Thursday, August 13, 2009

Opera! Not Opium!

Ok...I think pretty much everyone gets the connection between the idea of beautiful music and sadness, right? We like sad songs, a great sad song is beautiful. No one calls sad songs "depressing". Or at least not if they are beautiful sad songs-- although I think its almost solipsistic: a good sad song isn't depressing because its beautiful and its beautiful because it isn't depressing...
I think music has the right idea...sad songs help us feel our feelings deeper, make the difficult moments all the more profound and poignant.
Its almost a no-brainer. So how come people grouse about sad art work? Why do so many people want their art happy happy happy? Prettyprettypretty pictures that are sweetsweetsweetly nonoffensive?
Any thoughts?


Oisín said...

Thank you! People used to (and occasionally still do) ask me why I listened to such sad music so often -- and that was exactly the reason. Without the music, I was left carrying around this heavy compressive weight inside my chest; but by finding music that struck and expressed the right chord, it would ease the pressure and let out the steam and function again.

I've always wondered if there was something wrong with me, as I'm rarely moved by happy music or art. It happens, but nowhere near as consistently as I'm drawn to works that leave me feeling uneasy. I guess happy works just don't challenge the viewer/listener very easily. It takes a profound beauty to illicit response, but only a slight twisting of that to arrest attention.

I may be trying too hard at being profound, and far too early in the day for me.

Anonymous said...

Great question! Some thoughts:

Music addresses emotions such as sadness, elation or melancholy in the abstract. We've been taught in the West, for example, that music written in a minor key typically invokes emotions like sadness, melancholy, anger. But that is far from a universal interpretation... in other cultures, music in a minor key can represent grandeur or celebration or even happiness. Interpreting the emotions of music is most often a learned reaction, e.g. in the west, we were taught to most often associate minor keys with sadness. But there isn't any universal "sad note" or "sad chord".

Lyrics, of course, are a different kettle of fish than straight music, but even then, if they aren't too ham-fisted ("Oh misery and slaughter and hatred and genocide! Sing along with me now!"), they leave some room for interpretation, or can even be partly or wholly ignored and still enjoyed.

Visual art that directly depicts sadness, on the other hand, invokes a much more direct and visceral reaction in people. When witnessing images of pain, grief or anguish, our reactions are often deeply imbedded in our mammalian brains. A sad image is harder to ignore and not as likely to be misinterpreted.

I suspect that people can easily modulate their interpretations of music to suit their temperament... one person's sad, melancholy song is another's anthem of hope is another's good-time drinking ditty. But a picture of a woman in agony over her dead child or an image of a dying man is hard to put a different spin on... if you're not emotionally dead or a sociopath, you'll very likely feel sadness when you look at them. Some people find that useful, but many are repelled and want to shut their eyes.

Does that make any sense?

Judith Schaechter said...

Great points, the both of youse!

I never knew that the minor key=sad thing was learned. That's very interesting--(Personally I was hoping it was universal as "absolutes" in art are so very rare and they say something very profound about art as a human thing which I want to know more about in order to cream my art hating opponents in debates)

I always thought music was the more visceral...mainly because our eyes are such processors and lead almost directly to NAMING and thus the whole enterprise is more intellectual (for better and certainly for worse) than hearing but you know...that may just be a total crock of sh*t! After all we process sound too...
Empathy for subject matter is a very deep thing and I am all about using that--I am very careful where my characters are looking etc...

As a friend pointed out in conversation about this post: people probably love their sad images of tormented humans as much as sad whaddo I know anyway!!
thanks for your great responses!