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Moving Beyond Motion: Metaphors for Changing Sound

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Robert Adlington*
The University of Nottingham


This article argues that music offers experiences of change that are at odds with our common understanding of time. Specifically, I question the widespread belief that onward motion is a condition of musical temporality. I approach this issue through metaphor theory, which tends to argue for the necessity of metaphorical experiences of time and music in terms of motion. I argue that music's changing sound evokes a variety of bodily metaphors; motion is not ever-present, but intermingles with metaphors of heat, light, weight, tension and so on. Works by Ligeti, Carter, Kurtág and Saariaho are discussed as case studies.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Musical Association, 2003

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I am indebted to Arnie Cox, Eric Clarke and two anonymous readers for constructive criticism and encouragement in relation to earlier versions of this article. I am particularly grateful to Arnie Cox for providing me with a copy of his thesis, ‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, 1999).Google Scholar

1 Robert Adlington, ‘Musical Temporality: Perspectives from Adorno and De Man’, Repercussions, 6 (1997), 560. Such thinkers include Hegel and Marx, as well as Adorno and De Man.Google Scholar

2 Recent studies of musical motion include Eric Clarke, ‘Meaning and the Specification of Motion in Music’, Musicae scientiae, 5 (2001), 213–34; Thomas Clifton, Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology (New Haven, CT, 1983), esp. Chapters 4 and 5; Cox, ‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’; Naomi Cumming, ‘Metaphors of Space and Motion in the Linear Analysis of Melody’, Miscellanea musicologica, 17 (1990), 143–66; David Epstein, Shaping Time: Music, the Brain, and Performance (New York, 1995); Christopher F. Hasty, ‘Rhythm in Post-Tonal Music: Preliminary Questions of Duration and Motion’, Journal of Music Theory, 25 (1981), 183–216; Judy Lochhead, ‘The Metaphor of Musical Motion: Is There an Alternative?’, Theory and Practice, 14/15 (1989-90), 83–103; Bruno R. Repp, ‘Music as Motion: A Synopsis of Alexander Truslit's “Gestaltung und Bewegung in der Musik” (1938)’, Psychology of Music, 21 (1993), 48–72; Patrick Shove and Bruno R. Repp, ‘Musical Motion and Performance: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives’, The Practice of Performance: Studies in Musical Interpretation, ed. John Rink (Cambridge, 1995), 55–83; Neil Todd, ‘Music and Motion: A Personal View’, Proceedings of the Fourth Rhythm Workshop: Rhythm Perception and Production, ed. Catherine Auxiette, Carolyn Drake and Claire Gerard (Bourges, 1992), 123–8.Google Scholar

3 Wallace Berry, Structural Functions in Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1976), 8.Google Scholar

4 Crafts, Susan D., Daniel Cavicchi, Charles Keil et al., My Music (London, 1993), 96–7. Gail learnt the oboe as a child, but it seems clear that her description is informal rather than theoretical.Google Scholar

5 Lochhead, ‘The Metaphor of Musical Motion’, 84.Google Scholar

6 A conspicuous example is Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues (Chicago, 1994).Google Scholar

7 The move beyond this static purview in the area of theory and analysis is symbolized by the growth of Schenkerian studies over the last 30 years, a growth stimulated by the perception that Schenkerian analysis is ‘about directed tonal motion’ (Nicholas Cook, A Guide to Musical Analysis, London, 1987, 64). Elsewhere in musicology, renewed recognition of the importance of change to the musical experience is reflected in the expansion of the field of performance studies (The Practice of Performance, ed. Rink, can be taken as a representative volume; many of the contributors argue strongly for a recognition of music's ‘dynamic’ qualities) and studies of musical narrative (see, for instance, Fred Everett Maus, ‘Music as Narrative’, Indiana Theory Review, 12 (1991), 142, and Anthony Newcomb, ‘Narrative Archetypes and Mahler's Ninth Symphony’, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries, ed. Steven Paul Scher, Cambridge, 1992, 118–36).Google Scholar

8 Throughout my discussion I will treat cyclical motion – which is often invoked in descriptions of musical form – as a special case of this onward, linear movement, rather than as something opposed to it. Cyclical motion shares with onward, linear movement a consistency and irreversibility of movement, and it is these qualities, fundamentally, in which I am interested.Google Scholar

