Describing Music by Using Metaphors and Categorization

Seminar Paper, 2010

14 Pages, Grade: 1

T. Schlipfinger (Author)


Table of Contens Page


1| Metaphors
1.1 Usage
Synaesthetic Metaphors
1.2 Gaut’s Two Level Theory
1.3 Two Different Ways of Talking about Music

2| Categorization
2.1 The Basic Level
2.2 Prototypes
2.3 Radial Categories
2.4 The Reasons for and the Effects of Categorization




In the following paper, I am going to talk about how music is described out of a linguistic point of view. I am going to show how and which metaphors are used and how categorization works. Right at the beginning I have to mention that I am more into modern music, in particular the Rock genre, therefore the majority of examples in this paper will come from this one. However, when reading it, one should always bare in mind that all the theories mentioned below can be applied to any kind of music.

The second thing I might have to mention is that there has not been much research done about this topic. Therefore, many theories mentioned below do not originally refer to the context I have put them into. Nevertheless, most of them do have a claim of universality and I am going to show that they are applicable anyway (in fact, to see that many features of a highly scientific area as linguistic do also fit to a very artistic topic was in particular interesting for me).

In doing so, I have divided my paper basically into two parts, the first of which focuses on the use of metaphors and the second on the process of categorization (as it happens with genres). As the first part focuses on metaphors, I am going to talk about some basic usage and what specialties there are when using metaphors for describing music. Therefore I am going to talk about the most common used metaphors and also the reason why they are the most common. Then I am going to explain what our mind does when applying metaphors. This happens along a theory developed by Barry Gaut. The first part of this paper ends with a little bit of history of metaphors in musical descriptions and how the whole process developed and changed, thereby focusing on the separation from scientific to literary descriptions of music.

In the second part I am going to focus on the very topic of genres. The lion’s share of this part derivates from Lakoff’s theory of categorization in general, applied to the categorization of modern music into genres. In doing so, I am basically also verifying Lakoff’s hypothesis (and thereby falsifying the so called “classical theory”) that the idea of categorization is universal, as in essence his whole theory can be applied to the process of categorizing music. This happens along the example of the Prototype and the Basic Level theory. The last things I am going to talk about are radial categories.

The main focus of this paper is to show how basic linguistic features can be applied onto a very artistic topic as describing music and thereby I hope to make clear how universally applicable they are.

1| Metaphors

So what do we do when using metaphors for talking about music? First of all we need to know what metaphors themselves do. In a painting by Emanuele Tesauro, a woman looks through a telescope right into the sun. This is a metaphorical way to show how metaphors work, as this woman is an allegorical image of Poesis, or metaphor itself. She stares into the sun (which a normal human being could not do) and tells us what she sees. And this is exactly what metaphors do – they explain certain features to us we could not describe otherwise (Spitzer 2004: 1). This is something that happens nearly everywhere, also in the least literary texts and also right within this paper. But as music (and for that matter, art in general) is something that is already very hard to describe literally, there is a very strong use of metaphors in this field. However, even though descriptions of pieces of music do often use metaphors or similes, there is nothing special about their usage. They are used in the same way they are used anywhere else, for example by explaining things that can not be talked about otherwise (Gaut 1997: 224). But here already the question arises if metaphors only direct our attention towards certain features or if they also have an effect on the way we perceive them.

1.1 Usage

One thing most scholars agree on is that metaphors definitely can attract our attention on features that are genuinely possessed by pieces of art. This means that we definitely can notice them; we just lack the ability to describe them literally. Along the same lines, one can easily imagine the smell of coffee – it just gets hard when he has to describe it (Zangwill 1991: 60). And even if there is the possibility to describe every feature of a piece of art, it is often impossible to communicate the effect that this has (in general or on the observer). If we take an example by Barys Gaut: a piece of art is said to be giving the impression of being alive with movement. Even if one could literally explain every single cause that leads him to this very impression, this would still have not the same effect on the reader. This is because the one who receives this description also has many connections to the statement of “being alive with movement”, some who are themselves metaphorical and others that can be literal. All those connections can not be subsumed otherwise than under the general metaphor of “being alive with movement” (Gaut 1997: 230).

Furthermore many forms of explaining music that seem to be literal descriptions do indeed come from a metaphorical background. Even notes, maybe the most basic features in musical theory represent the metaphorical image of “high” notes standing on a higher line than “low” ones (Störel 1992: 217). This shows us that metaphors are of a fundamental importance when talking about music, and, in fact, indispensable.

Of course, behind all those metaphors lie some basic conceptual ones. And in general, one can say that the most basic conceptual metaphors are always ones that compare music to either a structure or a process. Reckow has found metaphors were music was attributed a “structura” or was compared to some sort of “processus” already in the early middle ages (Reckow 1986). But nevertheless, there are certain kinds of metaphors that are more common than others. One example of them, the synaesthetic ones, are taken into closer consideration below.

Synaesthetic Metaphors

A very common way of describing music is through synesthesia. Synesthesia means that something that refers to one sense is attributed to another (a “sharp taste”, for example). In our case, words that actually refer to the senses seeing, tasting, smelling or touching are used for something that is heard (“sour music”). The sense of hearing is thereby a special case and one study by Joseph Williams from 1976 shows why (1976: 463). He did this study on how synaestetic adjectives changed in their meaning over time. Therefore, he compared a modern English dictionary to one from the Middle Ages and looked for semantically changed adjectives. These are some of his results:

Pieces of music, or sounds in general, do receive the greatest amount of words that originally describe experiences from another sense. Our tactile sense, on the other hand, gives away the most terms. Here one can easily draw a line from the concrete, or something one can grasp with probably the most senses, to the abstract, or something we cannot even see. And here clearly hearing is the most abstract sense (apart from smelling at most, but this sense is very strongly connected to tasting) and therefore borrows from all the other senses, whereas our tactile sense borrows almost from no other sense. In fact, the only one that also uses sound-words would be the sense of seeing, as in “quiet colors”. However, it is important to bear in mind that all this only refers to everyday language usage; as literature does have less boundaries, it is a whole other topic ­– even though it usually also follows about the same ranking (Williams 1976: 463).

This is one example of a commonly used sort of metaphor and explains why we often refer to other senses when talking about music. But it just explains why we often prefer to use this kind of metaphor; it is not a satisfying explanation why we use metaphors in general.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Describing Music by Using Metaphors and Categorization
University of Innsbruck  (Anglistik)
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English Linguistics Metaphors Categorization Music, english, language, linguistics, metaphors, categorization, music, describing
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T. Schlipfinger (Author), 2010, Describing Music by Using Metaphors and Categorization, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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