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Metaphor and Musical Thought

"The scholarship of Michael Spitzer’s new book is impressive and thorough. The writing is impeccable and the coverage extensive. The book treats the history of the use of metaphor in the field of classical music. It also covers a substantial part of the philosophical literature. The book treats the topic of metaphor in a new and extremely convincing manner."-Lydia Goehr, Columbia University

The experience of music is an abstract and elusive one, enough so that we’re often forced to describe it using analogies to other forms and sensations: we say that music moves or rises like a physical form; that it contains the imagery of paintings or the grammar of language. In these and countless other ways, our discussions of music take the form of metaphor, attempting to describe music’s abstractions by referencing more concrete and familiar experiences.

Michael Spitzer’s Metaphor and Musical Thought uses this process to create a unique and insightful history of our relationship with music—the first ever book-length study of musical metaphor in any language. Treating issues of language, aesthetics, semiotics, and cognition, Spitzer offers an evaluation, a comprehensive history, and an original theory of the ways our cultural values have informed the metaphors we use to address music. And as he brings these discussions to bear on specific works of music and follows them through current debates on how music’s meaning might be considered, what emerges is a clear and engaging guide to both the philosophy of musical thought and the history of musical analysis, from the seventeenth century to the present day. Spitzer writes engagingly for students of philosophy and aesthetics, as well as for music theorists and historians.

392 pages | 1 color plate, 6 halftones, 73 musical ex's | 6 1/2 x 9 2/5 | © 2003

Music: General Music


“Spitzer has composed a work of keen insight and broad erudition. His ideas enhance our ability to think and talk about sonatas and symphonies, oratorio and opera, and thereby deepen our listening pleasure. The book interweaves complex theoretical considerations with illuminating applications to musical examples drawn from Bach through the great classical and romantic composers to Wagner.  A virtuoso performance.”

Graham Parkes, University of Hawaii

“A virtuosic work of intellectual history.  Spitzer brilliantly analyzes the evolving role of metaphor as it helps to structure musical discourse in the period of common-practice tonality. In prose both learned and limpid, he leads us through an astonishing range of writings covering topics of music analysis, historical music theory, aesthetics, metaphysics, art criticism, linguistics, semiotics, hermeneutics, literary criticism, the history of science, and theology. The result is an intellectual journey that often left me breathless, but grateful for the ride.”

Thomas Christensen, University of Chicago

“The idea that discourse about music is always already metaphorical is not new. Yet its ramifications remain to be fully explored. In Metaphor and Musical Thought, Spitzer begins to fill this gap in nuanced and interesting ways that may well guide future reflection. The result is not only a stimulating explication of the bases of meaning formation in music, but a critical commentary on contemporary debates. Lucid, engaging, erudite but never uncritical, Metaphor and Musical Thought should appeal to music historians and theorists, as well as to all who philosophize—however informally—about music.”

Kofi Agawu, author of A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music

“The scholarship of Spitzer’s new book is impressive and thorough. The writing is impeccable and the coverage extensive. The book treats the history of the use of metaphor in the field of classical music. It also covers a substantial part of the philosophical literature. The book treats the topic of metaphor in a new and extremely convincing manner.”

Lydia Goehr, Columbia University

"[Spitzer’s] writing might not be as ’literally uplifting’ as Beethoven’s music, but it is certainly equal to the challenge of finding words--and metaphors--through which tonal music can continue to speak."

Arnold Whittall | Musical Times

"Spitzer has written an informative and thought-provoking work, leaving us to question not only our methods of music analysis but our very choice of words in speaking and writing about music."

Brien Weiner | Notes

"This is a remarkably informative history of metaphorical thought and a well-tooled exploration of the role of metaphor in the creation of musical meaning. . . . Spitzer musters an impressive range of multi-disciplinary sources to reveal much of the breadth and depth of metaphorical reasoning, both in its own history generally and in its application to music."

Arnie Cox | Music Theory Spectrum

"Eloquently dispels any former connotations of metaphor as mere poetic nuance and reclaims it as the basis for musical thought. . . . Metaphor and Musical Thought will certainly inspire us to think differently about music past and present, and more so, question the very means we employ to do so."

Linda Muller | Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa

"The scholarship of Spitzer’s book is incredibly impressive. . . . Anyone with an interest in the aesthetics of music would be strongly recommended to read it."

British Journal of Aesthetics

Table of Contents

Part I
The Metaphorical Present
The Aristotelian Telescope
1. What Is Metaphor?
2. Metaphor and Musical Thought
1. New Orientations in Metaphor
1. "Hearing as" and Dual-Aspect Perception
2. Basic-Level Mapping
3. Analytical Metaphors
4. Historical Metaphors
2. Conceptualization
1. Music and Metaphorical Thought
2. Schematism, Metaphors, and Prototypes
3. Excursus on Metaphor and Aesthetics
3. Poetics
1. Figures of Discourse: The Body in the Text
2. Musical Figures
3. Musical Discourse
4. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven
Part II
The Metaphorical Tradition
Sunflowers: Toward a Metaphorics of Music History
1. The Heliotrope
2. Metaphorization and Literalization
3. Map to Part II: Three Sunflowers
4. The Secret History: Structure without Structuralism
4. Harmony and Painting
1. Cultural Metaphors: The Dialogue of Harmony and Painting
2. Baroque Pedagogy
3. Painterly Discourse
5. Rhythm and Language
1. Cultural Metaphors: The Dialogue of Rhythm and Language
2. Classical Pedagogy
3. Linguistic Discourse
6. Melody and Life
1. Cultural Metaphors: The Dialogue of Melody and Life
2. Romantic Pedagogy
3. Organic Discourse

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