9 Epstein, Shaping Time. Motion is only one of a large number of topics addressed in this volume. For a fuller account and critique of the contents of Epstein's book see my review in Music Analysis, 16 (1997), 155–71.Google Scholar

10 David Epstein, Beyond Orpheus: Studies in Musical Structure (Cambridge, MA, 1979), 55.Google Scholar

11 Epstein, Shaping Time, 8.Google Scholar

12 Ibid., 5, 26. For a similar view, see Barry, Barbara, Musical Time: The Sense of Order (New York, 1990).Google Scholar

13 Epstein, Shaping Time, 487.Google Scholar

14 Stimulating contributions to these debates include Arthur N. Prior, ‘Changes in Events and Changes in Things’ (1968), The Philosophy of Time, ed. Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath(Oxford, 1993), 3546; Keith Seddon, Time: A Philosophical Treatment (London, 1987); G. J. Whitrow, Time in History (Oxford, 1988), Chapter 1.Google Scholar

15 I elaborate briefly on the mechanics of this influence in the third section of this article. I will not enter directly into the question of the existence of a ‘natural’ time; I do not believe that my larger argument, which is intended to throw into question common-sense time, is irreconcilable with belief in such a thing.Google Scholar

16 It follows that I do not view change as being dependent on time.Google Scholar

17 See Cook, Nicholas, Music, Imagination, and Culture (Oxford, 1990); Naomi Cumming, ‘Metaphor in Roger Scruton's Aesthetics of Music’, Theory, Analysis and Meaning in Music, ed. Anthony Pople (Cambridge, 1994), 328; Janna Saslaw, ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths: The Role of Body-Derived Image Schemas in the Conceptualization of Music’, Journal of Music Theory, 40 (1996), 217–43; Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford, 1997); Lawrence Zbikowski, ‘Metaphor and Music Theory: Reflections from Cognitive Science’, Music Theory Online, 4/1 (1998), <>. Arnie Cox encapsulates this view with his statement that ‘professional music discourse is built on the metaphoric concepts of motion and space, from the most unadorned analytic descriptions to the most fanciful program notes’ (‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’, 1).Google Scholar

18 Significant texts in this field include George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, 1980); George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago, 1987); Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago, 1987); George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago, 1989), 44–6; Mark Turner, ‘Aspects of the Invariance Hypothesis’, Cognitive Linguistics, 1 (1990), 247–55; George Lakoff, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (2nd edn, Cambridge, 1993), 202–51; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999).Google Scholar

19 For instance, metaphor theory intersects in important ways with recent writings on the evolution of the ‘embodied mind’. See Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA, 1991), and Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York, 1994). Mark Johnson's recent work has incorporated insights on metaphor into the broader field of conceptual blending; see Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York, 2002).

20 These examples, taken from Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, are cited in Saslaw, ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths’, 221.Google Scholar

22 Lakoff, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, 203, 244.Google Scholar

23 Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 29.Google Scholar

24 Lakoff, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, 244, 222.Google Scholar

25 Johnson, The Body in the Mind, x.Google Scholar

26 Ibid., 53–4.Google Scholar

27 As in the title of their most recent book, and that of George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being (New York, 2001).Google Scholar

28 Lawrence Kramer, ‘The Mysteries of Animation: History, Analysis and Musical Subjectivity’, Music Analysis, 20 (2001), 153–78 (p. 162).Google Scholar

29 Cox, ‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’, 7.Google Scholar

30 Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 138. Compare Whitrow: ‘Time certainly is a fundamental characteristic of human experience, but there is no evidence that we have a special sense of time, as we have of sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell. Our direct experience of time is always of the present, and our idea of time comes from reflecting on this experience’ (Time in History, 4–5).Google Scholar

31 Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 117.Google Scholar

32 Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 180.Google Scholar

33 Ibid., 176.Google Scholar

34 Ibid., 183ff.Google Scholar

35 Lakoff, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, 224–5.Google Scholar

36 Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 54.Google Scholar

37 Ibid., 114.Google Scholar

38 Saslaw, ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths’, 220.Google Scholar

39 Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 141, 145. These correspond to what Judy Lochhead (‘The Metaphor of Musical Motion’, 103) describes as ‘dynamic’ and ‘static’ time respectively. Lochhead's discussion of the idea of ‘static’ time rather neglects the fact that, in this conception of time, the observer moves, even though time does not. I will not dwell on the contradiction that Lakoff and Johnson perceive between the two models, as both possess similar qualities of motion, and it is these qualities, rather than the question of precisely what is moving, that are my main interest.Google Scholar

