Approaches to Meaning in Music (Musical Meaning and Interpretation)

Music as Discourse
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When 'gesture' is found it is not, then, merely structure, but a structure interpreted with physiological reference and affective connotation" Cumming Important here is not only the claim that the interpretant needs to be corporeal, but also that affective response is a key part of structural relationship, and that the conventional bifurcation between these cannot be sustained Cumming But their relationship needs to be kept clear, to allow for the experience of the ineffable to remain unreduced.

An understanding of musical gesture may be an embodied understanding, especially for the performer who does not attempt to articulate verbally what it is that he or she knows when realizing a structure through physical movement" Cumming I should also note at this point that an independent but substantially-similar theory has been put forth by Shepherd and Wicke Following Zuckerkandl , they view musical sound as a continually-shifting energetic texture, amenable to being heard as iconic with bodily and affective states.

Their principal contribution, in my opinion, is the careful manner in which they analyze the actual perception of these iconic relations, and the importance of this perceptual modality for musical signification. Shepherd and Wicke situate the perception of musical gesture in what they call the sonic saddle, which is "the continually unfolding sound-image Although the connection is not explored by Shepherd and Wicke, it can be noted that the sonic saddle bears a strong resemblance to William James' specious present.

For Shepherd and Wicke, musical gestures are perceived in the first instance as affective states. In other words, Shepherd and Wicke situate affective iconicity as a basic perceptual mechanism. This is not to say that their theory is essentialist, and throughout the book they are at pains to explain that the immediacy of gestural interpretation does not amount to a strong determination of musical meaning, for at least two reasons: the relevant habits of perception are in part learned rather than being completely innate, and the complexity of musical signification always leaves room for individualistic synthesis and negotiation of meaning.

Given their phenomenological orientation, Shepherd and Wicke explore many issues of subjectivity relevant to the discussion of musical personae, and given their background in cultural studies, they also do much to situate the theory of gestural and affective iconicity in a broader culture-theoretic framework, which I will not explore here, but to which I would refer the reader enthusiastically.

Like ineffable musical meanings, musical affects and personae are not completely arbitrary, but also not strongly determined.

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As a result, questions of verifiability and truth tend to naturally arise whenever they are discussed. Cumming deals at length with problems of intersubjective agreement in the affective characterization of music: If I say 'gentle pathos', someone else says 'abject grief' and a third gets really poetic with 'ineluctable desolation' where is the agreement about content? Can there be a difference in the language used to describe expression, and yet an accord about what is expressed?

Acknowledging these variations, the level of verbal agreement does seem to rest with a generic term, the category of pathos or 'sadness'.

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At a finer level, it is simpler to point out moments of change, intensification, or reversal [of expressive nuance] than it is to find a shared emotive terminology for changing degrees of intensity in these moments. A possible variation in the choice of descriptive terms by different people does not, however, render these nuances an ineffable mystery It merely establishes a variation in individual response to the intensity of a shifting musical affect, whose formal characteristics can be agreed about in an uncomplicated manner Cumming a: Cumming is not the only worker to be concerned with questions of this sort.

In general, musical semioticians remain primarily interested in describing trans-personal, intersubjectively-shared sorts of musical meaning, maintaining the usually tacit assumption that the stylistic competencies they posit need to be verifiable and consistently applied by social actors in order to be valid. I will not contest this point, since it is part of a coherent and tenable position.

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But I will suggest in passing that it is not, for me, nearly as large a concern. Beginning as I do from a dialogic theory of subjectivity, and concerned as I am with the multiplicity of reading practices to be found within and between interpretive communities which are never homogeneous , I am not interested in consistency for its own sake, so much as in finding a consistent framework within which to understand the mechanics of variation.

The distinction I am making here may ultimately prove more rhetorical than theoretical, insofar as disagreement is only possible within a common frame of reference as pointed out by Frith , Fish , and many others , and insofar as a single competency can include room for polysemy and negotiation of meaning.

But it is still worth noting that semioticians of affect are still on occasion troubled by lingering echoes of positivism, and that their concern is not entirely necessary. Cumming also broaches another subtlety of affect theory, one which to me is more interesting. She revives the question, posed earlier by Langer among others, of why we would listen to music which portrayed undesirable affective states if it actually made us experience those feelings Cumming a: The related question is, do we actually feel the expressive content of music, or do we detect it in a less emotionally-engaged way?

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Cumming suggests something intermediate, that musical involvement "has its own way of contextualizing affect" Cumming a: For example, in the case of works that evoke grief: I do not deny that in playing or listening to these works I 'feel' their pathos in some sense. I would not choose to play them at a time when I am already experiencing grief, if there were no connection between their expressive content and the state I am in. If, in this state, I 'mirror' what the music provides, I do not, however, become more saddened, but find a greater objectification of the grief.

