Yael Balaban, Naphtali Wagner

Panel 6E: Transcoding Music, Sound and Literature
Session 6 – July 3, 15:30 – 17:30

Musical Metaphors as Intermedial References

References to music in prose literature can be defined as musical ekphrasis (Goehr 2010), intertext (Kristeva 1980) or as intermedial references (Rajewsky 2005), each of which emphasizes different qualities of the musical reference. However, what if no music is “heard” in the fictional world, and the music belongs exclusively to the textual stratum of the literary work, as a metaphor?

Our analysis showed that musical metaphors, despite their (mere) textuality, convey connotations and evocations derived from the music they refer to. At the same time, these intermedial references can affect the readers’ response to the music. When Proust’s character Saint-Loup describes air raid sirens as the Ride of the Valkyries, he reveals his political and aesthetic views, but also says something about Wagner’s opera. The musical metaphor invests the deliberately irritating sound of sirens with sublime artistic value, thus aestheticizing it (Benjamin 1935).

Musical metaphors may be used to map non-musical sounds, non-auditory subjects, and even abstract notions. Any musical feature can be used as vehicle, from specific works to general characteristics such as “harmony” or “polyphony” to basic qualities like pitch, rhythm and volume. When Woolf describes Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as two musical notes, “one high, one low,” one may ask which of them is the “high” note: the wife, with her (supposedly) feminine voice, or the husband whom she deems superior for his “splendid mind”?

The differences between literature and music imbue musical metaphors with significance. They may be used to challenge the linearity of the text using the polyphony inherent to music; they can infuse sensory qualities into abstract notions; create order or disorder; and much more. This talk illustrates the multi-dimensional richness of musical metaphors. We argue that their analysis can enhance our understanding of both literary works and intermediality.


Yael Balaban is a researcher of literature and a lecturer at Beit Berl College, Israel. She holds a B.F.A. from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, M.A. and Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from Ben-Gurion University, Israel. She was a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include sensory representation in fiction and the relations between music and literature. Her first book was published by Magnes Press, Jerusalem (2019).

Naphtali Wagner is a professor emeritus in the musicology department of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. His major research projects are analysis of Western tonal music, Richard Wagner’s leading motifs; rock music (characterization of the Beatle’s repertoire); and developing a methodology for analyzing the relations between prosody and music. His current research examines the narrative uses of musical representations in fiction. He published four books on these subjects.