40 Lakoff, ‘The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor’, 217–18. For more on this dual conceptualization of time, see Lakoff and Turner, More than Cool Reason, 44–6.Google Scholar

41 Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 160; see also p. 158.Google Scholar

42 Lakoff and Turner, More than Cool Reason, 37.Google Scholar

43 Saslaw, ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths’, 230.Google Scholar

44 Cox, ‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’, 267. Cox's argument is elaborated at length in Chapter 4 of his dissertation (‘Temporal Motion and Musical Motion‘).Google Scholar

45 Ibid., 207.Google Scholar

46 Ibid., 214.Google Scholar

47 Ibid., 268.Google Scholar

48 Johnson, The Body in the Mind, xx.Google Scholar

49 Jonathan Swain, booklet note to compact-disc recording of Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 (‘Pathétique‘), Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (Virgin Classics 791 487–2).Google Scholar

50 A rare exception to this general tendency is Marion Guck's ‘Musical Images as Musical Thoughts: The Contribution of Metaphor to Analysis’, In Theory Only, 5 (1981), 2943. In it, she describes a variety of non-motional metaphors used by a class of students in descriptions of a Chopin Prélude, including varying degrees of darkness and the sensation of breathing.Google Scholar

51 See, for instance, Epstein, Shaping Time, 27. It may be objected that tension and relaxation, as phenomena of the physical world, invariably involve movement of some sort. I would argue, however, that the motion involved in (for instance) flexing and relaxing a muscle, or stretching an elastic fabric, is epiphenomenal – secondary to the sensations of tautness and pull that lie at the core of physical sensations of tension. The back and forth typical of tensing and relaxing movements is in any case at odds with the continual onward motion commonly attributed to music.Google Scholar

52 I have adapted metaphors discussed by Lakoff and Johnson in the following places: Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 14, 51, 143; Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, 388–9, 396, 406, 409; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, 207, 545, 560–1.Google Scholar

53 The idea that motion is a literal property of changing existence tends to be reinforced by our vocabulary: our favoured words for identifying different moments in a changing event – music included – are often locational and linear. Thus we talk about one moment ‘following’ another; say that something happened ‘in between’ other things; refer to parts of temporal events as ‘passages’; and so on. Metaphor theorists take such words as indication of our inherently locational and motional experience of change. But, as the present argument is intended to suggest, this descriptive bias reflects a long-lived cultural reluctance to countenance change reflectively in a non-motional way (say, in terms of varying weight or heat, rather than in terms of varying spatial locations) as much as it reflects any actual property of changing experience. (Reasons for the prominence of motional metaphors in descriptions of music, specifically, are offered in the next section.) Non-motional metaphors have to fight for prominence, as it were, alongside the habitual motional ones. It is at this point that I have to depart somewhat from the assumption undergirding metaphor theory, namely that descriptions invariably give a sound indication of modes of experience.Google Scholar

54 My preferred conceptualization here is, of course, consistent with the metaphorical association of scalic voice-leading with vertical motion encouraged by many centuries of text-setting and, more recently, cartoon soundtracks.Google Scholar

55 Cox, ‘The Metaphoric Logic of Musical Motion and Space’, 193.Google Scholar

56 For more on the influence of performers' movements on listeners' perceptions of musical motion, see Shove and Repp, ‘Musical Motion and Performance’, and Andrew Mead, ‘Physiological Metaphors and Musical Understanding’, Journal of Music Theory, 43 (1999), 119. For more on the impact of notation on our understanding of musical form see Wishart, Trevor, ‘Musical Writing, Musical Speaking’, Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages, ed. John Shepherd et al. (London, 1977), 125–51.Google Scholar

57 Hoyt Alverson, Semantics and Experience: Universal Metaphors of Time in English, Mandarin, Hindi and Sesotho (Baltimore, 1994), 102. Alverson finds evidence for spatial conceptualizations of change in all of the diverse cultures he examines, and some of these conceptualizations take the form of path-like motion. (Others take intriguingly different forms.) On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that the urge to construct a time with phenomenal properties to ‘explain’ change is not limited to Western culture. Alverson's data deserve fuller study by metaphor theorists.Google Scholar

