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.


Sam said...

This is interesting. I'm not a music buff or anything, but there have been lots of times when I've listened to a piece of instrumental music and thought listening to it was a lot like listening to a story. I felt like something was being said, but I couldn't figure out what it was. It made sense even though I couldn't understand it. I couldn't put my finger on why music seemed that way to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure if this fits into the concept of the blog, but just to pick up on the instrumental music telling a story, I made a video for YouTube a while back after hearing a similar comment. From John Williams (who did the Jaws theme too, actually) talking about the Star Wars trilogy, he commented that the music told the entire story.

So, I took the iconic themes of the prequel films (meant to do the same for the originals, but never got around to it) and mixed them together to see if it worked - it's a bit crude, but you get the idea:

In the end, I don't think film scores *do* tell a story to the extent Williams said, simply because their original composition is there to complement what's on screen, rather than actually take the lead role in the narrative. But I don't dismiss the ability to put a story down in simply instrumental music.

Psiomniac said...

In order to deliver a full blown narrative aurally I think we need the developed semantic apparatus of ordinary language. Music lacks the ability to convey simple concepts that we take for granted in ordinary language. For example I don't see how a musical passage could embody a counterfactual conditional, but in English that's easy: If I'd known you were coming, I'd have baked a cake.

On the other hand it seems that despite the skepticism of linguists music can transfer specific music concepts, or at least the study I linked to provides some evidence for that. It isn't enough to spin a yarn, but if certain musical passages can suggest 'heroism' for example, then this casts some light on why film scores or programme music like Hector Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique' have the forms that they do.