Problematizing Musical Analysis: On Adorno’s Concept of Structural Listening

Text and analytical image: Timo Laiho

I The paradox of analysis
In his last public lecture on February 24, 1969, a few months before his death, Adorno encapsulated the problem of musical analysis as follows: “Indeed, all ‘Becoming’ in music is in fact illusory, insofar as the music, as text, is really fixed and thus is not actually ‘becoming’ anything as it is already there. Nevertheless, music is actually only a ‘coherence’ [Zusammenhang] when regarded as a ‘Becoming’, and in this there lies a paradox for musical analysis: analysis is, on the other hand, limited by what is actually fixed and available to it; but, on the other hand, it has to translate this back again into that movement as coagulated in the musical text.” [1]

So, the main task that Adorno as music analyst sets up for himself to solve is paradoxical: How can music as a fixed text be analysed as an unfolding of individual, temporal moments? The paradoxical nature of the task can be strengthened by the following questions: Does the phenomenal musical flow actually consist of individual temporal moments? Or, does music as a fixed text constitute some kind of limited, phenomenal whole, which has priority over its parts?

The structure of Adorno’s task reflects an ancient Zenonian paradox that necessarily includes two contradictory viewpoints:
   (1) If some limited, phenomenal whole can be divided indivisibly into its constituent individual parts, then the individual parts cannot have a size, because otherwise they could be divided further as compounds into smaller, constitutive parts.
   (2) But on the other hand, we know very well that all phenomenal things (like a musical whole) have at least some individual parts of a finite size included in their wholeness (like pitches or rhythmic units in music) and then adding up these individual parts together makes the whole unlimited or necessarily infinitive.

In fact, an escape route out of this ancient logical reasoning has not yet been found. Indeed, we still see fights between two oppositional camps, between the supporters of reductionism and those who advocate for holism. The former, as is well-known, believe that the whole can be explained by an exhaustive division into its ultimate constituents, while the latter have a conviction that the whole is always somehow greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

But with regard to ancient Zenonian logic, the fight between reductionists and holists seems pointless.

While reductionists seek an explanation by relying on exhaustive divisions of some limited, phenomenal wholeness, in the final stage they are left with nothing but a shapeless, invisible (or inaudible) formation without any size. The reductionists’ power for explanation, so to speak, vanishes without a trace. And while holists might at first chuckle at the reductionist’s adversity, they will in the end do no better. Their insistence on the primacy of the whole over its parts collapses because the summation of the parts of any particular whole always creates a whole that is nevertheless bigger than the one they intend to explain. As Zeno argues regarding the summation of the parts, the whole becomes unlimited, infinite and impossible to define.

The problem of explanation in both camps relies on the fact that they cannot define what is the smallest or largest unit of the phenomenal whole they are intending to explain. And the same problem seems to be the main concern even in our prevailing physical theories, Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics.

So, it is right here, in the middle of this battlefield that Adorno sets up his task to solve a paradoxical problem connected with musical analysis: On what basis are we able to differentiate something that constitutes the phenomenal musical experience? In confronting this task, Adorno uses his admired composers, especially Beethoven, Mahler, and Schoenberg, but most of all his favourite one, his mentor, Alban Berg: Master of the smallest link, to back up his study. [2] In the following sections of this paper I will concentrate on the issue of how Adorno, relying on the analyses of his “composing friends”, seeks an answer to this problematic, paradoxical question.

II Adorno’s instructions for musical analysis
Of course, Adorno is perfectly aware of the fact that we can only have clues or some instructions on our way toward a solution. In relation to these clues Adorno names particularly the three most important ones: (1) the insistence that music analysis has to take into account the aspect of structural hearing, (2) that music, as a phenomenal experience, is necessarily connected with the idea of temporal becoming, and (3) because of the relational and temporal nature of the phenomenal musical structures, all analysis of music must strictly reject both (i) a reductive elemental analysis based on rigid, non-temporal divisions of the whole into its parts, and (ii) an analysis that relies uncritically on the assumption that there exits a phenomenal whole that is not affected by the relationships between its parts. And finally, if the analysis succeeds in accounting for these analytic factors, the end product of the analysis will reveal something that Adorno calls the truth content of a musical artwork. [3]

Now, regarding the third clue, it seems immediately clear that the “truth content” of a musical composition cannot be grasped by relying straightforwardly on any reductionist or holistic approach. As Adorno explains: “Once the problem […] of the work has been recognized, then the individual moments will thereby be clarified in a quite different manner than by the so-called ‘reductive’ methods of traditional practice […] Analysis exists only as the uncovering of the relationship between these moments, and not merely by virtue of the obtuse and aconceptual priority of the Whole over its parts.” [4] And this is why, already at the beginning, Adorno seems to avoid a pitfall of Zeno’s ancient paradoxical reasoning.