58 Saslaw, ‘Forces, Containers, and Paths’, 229. At least, path metaphors predominate in descriptions of the heard effect of music in which these relations occur. When tonal relations are conceptualized more abstractly, metaphors of hierarchy are often preferred; see Lawrence M. Zbikowski, ‘Conceptual Models and Cross-Domain Mapping: New Perspectives on Theories of Music and Hierarchy’, Journal of Music Theory, 41 (1997), 193–225.Google Scholar

59 For a summary of this notion see Turner, ‘Aspects of the Invariance Hypothesis’.Google Scholar

60 Ibid., 251.Google Scholar

61 Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley, 2000); see esp. pp. 66–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

62 See, for instance, George Rochberg, ‘The Structure of Time in Music: Traditional and Contemporary Ramifications and Consequences’, The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music (Ann Arbor, 1984), 137–47; Barry, Musical Time.Google Scholar

63 Music theorists and music psychologists have, in fact, often argued that even in tonal music memory and expectation take a variety of forms – from the precise and detailed to the most generalized and selective. See, for instance, Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago, 1956); Jamshed J. Barucha, ‘Neural Nets, Temporal Composites, and Tonality’, The Psychology of Music, ed. Diana Deutsch (2nd edn, San Diego, 1999), 413–41; Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Irène Deliège and Marc Mélen, ‘Cue Abstraction in the Representation of Musical Form’, Perception and Cognition of Music, ed. Irène Deliège and John Sloboda (Hove, 1997), 387–412. Arnie Cox's proposal, discussed earlier in this paper, that the metaphorical conceptualization of music in terms of path-like motion is grounded by the phenomenology of expectation and memory shared by both realms of experience, presumes an unwarrantedly restricted view of these faculties.Google Scholar

64 Fred Lerdahl, for instance, points to the way in which this characteristic of many contemporary musical works ‘inhibits the inference of structure’; see ‘Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems’, Contemporary Music Review, 6/2 (1992) (‘New Tonality‘), 97–121 (p. 104).Google Scholar

65 This extract begins just under three minutes into the recording by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Nott, of Ligeti's Atmosphères (Teldec 8573 88261 2); see sound clip 1, taken from this recording, at <>..' href=,+conducted+by+Jonathan+Nott,+of+Ligeti's+Atmosphères+(Teldec+8573+88261+2);+see+sound+clip+1,+taken+from+this+recording,+at+.>Google Scholar

66 This occurs at letter [F] in the score. ‘Stretching’ features as a prominent metaphor in Guck's ‘Musical Images as Musical Thoughts’; see esp. p. 34.Google Scholar

67 Of course, the title of Ligeti's work suggests a rather different governing metaphor for this music. Additionally, the composer's programme note for the work refers evocatively to images of entanglement (the relevant passage is quoted in György Ligeti in Conversation, with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler et al., London, 1983, 25). These alternative metaphorical frames seem to me more apt for other parts of Ligeti's score.Google Scholar

68 See sound clip 2, taken from the recording by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen, of Carter's A Celebration of Some 100 × 150 Notes from Three Occasions for Orchestra (Virgin Classics 791 503-2), at <>..' href=,+taken+from+the+recording+by+the+London+Sinfonietta,+conducted+by+Oliver+Knussen,+of+Carter's+A+Celebration+of+Some+100+×+150+Notes+from+Three+Occasions+for+Orchestra+(Virgin+Classics+791+503-2),+at+.>Google Scholar

69 On the verticality schema see Zbikowski, ‘Metaphor and Music Theory’.Google Scholar

71 Paul Griffiths, booklet note to the Berlin Philharmonic compact-disc recording of Stele.Google Scholar

72 One assumes there is a straightforward association at work here between the lightness of the ('high') sky or sun and the darkness of the ('low') earth.Google Scholar

73 See sound clip 4, taken from the recording by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, of Saariaho's Du cristal (Ondine ODE 804-2), at <>..' href=,+taken+from+the+recording+by+the+Los+Angeles+Philharmonic+Orchestra,+conducted+by+Esa-Pekka+Salonen,+of+Saariaho's+Du+cristal+(Ondine+ODE+804-2),+at+.>Google Scholar