Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musical Semantics

I used to think that music had only elaborate and emotionally evocative syntax but unlike language, no denotive semantics. Looking into recent work however, it looks like the picture is a bit more complicated. The American musicologist L. B. Meyer made the distinction between designative meaning and embodied meaning. The former involves a reference to things outside the musical domain and the latter is about the significance that a passage of music can have for a listener in virtue of its own dynamic unfolding structure and its relation to the listener's musical knowledge and expectations. This is meaning in relation to parts of musical structure referring to other parts of itself or the whole. Expectations (implications) can be created and their fulfilment can be delivered, delayed or thwarted.
I had thought the designative component to be totally parasitic on the natural language and culture of the community of listeners. Certain motifs in music come to be associated with objects or events, for example a few notes of the 'Jaws' theme and we think of a menacing shark. This is a long way from the full blown semantics of natural language, since you cannot convey novel concepts and meanings via musical syntax without a direct association first. However, recent work by Stefan Koelsh suggests that music transfers much more semantic information than was previously thought: "Our results indicate that both music and language can prime the meaning of a word, and that music can, as language, determine physiological indices of semantic processing." from Nature Neuroscience 7(3), 2004: Music, Language and Meaning: Brain Signatures of Semantic Processing.