Before I examine Adorno’s instructive clues in more depth, one particular aspect must be added to the list, namely, the importance of analysis as a necessary part of all creative activity. Adorno does not cover up his critical mistrust of those who believe that the analysis will somehow explain away the true nature of the phenomenal musical experience.

“Distrust of analysis – usually beginning, as the example of Freud has shown, with a distrust of the world itself – is not only allied with an uncritical, irrational view of art but also with a reactionary attitude in general. That attitude imagines cognition to pose a threat to substance whereas in fact what is lasting is demonstrated only by its capacity to disclose itself through penetrating cognition. Whether in reality or in their imagination foes of analysis confuse the rationality of the cognitive process – which is self-evident to the point of pleonasm – with a rationalist view of the object of cognition; the method is erroneously and directly equated with the very object it is attempting to approach.” [5]

Obviously, Adorno’s insistence on the importance of analysis strengthens the viewpoints connected with his ideas of “structural listening” and “temporal becoming”. He strongly dismisses those who believe that analysis in its rational sense is directly equated with the familiar object-cognition, and, for that reason, could exhaustively explain the artistic object in question leaving no room for the true phenomenal experience. Contrary to this, Adorno points out that “analysis has to do with the surplus in art […], with that what is the truly ‘poetic’ in poetry. […] Analysis is more than merely ‘the facts’ […] by virtue of going beyond the simple facts by absorbing itself into them.” [6]

But then, in order to function properly (in Adorno’s sense), what should musical analysis in fact investigate? While Adorno’s arguments, such as “analysis focuses on those concrete moments that make up a piece of music” or “it must be concerned with the flesh, not a skeleton” [7], are also targeted against the analytic approaches that tend to explain music by relying straightforwardly on abstract universality (like Schenker’s idolization of tonality), they still do not give us a firm structural basis on how we should proceed in analysis. However, Adorno gives us some further remarks that might possibly provide useful guidance for what kind of approach we should apply.

“Analysis retaliates against musical works of art by pointing out that they are truly ‘composed’, assembled from components; the illusion they generate – that of an absolutely integrated being, of the necessary sequence of the whole and its flow – offsets their constituent parts. Analysis, being the destruction of that illusion, is critical. […] It is not enough to establish analytically the constituent elements, nor even the most concrete primary cells, the so-called ‘primary ideas.’ Above all it is necessary to reconstruct what happens to those ideas, or, to use Schoenberg’s phrase, to write the ‘history of a theme’.” [8]

Are we now satisfied with Adorno’s further guidance? Adorno reinforces here his conception that analysis must account for the phenomenal musical structure as a truly composed, integrated being, and while it is indeed assembled from components, its being as a whole necessarily offsets its constituent parts. And as a consequence, the analysis must avoid the formal, reductive extraction of the constituent elements – or even avoid the extraction of the most concrete primary cells, the so-called “primary ideas” – and instead reconstruct the “history” (or genealogy) of what happens to these elements or ideas. It is precisely in this sense that the analysis is critical. But the question still remains: How?

III Musical composition as an “integrated being”
In order to better understand Adorno’s analytic intentions and figure out what he means by identifying a musical work with “a truly composed, integrated being”, let us take here the human body as an example. A human body as a temporally living organism naturally has parts. It, as a being, is assembled from its components (heart, liver, lungs etc.). Let us call these parts “concrete moments” as an analogy to Adorno’s understanding of the phenomenal musical partials. Of course, this analogical juxtaposition might seem odd at first, but I am giving it here simply for the reason that it could possibly clarify Adorno’s analytic concepts.

Naturally, every part of a human body can be seen from a certain viewpoint as an individual organ. At least, you can treat them anatomically as somehow clear-cut, isolated objects. But in connection to their function as parts of a living organism, they are in multiple ways related to their surroundings. In fact, their relational functioning with respect to their inner and outer structures does not enclose them as finite objects but openly interactive entities. And the same also applies to a living human body as a whole. It also has a necessary relation to its surroundings: the skin (already a complexion) as a membrane of interchange between inside and outside forces, or the continuously moving body (she/he), whose trademarks can only be captured by some distinct characteristics of hers or his bodily movements. A human body necessarily extends outward and inward from itself: it is not a stable existing whole, nor is it constituted of fixed parts.

