Monday, May 26, 2014

How Can we Study Acts of Listening to Music?

Last Saturday, when I was trying to cope with the question of the "semantics" of music, I tried to home in on Jürgen Habermas' efforts to develop a theory of "communicative action." I suggested that, where music is concerned, the nature of the engagement that takes place between those who make music and those who listen to it carries more significance than more objective approaches to communication, which assume that some kind of "signal" is being passed from a "sender" to a "receiver." What is now known as the "mathematical theory of communication" is almost entirely about how what the receiver receives is basically identical to what the sender sends without acquiring any of the interference of "noise."

Where music is concerned, however, this theory may not rest on a useful set of premises. It may be hazardous to assume that listening to music involves some kind of "processing" of an "auditory signal" by brain or mind. Rather than thinking in terms of either the objective world of signals and noise or the psychological world of collecting data from reproducible experiments, it may be necessary to recognize that the act of listening is as much a matter of in-the-moment behavior as the act of making music is. This may require taking a stance that is more in the spirit of phenomenology, with its assumption that mind constructs neither more nor less than appearances, than in the spirit of cognitive psychology. As I have previously observed, this is a generalist approach that tends not to sit eill with those whose careers depend on their skills in practicing "normal science."

Nevertheless, it circles back on a theme I have tried to explore in the past. An appearance may best be viewed as the construct of an individual mind; and, because it is a mental construct, it does not lend itself to being reduced to a signal that can then be subjected to noise-free transmission. For better or worse, "transmission" can only be achieved by the effort of the individual to provide an "account" (which probably amounts to a "description") of that appearance. Such an act requires skill, and that skill may be important enough to be addressed by those who have committed themselves to educating future generations of serious listeners, such as would-be music critics. This may be where the real need to explore the relationship between language and music resides, simply because those "accounts" can only be grounded in language, rather than in the music itself. If this means that similar regions of brain are involved in these two acts, then so be it; but that involvement may not have anything to do with whether music is linguistic in nature (or whether language is musical in nature). It requires a new area of study that probably will not sit will with the "normal" scientific community.

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