The musical appearance of pathetic 'sighs' within a context of relative stability, and without a referential object, allows for a recognition of intense passion, and yet the gaining of distance and perspective. Music allows a framing of emotion as distant from immediate life implications, and a concomitant gain in 'perspective' on what is expressed, even while the 'mirroring' effect of identification with the emotion is going on" Cumming a: This suggestion bears strong relationships to Lacanian psychoanalysis and to theories in the semiotics of acting, both of which Cumming explores Cumming a: Actors maintain a double-awareness of the emotion they are portraying, on one level actually experiencing it, but on another staying at a distance, having a semiotic consciousness of the fact that they are mirroring it in order to portray it.

If it is possible to both mirror a gesture, experiencing its affective content, and to be aware of its conventional standing within a style, its 'sadness' or even tragic pathos may be framed and made tolerable" Cumming a: The most recent work on the semiotics of musical gesture and affect of which I am aware is by Hatten Feeling that certain details of expressive nuance were escaping the grasp of his earlier analysis of Beethoven, Hatten develops a theory of gesture substantially similar to that which we have seen in the work of Lidov and Cumming, and incorporates it into his existing hermeneutic model.

For Hatten, gesture is a concept that can help explain the "temporal and textural gestalt of shaping and shading" in musical expression. His definition of gesture is basically the same as that of Lidov: a gesture is a molar bodily time-form which is marked for significance Hatten Hatten notes that, physiologically speaking, there are many degrees of freedom in gestures, and in addition, different gestures can often have similar effects. For these reasons, we can't expect an exhaustive and specific description of which gestures have which effects musically Hatten Interestingly, in looking for source material on the study of gesture, Hatten takes a tack opposite to that of Lidov.

Lidov wants to consider movement as a general category, which he carefully distinguishes from formalized contexts such as dance, where the formal expectations tend to limit vocabulary, emphasize style, and cater to contexts of visual reception Lidov By contrast, Hatten feels that we should "draw on what we can learn of culturally conditioned human gestural languages, especially those that are preserved due to their artistic or rhetorical development" Hatten Also, Hatten is deeply occupied with the question of how to use gesture to integrate scores to create an appropriate gestural layer in the performance of a scored work , and with the historical reconstruction of gestural languages.

As a result, much of his work is specific to a particular pianistic performance tradition, whereas the work of Lidov and Cumming has a slightly broader applicability. Hatten articulates an important critique of Lidov's earlier work on musical embodiment Lidov In this earlier work, Lidov suggested that while musical signs often have a corporeal origin, the more elaborated musical signs and by implication the more interesting and aesthetically valuable ones are increasingly abstracted from their bodily origins.

This is not so different from what we have heard from Cumming that indices of simply bodily states become representamena for further icons of more elaborated states , but Lidov adds a value judgement which many workers have found problematic: really high musical achievement amounts to a kind of flight from the bodily origins of musical signs. It is to this implication that Hatten responds when he writes: Instead of sublimation, perhaps we should be seeking a kind of emergence whereby the gesture maintains its characteristic potency while gaining a factor of generalization or type-formation rather than abstraction If gestural expressiveness is an essential motivator for compositional form and structure I would also note here as have Hatten and Cumming in other places that the theory of embodied cognition presented by Lakoff and Johnson forms a very good fit with this view of the body as present at all levels of musical signification.

7 Essentials of Artistic Interpretation

In a recent article, I have explored the use of Mark Johnson's image schemata in musical analysis, see Echard Hatten goes on to present a list of eight presuppositions for a semiotic theory of gesture. These mostly summarize points made elsewhere in the literature, but his list is admirably complete and concisely stated. The highlights include: "Gesture is movement interpretable as a sign, whether intentional or not, and as such it communicates information about the gesturer.

There are many biological, neurological, and other scientific connections to be explored here. A 'frozen motion' or pose may reveal the energy and affect with which it is invested, including that required to move into the pose. The posture thus 'reverberates' with the resonance of the implied gesture of an agent" Hatten Hatten goes on to consider the possibility of gestural troping, in order to allow gesture to be active at all levels of his hermeneutic system.

Musical Meaning Revisited

This concludes my overview of what I take to be the most impressive achievement of musical semiotics in the s: the development of hermeneutic and narrative theories of music which can begin to reintegrate formal analysis with critical reflection, coupled with an embodied theory of exactly how musical personae and affects are constructed and experienced.

But despite the admirable scope of this achievement, it is just a start. As I noted early in my review, the branch of musical semiotics which has developed this work is strongly connected to traditions of Western art music aesthetics which have fallen considerably behind in terms of cultural theory and the next step is, in my opinion, the deployment of these models of musical signification towards a consideration of musical practice framed as an interested, intersubjective human activity deeply connected to questions of power, gender, class, and other issues engaged on a regular basis by cultural theory.

In order to edge back in this direction, in an admittedly roundabout way, I would like to consider an article by Monelle , which I think graphically shows how, far from confusing the issue, a more practice-oriented theory could at this point clarify some of the difficulties still left unresolved in musical semiotics. Returning to a favourite topic of early poststructuralism, Monelle asks how we might want to define a musical text. He points out the many difficulties that have emerged in literary studies in connection with this question, and suggests not entirely seriously, as it turns out , the following: In a medium like ours, that is supposed to be self-referential or to have no meaning at all, the discernment of a text will seem less dependent on intention or interpretation.