It is precisely this analogical relation between a living human body and the temporally experienced musical flow that reveals Adorno’s insights toward analysis and his insistence on “structural listening” and “temporal becoming”. It is as if we should in analysis constantly be aware of the minuscule vibrations of our own bodies and honour daily the possibilities to go beyond our customary limits. Even though it might be an overstatement to say that Adorno considers the object of musical analysis – following the terminology of the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari – to be something like “a body without organs” [9], a partial truth at least lies within this consideration based on Adorno’s viewpoint. In his analyses, the analytic elements are not anymore studied as isolated motifs (although Adorno uses the term motif to describe the ‘linked’ analytic elements in the following Berg-analysis) or concrete primary cells, but tiny relational fragments that have structural, non-local connections all throughout the whole composition. These fragmentary temporal connections form the basis of Adorno’s analytic strategy. Let me now give a short analytic description of how Adorno’s strategy could function in practice.

IV An analytic example: The opening of Alban Berg’s Op. 1
In exemplifying his analytic strategy Adorno refers to his mentor, Alban Berg: “Master of the smallest link(s)”, or accordingly, “the master of the fragmentary connections”. In his book [10], Adorno starts his analysis right at the beginning, from Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1 published in 1910 (probably composed in 1909). Even though it was Berg’s apprentice piece, Adorno proclaims the Sonata to be “a complete success” that is “worked out to the last note”. For Adorno, it already unveiled Berg as a “dynamic-dramatic genius”. [11] Although Adorno gives quite an extensive analysis of this short piece, my purpose here is just to examine its opening bars in order to clarify his analytic insights.

With regard to the opening bars of the Sonata, Adorno refers particularly to three linked yet fragmented elements, which I have marked in my analytic example in a slightly modified form with the symbols a(u), b(u)(or b(d)) and c(d) (the indexes (u) and (d) connected with the symbols indicate the melodic movements up-down respectively).).

While Adorno calls them motifs, he simultaneously points out that the whole phrase “is the result of altered motivic succession” and that “the (three) motifs are mutually referential”. In Adorno’s words, it is more a question of “developing variation of the tersest ‘paradigms’” and “association by means of motivic ‘remnants’. […] The motif is treated in the sense of a ‘basic idea’.” [12] All this, however, invites us to ask: Are these fragmentary, overlapping temporal connections simply characteristics of Berg’s compositional style? Is Adorno’s analytic strategy only functional when applied to his mentor’s music? Let us try to answer to these questions from a more general, objective basis.

Let us take as an example fragment b(u): a long note followed by the two equally short notes a minor second above the long one. In relation to “structural listening” we may ask the following questions: By what quantity can we vary the value of a long note, or a number of short notes, in order to hear the structural resemblance between two different occurrences of the same fragment? And what, from a perceptual viewpoint, do the fragments’ movements up or down mean?

Adorno shows in his analysis that as far as certain features of fragments b(u)and b(d) – i.e. the relationship between a long note and short notes related by a minor second between them – remain constant (or invariant), the change of direction in fragment b(d) in the last two bars retains the structural resemblance; we hear fragment b(d) as a variation of fragment b(u). Obviously, by looking at our example, the same structural resemblance remains despite the slight quantitative changes of the durational values in the length and the number of the notes in each repetitive sequence. Fragment b(d) also introduces a new structural feature, a dotted rhythmic unit that is long/short, which connects it to the first fragment, a(u). As shown from the above example, the minuscule repetitive unit ? seems to connect fragments b(u), c(d) and b(d), c(d), and also to connect the two subsequent occurrences of c(d) in the second bar. Finally, we are able to recognize the familiarity of fragment c(d) in the last bar precisely because of its connection to unit ?, despite the fact that it occurs not as a succession of pitches but as an interval of a major third.

At this point Adorno’s musical analytic strategy becomes understandable. We can notice that even unit ? cannot function as the smallest possible element but rather as the smallest possible link in the formation of the whole musical phrase. Accordingly, the whole musical phrase cannot be understood as a summation of its parts but as a fluctuating network of its partial, fragmentary connections. At this point we may ask: What is the true structural basis of these perceptually linked fragmentary connections?

As shown in the above example, for instance, fragments a(u), b(u) (or b(d)) and c(d) gain perceptual significance not in relation to their identity but in relation to how they are in multiple ways differentiated from the musical flow. This differentiation is thoroughly relational even in the sense that the perception of the same becomes a qualitative difference in relation to other perceived differences with respect to its surroundings. For this reason, Adorno’s analytic fragments are not anymore motivic units but more openly functioning milieu structures. And as milieu structures, they are openly active precisely (i) because of their necessarily connective, overlapping characteristics, and (ii) because of their existence as “units”, they are continuously vulnerable to quantitative variations.

