Recent literature encourages an exploration of musical meaning through metaphor, as the affective character of music is allusive, evocative and seldom literal. But while in theory metaphor can explain aspects of musical meaning, in practice the definitions of metaphor are as vague and various as the abstract sounds that they would elucidate. Scholars have not handled the awkward historical slipperiness of metaphors which, like language, change over time. Using the example of low notes, this article historicizes the metaphorical motif of deep sounds, showing how ‘high’ and ‘low’ follow a suggestive vein of poetic intuition. Historically, ‘high’ and ‘low’ carry persistent social and moral connotations. Examining the philology behind conceptions of lowness from antiquity to the baroque, this article proposes that low notes—and low instruments and their parts—have different meanings to their higher-frequency counterparts; in particular, it inquires into how much the prevailing associations of evil and inferiority are induced upon low registers and under what conditions this ‘baseness’ may be redeemed. Proposing patterns for the simultaneous terror and benign authority of lowness from fields beyond music, the article argues that the backdrop of evil in bass and base (basso) is a necessary semantic element in the aesthetic development of European multi-voiced music. The moral or psychological metaphor is thus integral to the aesthetic content of music.

The author, Robert Nelson is Associate Director Student Learning Experience at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), where he was also Head of Department of Theory in what is now the Faculty of Art Design and Architecture. He holds Masters and PhD degrees in Art History from La Trobe University and has been art critic for The Age for 20 years. He was also the scene painter for the photographic artist Polixeni Papapetrou ( Robert has published many articles and books concerning the overlap of the aesthetic and the moral across several genres, from performance to furniture. In his research, he tries to explain the structure of imaginative expression by connecting it with the history of ideas.

Read Robert Nelson’s article here