The song ‘Five Years’ by the contemporary Gothic rock band Sugar Hiccup (Oracle, 1995) narrates a story of a man and his abandoned lover. The woman becomes convinced that he will never return to her, and ultimately surrenders to her grief. As the song develops, it describes the hope, desperate passion and, finally, the crushing loss that the woman feels.
In less than three minutes of music, Sugar Hiccup effectively portray every one of the eponymous five years drifting past. This narrative is hardly exceptional; the story of the abandoned lover is so common it is almost a cliché. But ‘Five Years’ sets itself apart from the norm by the unconventionality of its use of narrative devices.
In those three minutes, exactly five words are uttered by the singer. The rest of the vocalisation consists of humming, fragmented sounds from the few coherent words, and, finally, screaming. The musical devices are just as restrained as the lyric, with little harmonic or melodic development throughout the performance. How, then, do Sugar Hiccup manage to tell us any story at all? How might we understand the nuances of this work, and — perhaps most importantly — how might this give us insight into how to approach any narrative constructed by deliberately subverting all of our expectations?
Human beings are capable of producing semantically coherent words. Removing these words but retaining the human voice, such as in ‘Five Years’, means that our attention is redirected. We have to consciously interpret the expressive features of the voice (whether these are performative choices or part of the notated/dictated work) in order to understand the narrative. This interpretation is not an unusual or even difficult process: humming, screaming, laughing and sobbing are all wordless sounds whose meaning we can interpret easily, if not entirely accurately, and all are commonly employed in contemporary Gothic music, even as it transcends traditional genre definition.
In musical analysis we might order the coherence of these kinds of the wordless signifier as they move away from the literal use of speech sounds towards the metaphorical: from laughter, to scored uses of the morpheme /ha/, to lilting semitones forming a representative topic or expressive motif. Through connection, association or representation we can interpret sounds as communicative symbols. In this scenario, the need for interpretation does not necessarily interfere with our understanding of the narrative.
Of course, the more ambiguous these symbols become, the more we rely on some form of explicit explanation within the work. Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ laughs maniacally through her virtuosic cadenzas, but we know that at any moment she will return to normal speech and tell us why (Mozart, ‘Der Hölle Rache’, Die Zauberflöte, 1791). Lucia sings nonsensical vowels because she is mad, but she kindly explains her delusions to us before the closing refrain (Donizetti, ‘Il Dulce Suono’, Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835).
The Animals may begin their description of the House of the Rising Sun (1964) with a wordless scream of anguish, but it only takes four lines of verse for them to justify the outburst. In all three cases, wordless extremes of emotion are justified by their juxtaposition to the words that surround them.
This association system, while functional, is not without its flaws. As Robert Jourdain points out: “What constitutes a word in ordinary music? Is it an individual note? A grouping of notes? Speech sounds like […] “ah” have no meaning until combined into words, and then their meaning is very stable. […] A single D-flat can stand as an entire musical assertion in one context, yet in another, it makes sense only as part of a musical figure.”
The musicologist Leonard B. Meyer argues the same event in structural terms: “Since musical structures are architectonic, a particular sound stimulus which was considered to be a sound term or musical gesture on one architectonic level will […] no longer function or be understood as a sound term in its own right. In other words, the sound stimulus which was formerly a sound term can also be viewed as a part of a larger structure in which it does not form independent probability relations with other sound terms.”
Identical musical devices — even speech sounds — are thus capable of representing entirely different things within the same musical work in the space of a few bars, let alone when compared to larger intramusical systems or other musical works. We must not seek to find any empirical definition of a musical device, but rather to contextualise the meaning of the musical devices by their relation to the words and devices that surround them.
As Jourdain tells us, lyrical works (those “combined into words”) often provide us with a stable interpretation. Inarticulate music distinguishes itself from this practice. We are presented with a work that denies us this stability — whilst still teasing us with its potential to occur — and we encounter issues of meaning.
These issues would not occur in a wholly instrumental work, nor one possessing an empirical lyric or libretto. As much as we might describe the violin or the clarinet as possessing a “voice”, we do not delude ourselves that such instruments ever actually form concrete words. We listen to the clarinet with no expectation that it will ever form words, and as such we are able to make sense of the music without reference to vocal language. However, works which can be identified as “inarticulate” (as listed in the footnote) are taken from traditions (that is, lyric music) that heavily rely on the word-music binary to form communicative sense.
