What a 225 Year Old Mozart Opera Can Teach Us About the Brain

September 6th, 2014

Warning – this is a bit dense!


Le Nozze di Figaro, commonly known as The Marriage of Figaro, is a comedic opera written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1786. The opera portrays the dramatic trials and tribulations of the soon-to-wed Figaro and Susanne as they progress through a series of feudal customs. While the story itself might be less familiar to the reader, the opera’s overture – Cavatina No. 3 (often referred to by its text incipit as Se vuol ballare) – is one of Mozart’s best-known pieces. The music world has studied Le Nozze for centuries, but the emerging field of music cognition presents new opportunities for novel analyses. So, what can a 225 year old opera teach us about the brain?


Musical Accentuation as Cognition

In the cavatina, Figaro flaunts his plans to thwart the Count, who plans to exercise his “feudal rights” with Figaro’s fiancée. Given the importance of this cavatina in the overall opera, Mozart set the text in a specific accentual pattern to highlight specific words that indicate Figaro’s emotional state. Interestingly, these factors create extra accent by diverging from the set metrical patterns and places extra emphasis on the word “si” to supplement the emotional plot developments. The poetic structure and musical accentuation in Se vuol ballare drives the complex rhythmic pattern that structures the listener’s perception of the piece within the overall plot of the cavatina. Using the Italian textual accentuation rules set forth by Balthazar (1992), I analyzed the poetic structure and accentuation in the No. 3 Cavatina (Figure 1). The divisions of the bars and text/notation subdivisions are derived from an equal combination of the auditory perception of the piece and the musical score.


Figure 1: Poetic structure and accentuation in No. 3 Cavatina from Mozart Le Nozze

Figure 1
P = piano text setting
T = trunco text setting
S = sdrucciolo text setting
A = agogic accent
ME/T = metrical/textual accent
HM = hypermeasure
1 = words correspond roughly 1:1 with the first violin voice, textual accents match with agogic
2 = words do not correspond roughly 1:1 with violin voice
3 = strong disparity between metrical and agogic accents – feels like two separate beats
Hypermeasure = corresponds with hyperbeat for the motive for each section
Major accent = corresponds to location of most salient accent within each hyperbeat (note location/hypermeasure)
* = only a partial hypermeasure
Blank spaces indicate indeterminable or insignificant patterns

It is clear from Figure 1 that a pattern of A, B, C, D, A’, and E emerges, where the capital letters designate overall sections.  Within these major sections are smaller text and notation subdivisions that are separated based on the coherence between Figaro’s vocal notation with the major first violin score.  For example, section A involves an overarching rhythmic notation and textual pattern between measures 1-42.  It includes the subdivided section of A1 in which Figaro’s notation follows roughly in a 1:1 pattern with the first violin notation in terms of pitch variation and note length, a section of A2 in which the words do not correspond with the first violin notation, and a second A1 section similar to the first A1 subdivision.  This chart matches the auditory experience of the piece in which the beginning sections start with similar measures 1-42 consistent in content and musical notation.


Next, measures 42-55 contribute to the beginning of a climax in which the text is mismatched with the musical notation of the violin parts.  Subsequently, measures 56-63 provide a connection between the more dramatic sections with the impending subdivision in measures 64-103 that contribute to the most significant climax in the cavatina.  In this section, Figaro flaunts his plans to beat the Count at his own game, which is the central theme of the aria.


Finally, Figaro repeats the opening lines in measures 104-122, and measures 123-131 provide a flourish of instrumentation to mark the end of the cavatina.  The interplay between the 3/4- metered of sections A, B, C, A’, and E interrupted by the 2/4 metered subdivision of D emphasizes the climactic structure of the piece.  The patterns in notation and plot provide Mozart with fertile ground for the manipulation of the listener’s attention through deliberate accentuation.


Mozart’s use of segmentation created by piano endings in the subdivided 3/4-metered sections of the first A1, second A2, C2, and A1’ create a pattern of accentuation to which the listener’s attention becomes entrained.  The combination of the musical elements in this section results in a specific pattern: trunco (where the final syllable is accented) and piano (where the penultimate syllable is accented) text setting endings are combined with significant auditory accents caused by metrical/textual accents in coincidence with agogic accents (see Figure 2).