In music, the meaning is simply whatever the music means; the question of 'true' meaning is no more than empty talk. It ought to be easier to define the text in music The score is, perhaps, the text. This would seem to match the traditional musicological view, in which scholars try to establish and authoritative text for music of the past. By this, they mean the musical aspects that can be written, and indeed were written by the composer.

Of course, the realization of this score requires much cultural knowledge; but this study, called 'performance practice', is not considered a textual study Monelle Monelle is not happy with this option, nor with several other simple ideas about what a text might be.

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The text is not form plus content, but the overcoming of form and content Many questions are raised by this definition, only one of which is deeply engaged by Monelle: If the text is that boundary where dialectics is resolved into a monism, where self and otherness confront each other, what is to be found on that boundary? Does it exist? Can it be known or interpreted?

Like so many deconstructive ideas, this merging point of the text seems to be just nothing at all Monelle In other words, if the text is understanding but understanding can be infinitely deconstructed, then the text vanishes. However, at least in the case of music, this is where the strength of the art form lies. In an apparent weakness, then, music reveals that it is actually more in tune with the basic nature of textuality than are many other, seemingly more transparently textual media: The text, whether literary or musical, is profoundly abstract.

It is not the score, not a performance, not an intention. It is also--and this is vitally important--not the work. The musical work is something somebody has made; it is a poiesis But the text does not merely occupy a space defined by the composer's work.

Its space is chiefly defined by certain other factors: in particular, by the universe of texts, which is to say by intertextuality" Monelle According to this view, texts are nodes in intersecting networks of intertextual reference: The musical text, then, is a boundary between inside and outside, rendered problematic by the flow across the boundary and the interdependence of inside and outside. It is also an epistemic nexus, the meeting point of all its significations, indexical, iconic, and symbolic. It is not a transcendent essence, an abstract pattern, an object, an 'experience' Monelle This formulation is entirely brilliant, but I cannot help feeling that something has gone very wrong.

But I still feel that the result is too complicated and not illuminating. And I would suggest that this happens because Monelle, like most other semioticians who work within the Western art music tradition, chooses not to adopt a more culture-theoretic view of the subject. The one possibility that Monelle does not consider is that the text is a practice in Bourdieu's sense of the term. Textuality is a construct maintained through socially-determined reading practices. Texts are the bounded entities upon which that cultural work is performed, and a particular text is usually not difficult to define if you start with a particular instance of use.

True, the text outside of the context of use is nothing at all, but that does not mean that it is in the basic nature of a text to be nothing. It means that the text is an constituted as an object in the course of actual, situated, interested acts of reading, and needs to be analyzed with respect to these. There is nothing forced or unnatural about Monelle's formulation--it is where you are naturally led if you try to think about textuality without framing it in terms of social practice.

Which is why I would suggest that certain semiotic questions can only be clearly addressed when they are so framed. Cultural Studies and Popular Culture I do not criticize the Monelle article in order to single out Monelle, because I find his work to be solid and useful. I do it in order to highlight a certain lack in classical musical semiotics. For example, Pederson has also been critical of the tendency shown by some writers to suggest that "music somehow makes its own narrative, instead of reiterating that it is people who draw upon their own experience when they describe music Acknowledging the role of the listener, and further recognizing that the listener cannot be isolated as an 'ideal listener', encourages recognizing and incorporating the fact that narrative is meaningful human behaviour as well as formal structure" Pederson Agawu has also commented on the tendency to replace real listeners with fictitious ones, and he is also somewhat critical of this decision.

But he points out a practical reason why the decision is so often made: Music analysis can scarcely proceed without postulating a listener, yet the difficulty of specifying the relevant features of a listening subject has led writers to invoke a variety of constructs, some of them hypothetical, many of them designed to evade the challenge of providing an ethnographically secure characterization.

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Thus we have the naive listener, the competent listener, even the ideal listener Agawu It must be conceded that the avoidance of real social practice is sometimes grounded in theoretical rather than practical concerns. Many semioticians feel that semiotic systems have their own particular mode of existence and efficacity, and that it is not necessary to provide them with ethnographic grounding.


Namespaces Article Talk. If it is possible to both mirror a gesture, experiencing its affective content, and to be aware of its conventional standing within a style, its 'sadness' or even tragic pathos may be framed and made tolerable" Cumming a: Cambridge Introductions to Music. An understanding of musical gesture may be an embodied understanding, especially for the performer who does not attempt to articulate verbally what it is that he or she knows when realizing a structure through physical movement" Cumming D'Erlanger divulges that the Arabic music scale is derived from the Greek music scale, and that Arabic music is connected to certain features of Arabic culture, such as astrology. Nattiez, Jean-Jacques