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Music and Meaning

Seminar ListAbstract • PreparationMain Text


What, if anything, does music actually mean? Opinions are many and varied about this, and it is probably not insignificant that these opinions are often divided in accordance with the outlook of those giving them. For instance, ask most music academics and they will emphasise the abstract, non-semantic view. According to this view music is a separate cognitive event with no relation to any other. This view is typified by Stravinsky's famous statement that (paraphrased):

Music can express nothing other than itself

Needless to say, this is not the view of the majority of people, nor, it would appear, the majority of psychologists.

The principle issue in musical semantics is whether we can establish analogous equivalences between music and some essentially non-musical phenomemon. Does music cause psychological effects which can be caused by other means, and does it do this in a systematic way?
The first position we might consider is that music simply has no semantics. On tis view, music is psychologyically self-contained, a separate species of psychological activity for which unique modes of representation have been developed. The suggestion...that people represent music in a tonal space such that notes are assigned harmonic functions within keys, is certainly different from any suggestion psychologists hae made about cognitive representations in other spheres.
Clearly, there is much in musical behaviour which can be accounted for by considering musical representation to be a closed sub-system with no essential links to other cognitive domains. This system merits study, is the principal topic of discussion in this book, and is the subject of the most prominent research initiatives in the area. owever, I believe that the available evidence forces us to accept that there is some 'leakage'. Musical experience is translated into other representational modes. Consider, for example the case of someone who has just listened to a performance of a long and complex symphonic work. It is quite possible that he or she cannot recall a single theme from the work...yet he or she certainly remembers something about the work, and can make some appropriate response to it. When this response is expressed in words it characteristically contains remarks about the substance of the music which are neither descriptive ('it was loud') nor reactive ('I liked it') but embody an attempt to characterize the music through metaphor ('It had the feeling of a long heroic struggle triumphantly resolved'). It seems less significant that people often disagree about their characterizations than that they nearly always have some comment to offer. This is not an arbitrary reaction, but a genuine attempt to describe some real thing or experience. For a great number of us, then, music has extra-musical meaning, however intangible.

John Sloboda The Musical Mind, p58-59, OUP 1985

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