Figure 2: Pattern of Metrical/Textual & Agogic Accents in Measures 1-8 of Le Nozze
Moreover, the compounding of these accents is exacerbated through its interaction with the textual accents.  Figure 3 displays the segmentation of the lyrical content in the first A1, second A2, C2, and A1’ sections.  A pattern of quinario lines with piano and/or trunco endings combined with a metrical/textual notational accent on the stanza-end quaternario line with either sdrucciolo (where the antepenultimate syllable is accented) or trunco endings develops a strong pattern of accentuation in these sections.  Additionally, the melismaticism created by the presence of alternating or consistent quarter notes per line for each quinario ending increases the power of the metrical entrainment.  This pattern repeats throughout the piece, lending credence to the notion that Mozart deliberately used the combination of piano and trunco endings with textual and agogic accents to provide an entrainable rhythm that drives the listener’s perception of the cavatina.


Figure 3: Segmentation in No. 3 Cavatina from Mozart Le Nozze

STA = stanza number
REP = indicates repetition
QPL = quarter notes per line
MT/E = metrical/textual accent
Scansion = ending


The grouping of the abovementioned notational and accentual effects generates a hypermeasure that is then shifted by abnormal accentuation on the word “si.”  The metric grid in Figure 4 for measures 1-4 of No. 3 of Le Nozze di Figaro demonstrates the various Metrical Performance Rules (MPRs) outlined by Lerdahl & Jackendoff (1983).  Figure 4, when considered along with Figure 1, reveals a two-bar hypermeasure with a the major accent (combination of metrical/text accent and agogic accent) in section A1 of the cavatina.  This two-bar hypermeasure is similar in construct in terms of the MPR rules in measures 9-12, although the major accent that anchors the hypermeasure shifts to the 7th beat in the sequence. Measures 13-16 should have been structurally similar to measures 1-4.  However, the existence of the extra word “si” shifts the hyperbeat to a position more distant from the major accentual position, which is on the 4th running beat (first note of the second measure) of the 13-16 measure segment.  While the metric grid differences between measures 1-4 and 9-12 are significant, they are consistent with a simple shift in major accentuation position, whereas the shift between measures 1-4 and 13-19 constitute an entire displacement of the hypermeasure.  It is important to recognize that an extra quarter note in the first violin voice at the 11th position in measures 13-16 creates a whole note at that position.  This additional note helps shift the beat that anchors the hypermeasure.  This finding is significant because it reveals that this hyperbeat shift is caused directly by the unique accentuation of the word “si.”  This departure from the expected attentional oscillations implies that the word “si” garners the listener’s attention by disrupting the expected rhythmic patterns.


Figure 4: Metric Grid for No. 3 Cavatina from Mozart Le Nozze (mm. 1-4, 12-19)


The Link between Lyrical and Musical Attention
This analysis reveals that the combination of primary metrical/textual and agogic accents interacts with the piano and trunco line endings to give rise to a hypermeasure that is shifted with the addition of the word “si,” thus breaking the listener’s internal attentional oscillations.  Considered within the context of the cavatina, in which an interplay between the 3/4 measure segments and 2/4 measure segments gives rise to a climax consistent with the plot of the opera, the early and repeated shift in attention plays an important role in the listener’s perception of the storyline.  By punctuating Figaro’s opening sentiments about his interaction with the Count through the addition of the word “si,” Mozart disrupted listener attention to highlight the emotional climax of the plot.  The interruption of the attentional oscillation introduced by the word “si” suggests that Mozart had an intuitive understanding of the interplay between lyrical and musical attention — a finding that music researchers discovered over 100 years later.

1. Balthazar, Scott L., “The rhythm of text and music in ottocento melody: An empirical reassessment in light of contemporary treatises,” Current Musicology 49 (1992): 5-28; adapted from Robert A. Moreen, “Integration of text forms and musical forms in Verdi’s early operas” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1975).
2. Lerdahl, Fred, and Ray Jackendoff. “Theoretical Perspective.” In A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, 1-31. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.