We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Musical Forces

Motion, Metaphor, and Meaning in Music

Steve Larson. Foreword by Robert S. Hatten

Publication Year: 2012

Steve Larson draws on his 20 years of research in music theory, cognitive linguistics, experimental psychology, and artificial intelligence—as well as his skill as a jazz pianist—to show how the experience of physical motion can shape one's musical experience. Clarifying the roles of analogy, metaphor, grouping, pattern, hierarchy, and emergence in the explanation of musical meaning, Larson explains how listeners hear tonal music through the analogues of physical gravity, magnetism, and inertia. His theory of melodic expectation goes beyond prior theories in predicting complete melodic patterns. Larson elegantly demonstrates how rhythm and meter arise from, and are given meaning by, these same musical forces.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Musical Meaning and Interpretation

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (571.7 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (71.3 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (71.2 KB)
pp. ix-x

Musical Forces is the culmination of over 25 years of speculation, research, and empirical inquiry into the ways we experience motion, and hence meaning, in music. Inspired by the work of Rudolf Arnheim on visual perception and Douglas Hofstadter on analogy, Steve Larson develops a theory of musical forces that affect our perception of both melody and...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (70.6 KB)
pp. xi-xii

This book describes a theory of “musical forces” and some of the evidence for that theory. Thus it is aimed primarily at professional music theorists. I hope, however, that it may interest other types of readers as well – including cognitive scientists (especially those with interests in psychology and expectation, the phenomenology and aesthetics of music, computer science and artificial intelligence, and...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (90.2 KB)
pp. xiii-xvi

First things first: thank you, Sonja Rasmussen, for your love and support – I have incorporated a number of your valuable substantive suggestions, and your encouragement has really helped me to put this all into a final form.
My interests in motion, metaphor, and meaning go back to my years as a student at the University of Oregon, where my 1981 master’s...

read more

1. Introduction

pdf iconDownload PDF (218.3 KB)
pp. 1-25

Sometimes we ask “How does that melody go?” At times we might say that a melody “moves by steps and leaps.” Or we might talk about melodies “ascending and descending.” In fact, it is hard to think of words for describing physical motion that have not been applied to musical motion. So this book’s first question might be, “Why do we talk about music as if it actually moved?”...

Part 1: A Theory of Musical Forces

pdf iconDownload PDF (8.3 KB)
pp. 27-202

read more

2. Thinking about Music and Thinking in Music: Pattern, Meaning, Analogy, Metaphor, and Hierarchies

pdf iconDownload PDF (334.4 KB)
pp. 29-60

As noted in chapter 1, the central argument of this book is that our experience of physical motion shapes our experience of musical motion in specific and quantifiable ways – so that we not only speak about music as if it were shaped by musical analogs of physical gravity, magnetism, and inertia, but we also actually experience it in terms of “musical forces.” Chapter 1 also suggested that the concepts of pattern, meaning, analogy, metaphor, and hierarchy provide useful...

read more

3. Something in the Way She Moves: The Metaphor of Musical Motion

pdf iconDownload PDF (187.1 KB)
pp. 61-81

Music moves. And something in the way it moves moves us. The relative ease with which we talk about musical motion might fool us into thinking that we know quite well what musical motion is. But do we? This chapter suggests how the theory of conceptual metaphor described in chapter 2 can explain important aspects of our experience and understanding of musical motion. As we shall see, the logic of...

read more

4. Melodic Forces: Gravity, Magnetism, and Inertia

pdf iconDownload PDF (244.9 KB)
pp. 82-109

The metaphor Musical Succession Is Physical Motion, discussed in the previous chapter, suggests that an important entailment of that metaphor is the idea that musical motion is shaped by analogues of physical forces – melodic gravity, melodic magnetism, and musical inertia. (As noted in the introduction, it is our intuitive embodied understanding of these forces that concerns us here, not the latest intellectual understanding of physicists.)...

read more

5. A Theory of Melodic Expectation

pdf iconDownload PDF (266.6 KB)
pp. 110-135

Chapters 1–4 argue that listening to music is a creative process in which we shape the sounds we hear into meanings tempered by our biology, culture, and experience. When we are engaged in that process, experienced listeners of tonal music make predictions about what will happen next − about “where the music is going.” In this sense the recent growth of interest in melodic expectation...

