Ideas that add up #27

In a sense what the song is telling you, is that he is coming to that decision [the President in TV’s The West Wing, on whether to resign or not] during this five-minute spread. It doesn’t tell you what it is — music doesn’t tell you what it is, but tells you how it is.

Prof Alan Moore, musicologist, on the Dire Straits song Brothers in Arms, in the Radio 4 series Soul Music, Series 14 Episode 4.

The 30-minute programme, structured around a range of perspectives on the song, draws the listener through a series of gently released emotional crescendos. For one of those crescendos, a musicologist plays and narrates the swelling-subsiding sequence of piano chords in each verse, showing how they first guide us out from an unambiguously satisfying burst of harmony then lead us back again — progressively closer but never quite all the way back “home”. What is captured is the sense of yearning — for comfort, safety, love…for things to be as they were…for that which can never be realised. As he demonstrates, harmony, tells the story of the underlying emotional content of the song.

I think I understand now how music talks feelings, whatever is being said on the surface.

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