In Autumn 2019, I spent time researching the human imagination's interpretation of music. I was specifically looking at the effect music has on the mind's ability to produce images of landscapes.
In the 19th century, evoking landscapes through composition in music was a driving idiom and the Romantics believed that their music had power over the imagination like no other. I had attempted to discover whether or not their music alone was what created such vivid images in an audience's mind or whether external references were key.
However, I could not simply write about this idea and scholarly discussions surrounding it (of which, to an extent, there have been many). No. In order to understand the human-ness of music, I decided to analyse human response to music alone. So I conducted a short experiment, to discover whether music does have some intrinsic power or if, in fact, we brought an alien to earth and played him the Alpine Symphony, he'd think it's about a desert.
The following video is the experiment I conducted. It was accompanied with a questionnaire for each participant to fill out (below).
The experiment ran for two weeks, with ten participants. Admittedly, the sample size was rather small and from a limited region of the world, so experiences were not so diverse as I might have hoped. As a consequence, the results of the experiment were, scientifically inconclusive but they did serve as indicators that I might be on to something. Particularly when shown incorrect landscapes or no landscapes at all, participants' answers varied and - in some cases more drastically than others. When played Smetana's Vltava from Ma Vlast, invariably participants indicated a forest or some frontier town or city-scape, rather than the fast flowing river the piece was named after. Curiously, a number of participants took the Waltzes of the Beautiful Blue Danube (Johann Strauss II) as images of fields and picking wheat - of course barring the one participant who clearly knew that Strauss was Austrian, I quote "AUSTRIAAAAAA."
Perhaps most interesting of all the results of this small sample is the reaction to the final piece of music. I had in fact decided to put a piece of Indian classical improvised music in there, as I knew participants of the experiment would likely already be musicians, attempting to test their mettle and prove me wrong. There was almost unanimous agreement that the piece was Indian in nature and more than half the participants decided the piece was set in an arid, desert landscape. It would perhaps, then, surprise these astute observers that Raag Miyan ki Malhar is an Indian raag (a scale, around which improvisation occurs) that is used in monsoon season and evokes visions of rain and water.
This contrasting result may seem obvious to some, perhaps even like I was purposefully duping my participatory audience. Perhaps I was - perhaps the experiment was unfair, given the wealth of Western Art Music played beforehand. Yet suspend cynicism for a second and walk through the journey. I had situated the audience in a given sound world - likely one they grew up listening to or at least surrounded by music they were used to hearing. I had shown the audience images and pairings of music, indicating landscapes that they could consciously or otherwise associate musical elements - tropes - to. I then forced them to hear music that works differently, sounds different and is wholly disconnected from the western sound world they had been in previously. While the results from much of the experiment had been inaccurate, their inclinations for the music's meaning had been at least heading in the right direction - they knew what to listen out for, they knew how their music works, they knew through nurture in a Western Art Music environment what certain things mean in music - whether they like it or not. But when introduced to a sound world unlike any they were familiar with, they panicked. Their brains and ears tried desperately to attribute the Indian classical music to something familiar - in many cases this meant going to the realms of Hollywood and tropes from film music and landing on "Desert/India" as a generic response to a question they were aurally and cognitively ill prepared for.
In short, what happened is I presented the audience with music which they had no working knowledge of. If music had intrinsic power to work the mind into evoking images of a given place - without reference to external text or knowledge - then it would have been of little issue for them to discern its subject. Yet they failed to do so - in fact they failed diametrically to do so - and while this experiment may have been too small to conclusively say that this is the answer to a great question, it certainly indicates that it might be.
The experiment was in fact a segment of work I conducted for a unit in my MArts Music with Innovation degree, called "The Romantic Imagination." It was part of a larger video essay that I constructed as an assessed piece of work. Below is the video essay in full, which sets out a proposition for such an experiment, explaining more fully the hows and whys of what I would go on to observe in my experiment when conducted.