read more

6. Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Forces

pdf iconDownload PDF (331.4 KB)
pp. 136-179

Chapters 1–5 presented a theory of musical forces, including a model of melodic expectation (and key determination) based on gravity, magnetism, and inertia. Chapter 6 expands upon that theory by showing how it can illuminate aspects of rhythm and meter. In doing so, this chapter notes what is rhythmic about musical forces, describes “rhythmic forces” that are analogous to musical forces...

read more

7. Analyses

pdf iconDownload PDF (279.7 KB)
pp. 180-202

Chapters 1–6 offered a theory of musical forces and related that theory to our experiences of expressive meaning, melodic expectation, and musical rhythm. Chapter 7 illustrates aspects of the theory with analyses of additional musical examples. Because the theory of musical forces illuminates such fundamental aspects of music, it offers a powerful tool for music analysis. Or (because the theory draws so deeply from Schenker’s ideas) it might be...

Part 2: Evidence for Musical Forces

pdf iconDownload PDF (8.2 KB)
pp. 203-307

read more

8. Converging Evidence: An Introduction to Part 2

pdf iconDownload PDF (95.1 KB)
pp. 205-211

Part 1 of this book (chapters 1–7) presented a theory of musical forces and related that theory to our experiences of expressive meaning, melodic expectation, key determination, and musical rhythm. The central claim of this theory is that musical forces shape not only our thinking about music but also our thinking in music.
The first part of this claim (that forces shape thinking about music)...

read more

9. Evidence from Experiments in Visual Perception and Neuroscience

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.2 MB)
pp. 212-225

The theory of musical forces claims that our embodied knowledge of physical motion shapes not only our thinking about music but also our thinking in music. It also claims that this happens because of a process of “cross-domain mapping,” in which our knowledge of one domain (physical motion) shapes our experience in another (music). If such cross-domain mapping connects these two domains, then it raises the...

read more

10. Evidence from Compositions and Improvisations

pdf iconDownload PDF (269.4 KB)
pp. 226-250

Chapter 8 noted that musical forces shape musical discourse. That (by itself), however, does not guarantee that music will reflect the operation of the musical forces. In other words, chapter 8 tells us that musical forces inform our thinking about music, but it does not prove that musical forces shape our thinking in music. Thus this chapter will focus on the content of individual pieces of music by summarizing three studies...

read more

11. Evidence from Music-Theoretical Misunderstandings

pdf iconDownload PDF (179.6 KB)
pp. 251-263

Chapter 10 provided evidence that pieces of tonal music are shaped by musical forces. It found that the distributions of melodic patterns within the compositions and improvisations analyzed can be explained through a simple formula that combines gravity, magnetism, and inertia. But to play “devil’s advocate” for a moment, one could object that chapter 10, by explaining the distributions of patterns within analyses, told us something about analyses...

read more

12. Evidence from a Listener-Judgement Experiment

pdf iconDownload PDF (240.5 KB)
pp. 264-272

Chapter 8 noted that our thinking about music is shaped by musical forces. Chapter 9 made more credible the idea that thinking in other domains (such as visual perception as well as auditory perception) might draw on our embodied understanding of physical motion by importing forces analogous to gravity, magnetism, and inertia – and it noted brain structures recently discovered by neuroscience that might underlie such...

read more

13. Evidence from Comparing Computer Models with Production-Experiment Results

pdf iconDownload PDF (387.7 KB)
pp. 273-307

The theory of melodic expectation presented in Chapter 5 claimed that experienced listeners of tonal music have expectations about how melodic beginnings will be completed, and also claimed that important aspects of those expectations are captured in the following summary statement:
Experienced listeners of tonal music expect melodic completions in which the musical forces of gravity, magnetism, and inertia control operations on alphabets...

Part 3: Conclusion

read more

14. Summary and Prospects

pdf iconDownload PDF (110.7 KB)
pp. 311-322

This final chapter of the book summarizes its findings and suggests directions for further research.
The book begins by asking two questions: “Why do we talk about music as if it actually moved?” and “Why does music actually move us?” Our sense that common-practice tonal music actually does move (that it accelerates or decelerates, that it ascends or descends, that it goes by steps or leaps) is so strong that it is necessary to remind...


pdf iconDownload PDF (177.3 KB)
pp. 323-335


pdf iconDownload PDF (149.5 KB)
pp. 337-345


pdf iconDownload PDF (199.2 KB)
pp. 347-364


pdf iconDownload PDF (95.2 KB)
pp. 365-369

Further Reading, About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (67.0 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9780253005496
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253356826

Page Count: 390
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Musical Meaning and Interpretation