The facdotal stuff, or, Musical toppings

On my journeys to Melosophia I am lead to many reflections about how we listen to music, and how we talk about it.

The first factor in no small degree influences the second; words get in our minds and into our ears. Words often “cover” our ears, so that we almost hear what we think. (Compare, the Emperor’s new clothes.)

Imagine a sandwich. Sure, the bread is important but most people will agree that it is what we put on it — cheese, salami, mozzarella, avocado, etc. — that makes it tasty and appetizing.

The toppings!
The toppings!

In his extremely funny book “The Bachelor Home Companion” P. J. O’Rourke describes another kind of sandwich: the sandwich sandwich.

“Two pieces of bread with a piece of bread in between.”

No, we cant have THAT. We must have toppings!


Music also has toppings. But the relation between bread and toppings is the opposite here, at least in my view.

The “bread” is the first, most important and essential ingredient while the toppings are secondary, if not downright distracting and disturbing.

What are musical “toppings” then? Clearly not avocado or cheese. Musical toppings are sometimes visual but in classical music most often mental elements. (I would say the opposite situation in popular music. Lots of images, and “image”, less learned musical analysis.)


  • Facts
  • musical analysis
  • history
  • anecdotes

We need a word for this, to distinguish bread from topping. I have coined the word “facdotal” for it, not perfect but not bad. The facdotal elements of music are not something we hear as musical sound waves. Still they get into our heads, as thought waves, concepts, ideas, theories.

And since our heads are used to and sometimes enjoy facdotal stuff (anecdotes can be great fun) we don’t mind our bread being covered with this fare.

Unless we do. And I do.

We know that hi-fi aficionados dislike noise and care very much about removing distortion. They are on a quest for clean, authentic sound. I can understand that, because I also want to remove distortion, but at another level. Not from the stereo or loudspeaker but from my head. This distortion is to a large degree toppings.


The facdotal toppings of music can be seen as clothes. Let me be somewhat erotic and say that I often prefer my music naked. No cheese, no opus numbers, no anecdotes, no guru, no method. Just the plain essential bread of music. Music in itself, musik an sich.

Let me give two examples of oh so common facdotal toppings. They come from Wikipedia and concern Chopin’s Ballads. Let’s see what kind of mental invitations these comments are sending out, what they want us to think about.

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, composed in 1831 during the composer’s early years in Vienna, was a reflection of his loneliness in the city far away from his home in Poland, where the November Uprising, a war against the Russian Empire’s
oppression of his people, was happening.

  • “early years in Vienna”
  • “reflection of loneliness”
  • “far from home”
  • “November uprising”
  • “oppression of people”

Quite a lot of heavy topping I would say, in just one sentence.

Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, dating from 1841, is dedicated to Pauline de Noailles. The inspiration for this Ballade is usually claimed to be Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine, also known as Świtezianka.There are structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” which was inspired by the weather in Majorca during Chopin’s disastrous vacation with George Sand. These include a repetitive A-flat which modulates into a G-sharp during the C-sharp minor section.

  • Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine [should I Google it?]
  • Świtezianka [?]
  • structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” [okay…]
  • the weather in Majorca [ah, the weather!]
  • disastrous vacation with George Sand [George? I didn’t know Chopin was gay…]

And to top THAT let’s add the final touch of some technical jargon:

  • repetitive A-flat which modulates
  • the C-sharp minor section

That was a mouthful…

SandwichPlease understand that I am no enemy of knowledge or culture. Knowing things seldom hurt. However, thinking about what we know (or think we know; many anecdotes are just good stories) while at the same time absorbing music can obscure the essence and the “bread” of it.

That’s it for now, I am out of mental gas…. No final summing up, you have to do that yourself. Maybe over a big juicy pastrami sandwich.

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