In this video, we’re going to discuss music, movement, verticality and bodily metaphors. Music, often ascends, seems to move upwards, passages build upon each other, moving upwards towards a climax, by being lifted up and then let down again.
How is our experience of music informed by our human knowledge of movement? We have bodies with directions up and down, bodies that can move vertically, slowly or fast, with undulating movements or longer one-directional movements. And we also understand music to go up and down in slow movements or faster, pulsating, repetitive, or long ascending or descending melodic lines of pitch movements. Some musicians also move up and down when they play, according to melodic contours, how the melody moves in directions. So what’s the connection? Music as it behaves acoustically from an instrument or a speaker does not actually have a vertical dimension. Sound makes pressure waves in the air, which makes our eardrum vibrate.
So the verticality must be part of our interpretation, or experience, based upon our understanding. But how is our understanding of such relations in music shaped? To investigate this, we will look at the metaphor theory of linguist, George Lakoff and philosopher, Mark Johnson. In their book “Metaphors We Live By,” they discuss basic metaphors. Metaphors we use all the time in our daily life. When you’re falling asleep. I can see the answer now. I’m falling behind at school. I’m on the top of the problem now. And they believe that we learn to make sense of such metaphors on the basis of bodily experiences of movement or bodily states. Secretary of Defence, Chuck Hagel offers a warm welcome to the Chinese State Counsellor.
How is warm here understood as a caring, considerate welcome? Lakoff and Johnson suggest that children, at an early age, experience warmth together with caring, in connection with being held close, feeling the warmth of, for example, the mother’s body. And expressions, like being a warm person or a close person, is immediately understood on the basis of the bodily experience of warmth and closeness mixed together with loving care. Similarly, we may learn the notion of up as good and down is bad as early experiences of caring persons being above us, and the act of being lifted up as something positive, or being laid down again, on the floor or in the bed, as something negative.
In the Middle Ages, up was where heaven was situated, while down below was hell. Up and down is used extensively as metaphors for being positive and negative. Lakoff and Johnson presents many examples. He’s in top shape. I came down with the flu. Lazarus rose from the dead. He dropped dead. Wake up. He sank into a coma. It’s a high number. Her income fell last year. I’m feeling up. He fell into depression. She’s at the peak of her career. He’s at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Lakoff and Johnson believe that spatial orientations arise from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have, and that they function as they do in our physical environment.
Our key question here is to what extent or understanding of up and down in music is established, in the similar manner as the understanding of linguistic terms, that Lakoff and Johnson discusses. We are very early in life, exposed to sounds and movements. And the most compelling will be when actual directions are linked with music or musical sounds, for example, if you’re making accompanying sounds while lifting your child up and down, or singing songs that follow where to go up and down movements.
Visual inputs can also be important like cartoons. Mickey Mousing is often used as a term to describe direct connection between directions and musical sounds. Notations goes up and down. Watching musicians move can have an impact, but in line with the metaphor theory, personal bodily experiences will matter more. Dancing, singing, playing instruments, and some instruments are more in line with up and down directions than others. The piano, for example, has a horizontal outline, while an organ usually has the lowest register on foot pedals below. We are, of course, formed individually, and there are also large cultural differences. But there might be certain universal experiences, that make the notion of up and down in music natural to humans.
When the music is loud, we all feel the bass in the trunk, down here. Since that is the area in the human body, where we don’t have too many bones, and the low frequencies of the bass sound produce the largest vibration. Similarly, we may try to open the larynx to produce high notes, if you’re not professional singers. “La, la, la.” When we might do this by lifting upwards, high is up and low is down. To see musical elements as metaphors for movement can reveal a better understanding of other elements too. The dynamics of the song often have the same connections to up and down as verticality. Low in volume is down but louder is up.
Tempo in music, fast or slow, they relate to the tempo of bodily movements. How a sound is played gently or hard, may relate to the power or intensity of human movements. The balance of musical passage may relate to our human understanding of corporal balance. On the dance floor, it is easy to see such connections. The DJ provides the material for the dancers to use their bodies as an instrument for acting out metaphoric relations in the music. The tempo, the verticality, the dynamics, the intensity. But all music can be understood on the basis of musical metaphors and serve as the provider of material for human movement. You just have to try.

Why do we say that music “ascends” with “high” notes – or “descends” with “low” notes? Does musical notation have directions?

In this video we will discuss how our bodily feeling of directions serves as a metaphor that shapes our experience of music.

This article is from the free online

Music Moves: Why Does Music Make You Move?

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now