A thought occurred to me when I was listening to some music in the bath last night, and apologies, as it’s kind of a deep one. The thought that is, not the bath.
For the majority of our lives, we are capable of perceiving only one thing with one sense at any one time, right? Sure, you can go for a walk and see the sun, the flowers, and the birds. But you can only really be looking at each of them in quick succession, not all together. Sure, you can be listening in to two conversations happening simultaneously. But you can only focus on one at any one point. And sure, you can eat some delicious food and taste several different flavours that gel together. But it’s still just one taste you’re perceiving, however complex.
Music, however, is alone amongst not only art, but the whole gamut of earthly sensory possibility, in that it grants us the power to take in multiple things at once. Think about it, when two instruments play different notes, they create, however simple, a chord, that has its own contextual meaning separate from those notes, which themselves are separate from one another. You are, not over a period of time but in one moment, hearing not only sound A but also sound B, which in turn create context C, and the ‘meaning’, if you will can be totally different between A/B and C. Cool stuff.
The sense of how meaning works in music, or, indeed, in any art, is clearly a fairly wafty and nebulous one, and not an issue into which I want to jump in a toilet break-sized blog post. Suffice to say that, even if we assume (as I would hope, as the music aficionado you must be to be on this website, we may) that there is some inherent meaning to music, it is not something we are terribly good at explaining, or even necessarily comprehending. What we can all agree on, however, is that we are significantly better at understanding meaning through words. And once again here, music has a secret weapon setting it apart from all other art forms, in that those notes we are hearing can in fact be words at the same time. I’m talking, obviously, about singing.
When we put words together in strings, we create sentences, and these sentences can have meanings both quotidian and simple, or more metaphorical. Again, this is the purview of poetry, or even semiotics, not mine. But, just as, like we realised above, when we put two notes together at the same time to create a contextual musical meaning, when those notes are even an individual word with a very straightforward meaning, the interplay of those two concepts can be beautiful and magical in a way we can’t comprehend.
Let’s say we have two notes sounding together to create a major third, a very sweet and wholesome sound. If we choose to sing those notes to the word ‘sweet’, for instance, those meanings combine to make us feel a certain way. But what if the word ‘sweet’ were sung by two voices creating the context of a tritone, one of the most harsh and dissonant musical intervals. What feelings do they combine to create? Confusion? Bittersweet? Schadenfreude? All of the above? We simply don’t have the words for it.
The ability of voices to create both words and notes in complex and powerful ways is not a new discovery, and artistic opinion on how best to go about controlling this synthesis of meaning has changed wildly over the millennia of human existence. Epic songs of the ancient world sung in ‘modes’ (precursors to our modern concepts of musical scales) to reinforce the mood of the words. Medieval plainchant combines music’s meaning with religious text, where the act of singing itself could lend power to praising God. Once opera comes along, and we find ourselves telling complex stories through music, the possibilities become more nuanced. Wagner combined text he had written himself with his own leitmotifs (musical phrases with very specific symbolic connotations) so that both the music and the text pushed towards the same concept. But Debussy and other Impressionist composers reacted, saying that because the two expressions were through different mediums, they would have ever-so-slightly different meanings, and that the differences in these meanings would in fact subtract from the attempt to express one individual concept; and so instead they sought merely to invoke a mood, feeling or scene through their songs and works, and let the interplay of different meanings rub alongside each other. Truly, the possibilities of how best to combine the two are endless.
Modern songs are much maligned for being dumbed down, or accused of being vapid. But, open yourself up to the potential layered meanings of the words and the notes, and the art is as complex today as it ever was in the music dramas of the early twentieth century. We have a serious sense of consonance of meaning in the final few choruses of Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’. The key of the music changes up each time she sings “you put my love on top”, where in a single musical moment we can hear the music fighting itself to climb ever higher reflecting the placing of her love on top of everything over and over again. But we also have examples of meanings at odds with one another. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical ‘Hamilton’, King George III sings “Oceans rise, empires fall/We have loved each other through it all” trying to entrance the American colonists. But all the power of his appeal is undermined, as the note he sings goes down on the word ‘rise’, and up on the word ‘fall’; and we are invited to consider a more nuanced and perhaps antithetical meaning (thanks to Sloan and Harding’s ‘Switched on Pop’  for those examples).
To put it simply, to this day, there is no art form more capable of expressing emotions either as powerfully or as complex as music is able, especially when you add in both its ability to create context through multiple notes occurring simultaneously, and its marriage with words, in the form of song. Put all these ideas together in one group and you have an ensemble capable of making people feel things like nothing else in the world. Put all these ideas together, and you have a choir.
There is a reason choral singing has been the preferred choice at the big moments in life for so long, and hopefully some of my exploration above gives you some indication as to why. Weddings, funerals, and ceremonies of all sorts are some of the occasions where we struggle to comprehend how we feel about things, and it is in these moments where you simply need a choir to express what we can’t quite do on our own, or in any other way. Our choral groups have a vast repertoire of songs that cover the last 1300 years of western classical music performing music written by the most revered composers produced by humanity. Achieve heightened understanding with The High Row Choir and the Oswald Ensemble.