Sugar Hiccup do not rely on the communicative traits of standardised language in ‘Five Years’. They provide us with no stability. They never explain to us what happened to their protagonists, nor do they outline any narrative beyond any emotional depiction the performer enacts. We cannot group the sonic properties of the piece into a stable meaning, as Jourdain would have us do, yet we equally cannot ignore the impact of the lyric, however inarticulate it may be. So how might we interpret what it communicates to us?
Immanuel Kant describes music as something which: “[…] speaks by means of pure sensations without concepts, and so does not, like poetry, leave something over for reflection, yet it moves the mind more variously and, though fleetingly, with more fervour; but it is certainly more enjoyment than culture (the neighbouring thought-play excited by its means is merely the effect of a sort of mechanical association).”
We can see in Kant’s statement the skeleton of an argument which we might begin to use to address our inarticulate works. ‘Five Years’ is undoubtedly emotional, utilising and expanding on the very trait that Kant claims music is devoted to. We could even argue that music is the most logical and effective media to project emotional narratives such as ‘Five Years’ to an audience.
Since (in Kant’s definition) music is formally predisposed to appeal to the emotions, and text is not, removing the textual component of a song will bring its musical, emotionally evocative traits to the foreground, communicating them more efficiently than poetry or literary text. However, this does not explain the effect of the deliberate removal of coherent language from the work. It only asserts the effect of its absence, and is an argument we might as well apply to a purely instrumental work such as a piano concerto.
As the musicologist Lawrence Kramer points out, however, music does possess some properties which indicate that it can communicate something other than emotion: “Kant’s phrase ‘leave something over for reflection,’[…] quietly points up the weakness in the formalist attitude. Where does this incitement to reflection come from when language is in question?” (1990, p. 3).
Like Kramer, I would like to argue that music does communicate. True, it cannot tell stories in the same manner as other narrative arts, but that hardly means it does not narrate. Rather, this suggests that it does so through the demands of its own language. Where a painting or a film can explicitly show, music must suggest. What we can describe in a novel, we must represent in a score.
In Onega and Landa’s collection Narratology (1996), narrative arts are described as any forms that convey and represent information to us in a temporal and causal way. I have no wish to argue that this is a finite definition of the much-contested term, but rather that Onega and Landa provide us with the most appropriate perspective to take in this study. Crucially, this definition makes no demands for many of Kant’s “conceptual” elements, which might be considered vital in the analysis of a written or visual work: i.e. the nature of any characters or narrators, or descriptions of scene or landscape.
This means that music can be classified as a narrative art, and that we can assume it is communicating a narrative through the system of its temporal and causal features, if not through any objective truth claims or concepts, as Kant suggests. Please note that this essay makes no claims towards the extensive discourse s of musical meaning, metaphor, or semiotic systems, but is rather taking this perspective of musical communicativeness to allow us to focus on the specific dialectic in the text/music binary of inarticulate works.
So, by this definition, music possesses some communicative system. This might be emotional or more explicit. The text of a lyric has another distinct system, allowing for the construction of empirical claims and conceits. My argument is that, since it is deliberately placed between these two narrative systems, inarticulate music effectively subverts our expectations of both. Michael Jenne argued in ‘Music, Communication, Ideology’, that “the occurrence of a communication system requires of the partners involved the mastery of the appropriate code system” (Jenne, 1984, p. 59).
The emotional construction of music can be considered such a pattern. As Zentner tells us, “Since emotions require an intentional object and music does not provide such objects, specific emotions cannot be felt in response to music. Psychologists and neuroscientists […] have relied on […] chiefly basic emotion theory, or the circumplex model of affect. Basic emotion theory posits that all emotions can be derived from a limited set of universal and innate basic emotions.”
To this end, once again we are denied any empirical comprehension of the musical meaning; we cannot portray “specific” emotions, yet we can determine where in the subset of basic emotions our comprehension is supposed to lie. In some ways this determination might enhance the emotional impact of the work: the conventions of structural features (underlying patterns) and suprasegmental codes (surface level manipulations) are often identified as formative features of salient musical emotion (Scherer & Zentner, 2001, see also Juslin et al 2001).
This emotional construction is the communicative convention in which inarticulate works become effective. In these works, once we are comfortable with one of the established systems — or, at the very least, complacent in our expectations of what the system ought to be — inarticulate works tear it away from us. We are not gradually presented with a secondary system, but instead left with the lingering anticipation that our familiar form might return, and that we can return to a more comfortable, passive engagement with the artwork.