Music, Meaning, and Modern Art: Part 3 of 3

Tom W. Hartung
Nov 23, 2017 · 10 min read

This is part three of a three part series of articles written for people who love music but do not understand abstract art.

Fugue — By Wassily Kandinsky, 1914 — Public Domain

Part one features Bob Dylan’s song All Along the Watchtower and part two features John Coltrane’s magnum opus A Love Supreme.

All three articles reference highly-acclaimed works of music and visual art that have stood the test of time. The articles use these well-known works to help explain how musicians and painters use abstractions to add value and meaning to their work.

Depending on your interest level, you can read one, two, or all three of these articles. All of them are about essentially the same thing, but each can stand on its own, so you can read them in any sequence you desire.

Spoiler alert: the secret is, when the meaning in a work of art is not immediately obvious, we are free to add our own meaning to it.

Sound complicated? It isn’t! All it takes is a little imagination.

Exercising Your Imagination

Look at the painting above, Fugue by Wassily Kandinsky (1914) — which sold in 1990 for $22,900,000 — and:

1. Take a quick look at the Wikipedia page explaining fugues, reading as much or as little as you like. There’s no need to spend much time on the page, the videos explain the term much better.
2. Listen to and watch one or more of these videos:
- This music appreciation video (8:29) that explains the structure of fugues.
- This video of a “Little” Fugue (3:38) by Johann Sebastian Bach.
- This video of a “Great” Fugue (6:40), also by Bach.
- This video of a “Great” Fugue (16:08) by Ludwig van Beethoven.
3. Try to see how the organization of visual patterns in Kandinsky’s painting express the structure of a musical fugue.

Hint: Wassily Kandinsky was Russian and at various times in his life lived in Germany and France. He was well aware of the fact that people in Western societies habitually read things from left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

So — if desired — you can read his paintings from left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

Easy enough, right? Ok, now we’re ready!

The First Four Talking Heads Albums

The first four albums released by Talking Heads are full of wonderful music with very abstract lyrics.

All of their songs are very painterly and full of the vagueness and abstractions that allow listeners to fill in their own meanings. Three of the four members were students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) so were presumably familiar with the tenets and techniques in modern art.

All four of these albums are very highly rated on Specifically, three of the four have earned 5 of 5 stars in both the critic and user reviews on the site. The exception is Fear of Music, which has 5 of 5 stars in the user ratings but “only” 4.5 out of 5 stars in the critic’s ratings.

Listening to their sound as it evolves over these four albums, and puzzling over their usually abstract but always inventive lyrics rewards listeners with hours of entertainment and enlightenment.

In the following descriptions, a heart (♥) icon denotes the love songs, and a star (★) icon indicates songs that have made a strong and lasting impression on me.

Their first album is Talking Heads 77, released in September of 1977. This album is their most raw, quirky, original-sounding release.

Talking Heads — cover of their album Talking Heads 77, by Sire Records. Public Domain.

The singles from this album are Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town(♥), Psycho Killer(★), and Pulled Up.

At the time, many listeners associated Psycho Killer with the Son of Sam murders. However, it is purposely abstract and not about him or any other specific person. The song was actually written years before the Son of Sam murders.

The most noteworthy song on Talking Heads 77 is No Compassion. This song’s message is that it can be overwhelming to try to help everyone and that some people are actually “in love with [their] problems.” Indeed, for some of us, it might be a good idea to:

Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good!

This is good advice for idealistic people who live in a big city, because it’s easy to care more for some people than they care for themselves. It’s sad, but true — and such situations can be quite frustrating.

Other favorite songs from Talking Heads 77 are Tentative Decisions, Who Is It?(♥), and Don’t Worry About the Government.

Their second album is More Songs About Buildings and Food, released in July of 1978. This album is my favorite one by Talking Heads.

Talking Heads — cover of their album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fair use.

The only single from this album is a cover of the Al Green song Take Me to the River(♥). In 1979 the version by Talking Heads was ubiquitous on the radio and it peaked at number 26 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The most noteworthy song on More Songs About Buildings and Food is The Good Thing. This song is also purposely abstract, and does not go into any sort of detail about exactly what “The Good Thing” actually is.

It’s a great song for helping to overcome “difficult situations” and assures the listener a “A straight line exists between [us] and the good thing.” We are left to fill in the blanks with the specifics that apply to our own lives in the current moment.

“I have adopted this and made it my own:
Cut back the weakness, reinforce what is strong.”

The positivity in this song contrasts nicely with the negativity in the song No Compassion on their previous album.

Other favorite songs from More Songs About Buildings and Food are Warning Sign(♥), Found a Job, Artists Only(★), Stay Hungry(★), and Big Country(★). In particular, Artists Only and Stay Hungry show they have not forgotten their art school roots at RISD, and Found a Job and Big Country show they are quite capable of writing and performing ballads which are original, yet tell a story that is relatively free of abstractions.

Their third album is Fear of Music, released in August of 1979. For some listeners, this album may not be as accessible as the other three. And this relative incomprehensibility may be what cost it a half-a-star in the critic’s ratings on

Talking Heads — cover of their album Remain in Light. Fair use.

The singles from this album are Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, and Cities(★).

