Sunday, October 14, 2007

What makes a metaphor informative?

Metaphor. When I read that word I always hear the voice of Massimo Troisi (Il Postino) saying ‘Metáfore’. And indeed, like in that movie, metaphor can be mesmerizing and beautiful. However, in music research metaphor has had a debatable role. Metaphors like ‘music is movement’ —it makes you move—, ‘music is a language’, ‘music is distilled emotion’ etc. are often reducing what music is, instead of contributing to a real understanding. While crucial in the arts, metaphor is often all but informative in research.

However, the research of Zohar Eitan (Tel Aviv University) is one of the important exceptions. Instead of taking the ‘music is abstract motion’ metaphor as an explanation of how phenomena in music are constrained —governed by, for instance, the rules of elementary mechanics—, his group designed a nice set of experiments in which participants were asked to imagine a cartoon character while listening to music.

In these listening studies participants had to report when or how the imagined cartoon character was moving in response to the music. Instead of using the physical motion metaphor as an explanation, the association of listeners with physical space and bodily motion was used to reveal how music can influence mental images of motion. Interestingly, it turned out that most musical-spatial analogies are quite asymmetrical. As such providing evidence that, while music and the motion metaphor can influence each other, the latter can not fully capture the actual phenomena.

Eitan, Z., Granot, R.Y. (2006). How Music Moves. Music Perception, 23(3), 221-248. DOI: 10.1525/mp.2006.23.3.221


  1. A surprising finding of this study is that musical-spatial analogies are often asymmetrical, as a musical change in one direction evokes a significantly stronger spatial analogy than its opposite. Such asymmetries include even the entrenched association of pitch change and spatial verticality, which applies mostly to pitch falls, but only weakly to rises. In general, musical abatements are strongly associated with spatial descents, while musical intensifications are generally associated with increasing speed rather than ascent (Eitan & Granot, 2006).