Since I live in Louisville, Kentucky it is pretty hard not to get swept up in Kentucky Derby fever every spring. I have already ate my obligatory chocolate pie. This kind of chocolate pie is pretty much a huge chocolate chip cookie made and baked into a pie crust. Anyway, this got me thinking of horses and horse races, and one thing led to another, and as usual I started looking about music. Specifically, I started thinking how composers and musicians can be quite ingenious at using musical imagery to create, or mimic, other imagery or feelings.
My connection to the Kentucky Derby came because one of the best examples of musical imagery features a racing horse. It is in 'The Elf-King' by Franz Schubert (although it has other great imagery as well). A father and son are riding wild on horseback through a dense forest as they are being pursued by the spectral Elf-King. The low note represents the Elf-King. As they race through the forest, the notes ebb and flow. At times the notes are far apart. At other times they are very close. Finally, the note motion slows down as the father reaches his home. He realizes his son is dead. The music becomes very forlorn, sad, and solemn.
A few other musical horse imagery songs come to mind. Of course, you have ZZ Top's La Grange where you can picture the protagonist galloping around the dusty Texas town of La Grange to Billy Gibbons' guitar riffs. Aerosmith adds their song Back in the Saddle. (This is one of my favorite songs for guitar fills.) And then there is the over-the-top Steve Vai song Bad Horsie. Vai's guitar riff makes it sound like the horse is teasing up the earth with its hooves. Then to push it more over the top, he uses his whammy bar to add a horse whinnying sound.
Musical imagery, or the deliberate use of imagination by musicians, has traditionally been viewed and considered as the ability to imagine sounds even when no audible sounds are present.
-From the book 'Musical imagery and imagination: The function, measurement, and application of imagination skills for performance'
Since we are in this vein, we might as well stick with animals. Heart's song Barracuda has the great galloping guitar riff to depict the fast little ferocious fish zooming through the water. [You know someone should compose some musical imagery for the scene where the nihilists drop a ferret in the bathtub in The Big Lebowski.] Speaking of water, you also have the theme from Jaws, the low ominous thumps. Like Pavlov's dog, we were conditioned to look for the fins, when we heard the Jaws theme.
The creatures do not have to be natural either. You've got Godzilla from Blue Oyster Cult. The main musical riffs sounds to me just like a 50,000-ton lizard stumbling around like a Frankenstein, 1-year-old-toddler. (In other words, it sounds just like it should.) Blue Oyster Cult also used some slide guitar to let Godzilla rip up some guy wires. Movies sometimes have great musical imagery. There is the iconic Alfred Hitchcock Psycho where you have the Eek! Eek! Eek! In the shower scene. In Riders of the Storm, The Doors used a recording of a thunderstorm. However, the keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, also used musical imagery to create falling rain.
Our belief is that musical imagery is at the very core of music as phenomenon, because, after all, what would music be if we did not have images of sound in our minds.
-From the book 'Musical Imagery'
There are a lot of other great examples from classical music. When Mozart's wife Constanze was in the peak of childbirth, in a nearby room, Mozart wrote the Crescendos to his Andante in (K. 421) D minor quartet. Then after the baby was born, he wrote the Menuette and Trio. Richard Wagner, in the opening piece of Das Rheingold of The Ring Cycle, tries to musically depict the creation of the universe no less. He does this in about three minutes using variations of the E-flat chord.
One development along these lines is a merger of music with science. Some symphonies have started performing a selection of classical musical pieces with a multimedia presentation of the latest images from space. One popular selection is Gustav Holst's The Planets. Holst was an amateur astronomer so he based his musical imagery on the planets based on astrology and not astronomy. However, some of the selections were not originally written with the heavens in mind at all. That's where the pliable, abstract nature of music can also come into play. It's something like laying on your back on a sunny day and looking at clouds. In the clouds, you can see a lot of different things.
So pay more attention the next time you are watching a movie or a television show. Really listen to the music. Think about how music is being used to enforce what you are seeing, what the characters are feeling, what is about to happen, or what has already happened. If you write music, start thinking about how you can create musical imagery for what you are seeing and feeling. Musically, how would you depict the flock of geese that just flew over your head? I'm still trying to think about how it would sound when the nihilists dropped the ferret in the bathtub in The Big Lebowski …