Musical semantics is of a similar type to poetic semantics. This does not mean that either subject is necessarily opaque to scientific understanding, but that we may be mistaken to seek for musical meanings in the same way as psychologists have so far attempted to elucidate the semantics of normal speech.This reminded me that any such question that I pose about syntax may also be asked about semantics.
My guess is that many readers will nod enthusiastically at the first sentence in that quote. Certainly, there are differences in how we try to grasp the semantics of:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?as opposed to (for example):
If you are going by the pharmacy, can you pick up my prescription?I would probably even suggest that the distinction goes beyond John L. Austin's speech act theory and probably just as far beyond the efforts of Jürgen Habermas to generalize Austin's efforts into a "theory of communicative action." Indeed, rather than raising the question about semantics, we may do well to ask the broader question of whether or not the acts of making music can be taken as instances of such "communicative action." About three years ago I tried to take on this issue on my national site for Examiner.com with an article entitled "Acting to communicate and communicating to act." Looking back on that article, however, I realize that, at that time, I was writing about how musicians communicate among themselves when engaged in such acts of making music, rather than any question about whether or not the music itself communicates.
One way to approach this broader question is through what has become my favorite joke about John Cage:
Q: Mr. Cage, what is your composition 4'33" about?This is one of those cases where a clever play on words may home in on "ground truth" more effectively than all the resources of just about any approach to what we would call "music theory." Part of that ground truth may have to do with the fact that, while it may make sense to talk about there being some kind of "engagement" between performers and their audience, the nature of that engagement is too far removed from the axiomatic foundations of Habermas' theory to be considered as a "communcative action;" and the same may be said of the relationship between a poet and his/her reader or listener.
A: Well, it is about four minutes and thirty-three seconds long.
Sloboda's sentence thus manages to weasel out of a difficult situation while, at the same time, homing in (perhaps inadvertently) on a fundamental principle of the act of making music. I tend to agree that studying that principle and its implications is not "necessarily opaque to scientific understanding." However, I would prefer to identify "scientific understanding" with "consistent reasoning," rather than identifying it merely with disciplined data collection and interpretation. If I were pressed to say more about the nature of such reasoning, I would, at least at the present time, follow the advice of Ludwig Wittgenstein and "pass over" that matter "in silence." In that silence, however, my mind will be churning over the related questions in the hope that, eventually, I can break that silence with at least a modicum of confidence.