Musical Figuralism

Musical Figuralism

This small article comes from my curiosity for certain musical conventions established in what concerns the expression of feelings. It's something I discovered in Music History class and it caught my attention so much that I decided to do a little research about it. It has not been easy to find information of this, but with what I gathered and my own experience I think the article may be interesting.


            Musical Figuralism is the technique of composition that consists in subordinating music to the text. Music underlines the meaning of the text with sound. It is also called Word painting. Below are detailed the main movements and genres where we can say that there is figuralism.

Musical forms that express feelings and emotions

            Throughout the history of music have arisen different forms to compose. As way of introduction, I will speak of those that I consider to be the most relevant to this topic.
      Programmatic music. Before we begin, we must define this term, which refers to descriptive music, which evokes ideas or images outside the music itself. Obviously, almost any piece could have this to a greater or lesser extent, that's why I'm going to focus on the larger, more usual and obvious forms.
Ars Nova. In the XV century, Ars Nova is called a musical movement that arose mainly in France and Italy, where a sound is determined based on the sensation that produces, for the own joy of the senses. At the end of the XVI century, the Ars Subtilior happened, a kind of mannerism of the Ars Nova where everything is exaggerated. I must mention the heart-shaped score of Baude Cordier.
Musica Reservata. During the Renaissance, Musica Reservata is known as that which imitates what the text says literally. The madrigal will come from here.
Theory of affections. During the Baroque, we could say that it is an improvement of the Musica Reservata, with more development. The development was such that the types came to be stereotyped, and was something that applied mainly to the opera.
Opera. Simply to mention the opera, because the music that must accompany the staging and the events must perfectly match.
Symphonic poem. During Romanticism, it is a musical composition for orchestra that describes a literary work, that generally the public must know previously. Personally it's my favorite genre.
Film music. Already in the XX century, film music is quite similar to the music that has to accompany the opera, only in this case it accompanies the images of the film, reinforcing them. It can be listened to without the images and in some cases could be considered a symphonic poem. An example that in my opinion proves this is the soundtrack of the Lord of the Rings.

Figurative forms in musical expression

Joy is expressed with the major scale, with consonance, high register and fast tempo.

Sadness is expressed in the minor scale, with dissonance and chromatisms, low register and slow tempo. In the interpretation I also have to add the use of legato.

Dark and serious music accompanies a text about death.

A succession of very fast ascending notes speak of fire.

The action of rising, as well as the sky or a mountain are represented with ascending melodies and/or in the high register.

The action of descending, as well as the concepts of soil, hell and plain are illustrated with low melodies, descendents or without melodic curves.

The river and the flight of the birds are represented by long melismas on the same syllable.

A fright or a sigh is represented with a deep aspiration in strong time and later entry in contretemps.

Laughter is represented by successive notes on the same syllable that most probably should be interpreted with staccato.

The reference to a number or high quantity is represented by repeating the same musical figure and the same text either in the same voice or in polyphonic imitation.

The actions of chasing, hunting, following, imitating... are often dealt with by the canon technique or imitative counterpoint.

The idea of ​​unity or unification very often corresponds with a unison.

Unison can also express something that is thin, while a polyphonic homophonic texture is associated with something that is thick or wide.

The word full is often filled with notes through a melisma or the repetition of the word.

The concept of day is represented musically with more vivid and quick notes than the night especially if, as usual, they are placed immediately behind each other, exploiting the game of opposition. While in other cases it is done exactly the opposite: illustrating the day with long notes that give a feeling of immobility, while the night is illustrated with quick notes.

About Wagner…

Wagner exploits the leitmotiv, which although not exactly what I mean in this article, I have also found a few interesting figurations to mention. They belong to his opera Tristan and Isolde.

Motiv of the destiny: lament in semitones, it is represented the mockery of Isolde by Tristan.

Motiv for question: theatrically expresses a question, the melody ascends as the tone of the question to the rhetorical mode.

Motiv for death: with octave jumps and dots that increase its pathos.

I also want to mention, drawn from my experience, that in the opera of the Valkyrie, it could also be considered the part of the Ride, music that makes you to want to ride. A well-known and used fragment, emphasizing in Apocalypse Now, where it fits perfectly with the sequence of the helicopters, something due to this expressive resource.


Other figurations from my experience

I will try to put an order here, although what I am going to say is from my thought and experience. I am aware that there will be many more examples, so these are just a few.

About the Macabre Dance of Saint-Saëns, a symphonic poem, depicts Death playing a violin (in my opinion a good choice of instrument), and calls the attention the use of xylophone to represent the sound of bones. From Saint Saëns I must also mention his Carnival of the Animals, where he represents musically several animals.


The 4/4 compositions are more associated with a march. An example that comes to mind right now and fits perfectly with the pace of walking is Polyushka Polye, Russian Army music.

The 3/4 compositions or the use of triplets in 4/4 are more associated with dances. Some examples that come to my mind are the Blue Danube by Strauss or the Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms.


Mentioning the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, I want to mention the treatment of the leitmotivs: the Hobbits are represented with warm, cozy and simple music, Gondor is represented with ascending and heroic music, Mordor is represented with dark and march music, Isengard is represented with a music with sounds of percussion that remembers to the industry, the Elves are represented with a sensual and calm music...

I also want to mention Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, where he represents musically various social classes.


            I think we are surrounded by these conventions, and probably I could have ampliated this article more, but I think that these notions are more than enough to start to see more in the musical pieces.