Saturday, May 24, 2014

Does it Really Make Sense to Talk about the "Semantics" of Music?

Every now and then I browse through past posts to this site to see whether or not some of the things I have written in the past still have some validity and whether or not there are some that would be better off "forgotten" (since that particular action now seems to be of great interest to the European Union). I discovered that it has been a little less than a year since I wrote a post entitled "Does it Really Make Sense to Talk about the 'Syntax' of Music?" I encountered it as a result of the time I am currently putting into reading John A. Sloboda's The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music, where I recently encountered the following observation:
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 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?
A: Well, it is about four minutes and thirty-three seconds long.
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.

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.


jones said...

I think a lot of the "semantics" of music is no longer accessible to us, as a result of Modernism's attack on Renaissance values.

The "hamonia mundi" of Kepler, the theory of microcosm and macrocosm, the harmonic ratios of the orbits of the planets, lie at the base of our (seven-note) musical scale.

Astronomy, astrology, physics, geometry, cosmology, theology, and music were systematized by Robert Fludd in his Technical History of the Two Worlds, which integrated an elaborate musical system into his "Temple of Music" which was itself based on John Dee's interpretation of Vitruvian mechanics:

The congruence of these diverse fields in antiquity was stated quite clearly by the "Universal Man" Vitruvius, De Architectura, Book I, Chapter 1:

"In all matters, but particularly in architecture, there are these two points:—the thing signified, and that which gives it its significance. That which is signified is the subject of which we may be speaking; and that which gives significance is a demonstration on scientific principles. It appears, then, that one who professes himself an architect should be well versed in both directions. He ought, therefore, to be both naturally gifted and amenable to instruction. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him be educated, skilful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history, have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens."

from Wikipedia:

While medieval philosophers spoke metaphorically of the "music of the spheres", Kepler discovered physical harmonies in planetary motion. He found that the difference between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of a planet in its orbit approximates a harmonic proportion. For instance, the maximum angular speed of the Earth as measured from the Sun varies by a semitone (a ratio of 16:15), from mi to fa, between aphelion and perihelion. Venus only varies by a tiny 25:24 interval (called a diesis in musical terms).[8] Kepler explains the reason for the Earth's small harmonic range:

The Earth sings Mi, Fa, Mi: you may infer even from the syllables that in this our home misery and famine hold sway.[9]
The celestial choir Kepler formed was made up of a tenor (Mars), two bass (Saturn and Jupiter), a soprano (Mercury), and two altos (Venus and Earth). Mercury, with its large elliptical orbit, was determined to be able to produce the greatest number of notes, while Venus was found to be capable of only a single note because its orbit is nearly a circle.[10]

At very rare intervals all of the planets would sing together in "perfect concord": Kepler proposed that this may have happened only once in history, perhaps at the time of creation.[11] Kepler reminds us that harmonic order is only mimicked by man, but has origin in the alignment of the heavenly bodies:

Stephen Smoliar said...

I agree that Modernism mounted some pretty strong attacks on those Renaissance values. However, my own experiences have led me to believe that both points of view missed the mark in the same way. What I mean is that both schools of thought tried to "explain the nature of music" in terms of purely objective grounds for argumentation. The problem is that those grounds never acknowledge that the practice of making music is a more important area of inquiry than the results of that practice. Even Sloboda, with his firm allegiance to the "normal science" of cognitive psychology, is willing to recognize, on the basis of his experience as a performing musician (and a tentative composer), that process carries a lot more of the weight than product.

Allen Newell seemed to delight in the metaphor of the drunk looking for his keys under a lamppost. He (the drunk) knows that he dropped them on the other side of the street; but the light is better under the lamp. Newell was another one of those "normal science" types in cognitive psychology; and, as a result, he was always looking for sources of "hard data." He never seemed to recognize that the precious "knowledge level" he chose to penetrate might be more related to what intelligent individuals do, rather than the objective data emerging through protocols or any number of sophisticated approaches to measurement, all of which became fodder for computer simulations that made for some formidable publications but never really told us anything about mind, whether the mind of a physician trying to treat a patient with enigmatic symptoms or the mind of Sloboda trying to compose a new piece for the chorus he conducted.

While there was an elegant poetry to Kepler's argument, I have been more interested in taking Joseph Yasser's A Theory of Evolving Tonality as a point of departure (and probably not one of conclusion). Yasser suggested that the earliest form of gamut was the pentatonic scale, which can basically be constructed as a successive series of the 3:2 ratios that define the perfect fifth. He then suggests that the diatonic scale "evolved" from the pentatonic.

While I am not sure that evolution is the right mechanism (or, for that matter, metaphor), I think it is important to note that the semitone is absent from the pentatonic scale. To use the sol-fa labels of that Wikipedia article, the pitches of the pentatonic scale (in the order of their appearance in the harmonic series) do, sol, re, la, mi. What is missing is the ti-do semitone, which arises when you go a perfect fifth above mi. (That 16:15 ratio gets you from ti to do; fa is disconcertingly remote if you are trying to work only with octaves and fifths! For that matter, ti is constructed by compounding 3:2 over 5:4, adding a perfect fifth to a major third. The mi you get from the pentatonic scale is not the same as the one you get from the 16:15 ratio.)

To get away from the math, I would speculate that those trying to sing according to a pentatonic gamut felt a need to single out a "home pitch" (do) and then identify it through the approach of a leading tone (ti). How fa got into the picture is harder to explain, possibly as a result of allowing mi to serve as a "secondary" leading tone. Having introduced the leading tone as a melodic element, one can imagine a variety of ways in which ti-do would "evolve" into the dominant-tonic (V-I) progression. (I am not yet sure how to imagine this, but I worry about it from time to time!)

I suppose this all comes down to the premise that I would rather look at Schenker's Ursatz and try to "get it right this time," rather than speculate on the orbits of the spheres!