I Zimbra is an adaptation of Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem “Gadji beri bimba.” Dadaism is an interesting art movement that rejects logic in favor of nonsense. However, the nonsensical lyrics take it beyond the abstractness of their other work and lend this song a certain incomprehensibility.

The most noteworthy song on Fear of Music is Memories Can’t Wait. It’s interesting — to me, anyway — that this is the only song on the album that has a verb in its title. I heard them do this song live once, and it blew me away!

Memories Can’t Wait starts out with the assertion that “There’s a party in my mind, and I hope it never stops.” At first this party sounds like fun, but the slamming chord progression and overall hardness of the music belies that assumption. By the end of the song we realize this is not actually the case — that he does indeed wish it would stop.

“Other people can go home, other people they will split.
I’ll be here all the time, no, I can never quit.”

By the end of the song we learn the truth: he’s struggling with insomnia. Although he never mentions that dreadful word, it’s clear this party is anything fun.

Other favorite songs from Fear of Music are Mind(★), Air, and Heaven(★).

Their fourth album is Remain in Light, released in October of 1980. This album is the most highly acclaimed of their first four releases.

Talking Heads — cover of their album Remain in Light. Fair use.

This album is an extremely colorful expansion on the themes first explored in the song I Zimbra on Fear of Music. It is so different from their first album, it’s truly amazing to hear their progression!

The singles from Remain in Light are Once in a Lifetime and Houses in Motion. Surely you have heard the extremely popular Once in a Lifetime at some point!

A big reason it is so popular is because it is so vague and abstract that most everyone can relate to it. In fact, it is difficult to imagine anyone not being able to relate to the sentiment, “And you might ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?”

The most noteworthy song on Remain in Light is The Great Curve(♥). With lines like “She loves the world, and all the people in it,” at first it seems like the song is about a specific woman. As the song progresses, we learn “She is only partly human being.

Then a bit later, we hear the clincher:

The world moves on a woman’s hips
The world moves and it swivels and bops
The world moves on a woman’s hips
The world moves and it bounces and hops.

Voila! It turns out the song is an abstract portrait of all women. All of Talking Heads’ love (♥) songs are a bit quirky, but this one’s over the top!

Other favorite songs from Remain in Light are Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)(★), Crosseyed and Painless, and Listening Wind(★).

Extreme Abstractions: Malevich and Pollack

What happens when artists create works that test the extremes of abstraction?
Two Modern Paintings depict two extremes of complexity: Black Suprematic Square by Kazimir Malevich (1915) and No. 5 by Jackson Pollock (1948).

Black Suprematic Square — By Kazimir Malevich, 1915. Public Domain.

In April of 2002 Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square sold for $1,000,000. How could such a simplistic and uninteresting painting that almost anyone — even a child — could reproduce, be worth so much money?

One answer is because it is a seminal work in Malevich’s Suprematism art movement.

A more abstract — and hence more powerful — answer is because, with this work Kazimir Malevich managed to move
Kandinsky’s triangle a bit further upwards — much like Pollock did in 1948 with his №5.

Once Malevich moved Kandinsky’s triangle with this painting, anyone else trying to do it again would fail to move the triangle any further, so the result would be comparatively worthless.

№5 — By Jackson Pollack, 1948. Fair use.

It is rumored that Pollock’s №5 sold for $140,000,000 in 2006. How could such a painting, apparently created in a completely random manner that almost anyone — even a child — could imitate,
be worth so much money?

One answer is because it is a seminal work in the Abstract Expressionist art movement. It has a unique place in the history of abstract art, and this makes it extremely valuable.

A more abstract — and hence more powerful — answer is because, with this work Pollock managed to move Kandinsky’s triangle a bit further upwards — much like Malevich did in 1915 with his Black Suprematic Square.

Once Jackson Pollock moved Kandinsky’s triangle with this painting, anyone else trying to do it again would fail to move the triangle any further, so the result would be comparatively worthless.

When viewed through the abstract lens of Kandinsky’s triangle, these two extremely abstract paintings,that look extremely different, are actually very similar!

So What?

Ok so abstractions are important in music, painting, and other art forms. So What?!?

So What — Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival — By Miles Davis, 1963.

Hello, my name is Tom Hartung and I am the creator of and

Like most people, I’ve been a music fan all my life! After learning about painters like Wassily Kandisky, Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian — who is my personal favorite — and many others in graduate school at VCU, I wrote a program that draws images of personalities.

Actually, over the years I have written four versions of the program, and all too frequently I get strange looks when I tell people about it. Knowing that most people love music — which by its nature is very abstract — I wrote these articles to clear away some of the mystery behind Abstract Art.

I feel the time has finally come to start actively sharing my idea of visualizing personalities — which are also by their nature very abstract — with the world at large, and am sure I will get some push-back from people who are not yet ready for the idea.

So I wrote these articles to preemptively address the criticism I will surely get from people whose backgrounds are different from mine.

The process of writing these articles was a long one — a few decades, in actual fact. I only hope you have found them entertaining and enlightening!

Thank you for reading this article!

For more about abstraction and meaning in art, see part 1 or part 2.

Bonus Epic Song!

For an epic song about how an abstraction — a spirit — smells, listen to and watch Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.

Smells Like Teen Spirit — by Nirvana (Live).
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store