Perspectives on the Grateful Dead: Critical Writings

By Robert G. Weiner | Go to book overview

Space, Motion, and Other Musical Metaphors

Shaugn O’Donnell

Metaphors abound in any discussion of music. In fact, it is virtually impossible to say anything substantial about music without resorting to metaphorical language. Even the most concrete technical discussions incorporate basic music terminology, such as phrase, meter, rhythm, cadence, and theme, which are grammatical or rhetorical in origin, and arise from the concept of music as language—a metaphor that stretches back to classical antiquity. While musical metaphors are plentiful, two emerge as being simultaneously very common and particularly rich in complexity: the concepts of musical space and of musical motion. Most musicians, myself included, have a working comprehension of these concepts, routinely incorporating them into their musical thinking, but have a difficult time formally defining them. Perhaps they are so familiar that we take these powerful cognitive structures for granted. Among rock ensembles the Grateful Dead is remarkably conscious of musical space and motion, and this chapter is an introduction to these concepts in the context of the band’s music and musical thinking.

I first began consciously thinking about musical metaphors in 1995. I was watching my son and his cousin playing at a family gathering while the other adults were busy chatting before dinner. The children were putting on a show, performing a rock song on toy instruments despite their mostly indifferent audience. During their performance they were called to the dinner table, and it was their response that made me think seriously about the power of musical metaphors; in unison they said: ‘‘not now, we’re still in the song!’’ They did not say ‘‘we’re still playing or performing our song’’; instead, they were specifically in the song. For these children the song was a place or perhaps a vessel they were inhabiting; they were in it, and very reluctant to get out of it. For readers familiar with the cognitive theories of George

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