Having already turned to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutics in trying to address the problem of listening to music as a real-time process, I find it may be necessary to address the question of why a hermeneutic stance may be useful at all. After all, hermeneutics is basically about the act of understanding difficult texts. Originally, those texts were sacred; but, with the rise of the Enlightenment, the study extended to secular domains, such as literary, historical, and legal texts. The hermeneutic discipline, in turn, chose to tease out subtle differences in terms that we tend to take for granted when we use them informally, terms such as “expression,” “interpretation,” and “eloquence.”
When we shift our attention to music, we should have no trouble thinking of any artifact of music notation as a text. We may then ask whether or not any of the techniques or results of hermeneutic study will tell us anything about the connection between notation and performance on one side and the relationship between performance and listening on the other. One way to begin would be to try to unpack the different terms that Gadamer used in his approach to the understanding of texts.
He seems to treat “interpretation” as the most fundamental of those terms. This may be taken as a “semantic decoding” of the text, approaching the text as a representation of underlying ideas. Similarly, there is an underlying decoding of music notation, which amounts to translating a basic set of symbols into a schedule of auditory events, so to speak. Of course not all symbols admit of simple decoding. Even the position of a note on a staff has some degree of variation with regard to intonation unless one is playing an instrument, such as a piano or organ, that does not allow for that variation.
One thus advances from the decoding of symbols to what Gadamer called “everything that we have to get behind.” In other words there is the flow of events that can be traced to notation itself; but then there are other flows of events that are, in one way or another, the results of “personalization.” “Expression” is Gadamer’s way of trying to get at the mindset behind the text, treating the text as a bridge between the mindset of the author and the mindset of the reader. In music the author is the composer, and the reader is the performer. However, the performer can also bring “eloquence,” which amounts to an alternative to expression. Ultimately, it is through eloquence that the performer then builds a bridge of his/her own to the listener.
This may be one way to approach what may be one of Gadamer’s key observations:
Rather, all reading involves application, so that a person reading a text is himself part of the meaning he apprehends. He belongs to the text that he is reading.
Through the act of expression, the performer arrives at a point at which (s)he “belongs” to the notation at the foundation of the music being performed. However, that is not the end of the story, because it is through the act of eloquence that the listener may then belong to those phenomena perceived through the act of listening.
Granted, this strays pretty far from the familiar path that we usually encounter when addressing the “sensemaking” of symbol systems. Rather, it may be a path that explicitly recognizes the need for the performer to find a subjective layer behind the notated music and the need for the listener to find a social layer behind the actions of the performer. From that point of view, Gadamer has proposed an approach to hermeneutics that both teases out just what those layers are and then tries to find the right way to characterize how they interact.