The same structural property also applies to the opening musical phrase of Berg’s Piano Sonata as a whole. It is indeed crystallized only by the pulsatile fluctuations of its milieu structures, and for this reason it cannot as a phenomenal whole enclose itself as a limited substance. Again, with its pulsatile milieu structures, the whole becomes, from the phenomenal viewpoint, more like a “living” territorial assemblage that has multiple connections all over the whole Sonata. As Adorno points out, “[…] the idea of the sonata itself […] makes do with a minimum of given material: every theme in it is related to the principal theme.” [13]

While, of course, Adorno’s analytic insights seem to be especially suitable when connected to Berg’s compositional style, the above analysis has shown that his ideas of “structural listening” also provide an objective basis for a more general analytic approach. Adorno’s analytic ideas, as referenced above, give us possibilities to define new, structurally meaningful musical analytic concepts, i.e. more openly functioning milieu and territorial structures that bear a close relationship to the recently developed analytic-generative methodology (AGM) in the field of musical analysis. [14] Indeed, Adorno’s analytic clues seem to open up new avenues for the development of a perceptually-based and temporally-oriented musical analytic praxis.

V Closing remarks: From “structural hearing” to “temporal becoming”.
Evidently, all analysis that aspires to a truthful description of the temporal musical flow must necessarily reflect an understanding of the relational structures that, as audible formations, have to be connected to perceptual meaningfulness. This is the true basis of Adorno’s concept of “structural listening”, which simultaneously underlines his concept of the “truth content” of a musical artwork.

Because of their temporal nature, perceived musical structures, at their most fundamental level, are not constituted by relational concepts like long or short, etc. In fact, we cannot grasp the ultimate unit of a musical structure because it is continuously moving towards another! Perceptual musical structures at all possible levels are continuously in a process of “temporal becoming”. It is this second aspect, the aspect of continuous becoming in Adorno’s analytic vocabulary that brings forth a new and deeper level of analysis, the analysis of movement, which also forms, as a musical analytic tool, a crucial part of the AGM mentioned above. [15]

Thus, the aspect of “temporal becoming” puts us at once into the middle of the perceptual “things”. Becoming is always actualized “in between” what is perceived now and what was perceived before, leaving us to anticipate the future; from the perceptual viewpoint, becoming has to be considered as an event, which, as a becoming, is always paradoxical. The phenomenal musical structure is always two-folded. As the philosopher Gilles Deleuze puts it, in the moment of the perceptual event, one necessarily becomes larger than one was, but simultaneously, one becomes smaller than one is now. Referring to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Deleuze explains:

“Certainly, she is not bigger and smaller in the same time. She is larger now; she was smaller before. But it is at the same moment that one becomes larger than one was and smaller than one becomes. This is the simultaneity of a becoming whose characteristics is to elude the present. Insofar as it eludes the present, becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future. It pertains to the essence of becoming to move and pull in both directions at once.” [16]

With these comments we have come back to Adorno’s paradoxical task and his intention to solve a problem: On what basis are we able to differentiate something that constitutes the phenomenal musical experience? Regarding the above explanations, it seems that Adorno has guided us at least nearer to the solution.

1. Adorno, Theodor W. (1982). On the Problem of Musical Analysis. Trans. Max Paddison. Music Analysis, Vol. 1, No. 2: 169–187, p. 179.
2. Adorno, Theodor W. (1991). Alban Berg. Master of the smallest link. Trans. Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Cf. Adorno (1982), pp. 176–82.
4. Cf. Adorno (1982), pp. 181–82.
5. Cf. Adorno (1991), pp. 35–6.
6. Cf. Adorno (1982), p. 177.
7. Cf. Adorno (1991), p. 36.
8. Cf. Adorno (1991), p. 37.
9. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1988). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press, pp. 149–66.
10. Cf. Adorno (1991), pp. 40–6.
11. Cf. Adorno (1991), p. 40.
12. Cf. Adorno (1991), pp. 42–3.
13. Cf. Adorno (1991), p. 42.
14. Laiho, Timo (2013). Perception, Time and Music Analysis. An Introduction to Analytic-Generative Methodology (AGM). Helsinki: Studia musicologica Universitatis Helsingiensis 23.
15. Cf. Laiho (2013).
16. Deleuze, Gilles (1990). The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester and C. Stivale; Constantin V. Boundas (ed.). London: The Athlone Press, p. 1.