Article by John Fleming and Marian Bradshaw

C
an music be included among the decorative arts? Perhaps not. Yet the instruments that make non-vocal music possible, from the simple reed flute of some shepherd or mythical satyr to the polyphonous instruments of the major western orchestras, have always attracted the decorative impulses of great and humble artisans alike. And the physical qualities of sound as function and effect together depend upon the nature of materials–natural horn, skin, wood, metal, and shape, as well as human dexterity and breath–to give voice, timbre, colour, rhythm, harmony and other pleasures to the performance dimensions of sound.


Just as a chamfered leg, a cutout back-splat, or a claw-and- ball foot may define a particular chair, style, period and taste, through non-functional and aesthetic elements, so too can musical style be inseparable from the particularities of its origins and the nature of performance and performer.

In another more direct decorative sense, when the terminal scroll of a viol or violin, whose origin in a roll of parchment is a figure of movement through time, is replaced by the bust of a man, woman or fanciful beast, does this substitution of an apparently external reference diminish or enhance the listener’s pleasure? The answer lies in both circumstance and effect.

We might take for our example the sounds of tafelmusik (table music) as an intrinsic part of a limited and ceremonious context in which the accoutrements of dining (dishes, service, table décor of flowers, figurines or other objects of display), and the composition of the ingredients, are akin in a minor key to the ambitions of opera to create a synthesis of sensuous effects, bringing together in this most social of occasions the eyes, the ears, the palate and the sense of touch. In other words, the importance of the decorative arts lies in the production of aesthetic and emotional effects as functions of perception.