How Music Means So Much

by Thomas Brett

Understanding how music means so much is difficult business, largely because music is a slippery phenomenon.  One of its longstanding mysteries is how it can have such deeply felt meanings for us: when we listen to music (or even listen while we make it), it just seems to be a sensuous stream of sound full of emotional resonance.  Music seems to channel our feelings and desires, sometimes even leading us to sentiments we didn’t know were out there.  Music is a technology for transgression as well as a virtual space for modelling social relations in the real world.  Music is a social glue, an environment enhancer, and a kaleidoscope of codes we seem to get–intuitively.  Music can compel us to dance, or stop us dead in our tracks, imploring us to be still.  When one musician compliments the work of another and says “that’s deep, man” it’s not for lack of words (or the pursuit of hipness) that she uses the word “deep.”  As an experience, music really is deep: it feels bottomless its ability to enhance and energize us, to give us something to flow along to.  So, music is slippery.

Over the years, many writers have tried to pin music down and unpack how it weaves its spell.  In Sound and Symbol (1959), Victor Zuckerkandl explores the metaphysical basis of music and how it offers a way for us to access a realm of feelings not normally accessible to our consciousness.  For example, discussing a passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Zuckerkandl unpacks the space between the physical/acoustical and psychic/emotional components of a melody to reveal a third attribute that could be described as a kind of mystical dynamism:

“The two components, then, are present—the physical, the acoustical tone and the psychic, the emotional tone; but the melody, the music, as we know, is in neither of these.  What we hear when we hear melody is simply not F#, G, A, etc., plus “solemn repose,” tone plus emotion, physical plus psychic, but, with that and beyond it, a third thing, which belongs to neither the physical nor the psychic context: 3, 4, 5—a pure dynamism, tonal dynamic qualities.  It is not two components, then, which make up musical tone, but three.  The words we use to describe this third component—words such as force, equilibrium, tension, direction—significantly such as neither of the two sides claims for itself alone and, consequently, may well refer to a separate realm between the two, a realm of pure dynamics.  What makes a musical tone is so much the work not of the physical and not of the psychic component but of the third, a purely dynamic component…” (pp. 59-61).

In The Language Of Music (1959), Deryck Cooke argues that tonal music constitutes a kind of emotional language and that (European classical) composers over the past few hundred years have drawn on a shared lexicon of melodies and harmonies to convey specific feelings and affect listeners in intended ways. Cooke proposes the idea that music is a language and that specific musical gestures–a falling minor third say–have corresponding meanings.  But it’s difficult to ever prove this kind of relationship in music.

The conductor Leonard Bernstein takes a view of musical dynamism similar to that of Zuckerkandl (minus the mysticism).  For Bernstein, the meaning of a piece of music (or put another way: the feelings generated by it) is simply the by-product of its own materials transforming themselves over time. Umberto Eco observes that music is a semiotic system but without content with fixed meaning.  Similarly, Roland Barthes describes music as a field of signification and yet not a coherent system of signs.  In his book Repeated Takes (1999), Michael Chanan says that music “leads a socially charged life” and “creates a special and unique space” in which social subjectivities can be constructed, mixed, suspended, and dissolved in music’s “fluid and fluctuating evocation of sentiment” (31).  In another book, From Handel To Hendrix (1994), Chanan observes that music is “a language of sonic gesture” (23) whose “fluid mixture of different levels in the way [it] communicates produces great semiological complexity, for each level leaves traces of different kinds to produce a confusion of signs extremely complex to unravel” (38).

Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin says that music “is denied referential specificity and cognitive differentiation, but is profound in content: its form leads us beyond the boundaries of the acoustical sound production, but does not lead us into an axiological void–content here is, at base, ethical.”  Bakhtin’s work on the nature of speech utterances can also be applied to a view music making as a special kind of communication.  From this perspective, a musical “utterance” is a dialogical social act–dialogical because it is in dialogue with other utterances (through allusion, quotation, or even through transgression and differentiation).  For Bakhtin, observes Michael Chanan (1994), cultural production is always part of a social conversation happening at a specific time and place.  For Bakhtin, musical utterances are never “neutral” in the sense of having some kind of autonomy from our everyday lives, but are “completely shot through with intentions, purposes and ideologies, which constitute both context and subtext” (42).  Building on Bakhtin, the semiologist Julia Kristeva describes the relationships among (musical) texts as intertextuality.  As Chanan observes, for Kristeva the text is a space that links the writer (composer/performer), the reader (listener), and other texts.

In the late 1980s, some musicologists began considering music as a signifying practice.  These so-called “new musicologists” borrowed interpretive techniques from literary theory, gender studies, philosophy, and other disciplines to consider music as a kind of text as well as a cultural practice whose gestures (chord progressions, rhythmic structures, timbre, melodies, and large-scale forms) create subjectivities and conjure feelings and meanings.  Following Barthes, these musicologists consider music a field of signification awaiting our careful interpretation.

The work of new musicology was in part a response to the discipline’s formalist tradition of focusing on “the music itself” while ignoring matrices of meaning “beyond the acoustic” (as Robert Fink puts it in his book Repeating Ourselves).  And it was the new musicologists who reminded us that music is not (and never was) an autonomous discourse, but rather fully enmeshed in the histories and social lives of people–people with subjectivities and identities, gendered desires, and bodies.  Moreover, these musicologists point out that musical and sonic discourses always play a part in broader patterns and cultural formations that Raymond Williams might call “structures of feeling.”  Some of my most stimulating and thought-provoking  reading about music has taken place among the pages of books by the new musicologists, especially Susan McClary (Feminine Endings, Conventional Wisdom), Robert Walser (Running With The Devil) and Robert Fink (Repeating Ourselves) among others.  I would also have to add to this list Michael Chanan (Musica Practica, From Handel to Hendrix), Simon Frith (Performing Rites), and Christopher Small (Musicking) who have written eminently sensible books.

There are also other approaches to understanding the power of music to capture and hold our attention. In 1971 the anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong wrote a book titled The Affecting Presence which takes a view of art objects (and we could include music here) as material presences imbued with affective energy. Drawing on his understanding of Yoruba expressive culture (especially Yoruban sculpture), Armstrong argues that artworks contain “the direct metaphoric realization of the characteristics of energy…a sense and deep fabric of metaphoric processes productive of energy.” For Armstrong, artworks are “enacting the very shape and energy” of a people’s collective consciousness (71).  When we come into contact with artworks–and I’d include here musical performances–that are so charged we co-resonate with this charge (we’re affected by the affect) and find meaning in the experience.

Another approach to unlocking music’s power is musicologist David Burrows’ work that views musical pieces and performances in terms of dynamical systems theory.  Dynamical systems theory is a field of mathematical study that attempts to describe the changes over time (that is, the behavior) that occurs in physical or artificial complex systems.  In his article, “A Dynamical Systems Perspective On Music” (1997), Burrows views music performance or an unfolding piece of music as a kind of dynamic, complex system and provides a play-by-play account of a cello piece by J.S. Bach. For Burrows, pieces of music change over time to maintain themselves as stable dynamical systems.

Finally, I have always wondered about the potential of applying anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick” ethnographic description to analyze musical utterances.  (See “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”.  In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 3-30.)  Geertz, remember, illustrated thick description as a means of distinguishing all the subtle shades if meaning that a single gesture such as an eye wink might take on in a given social milieu.  What might a musical thick description look and sound like?  Just as one would need much cultural insight to reveal the many levels of social meaning embedded in an eye wink, so too do we need to bring a broad understanding to reveal layers of musical gesture and signification.

Before I end, one final note by way of Michael Chanan. Even though music can seem like a language that we all understand, it isn’t.  Not only that, no two people understand the same music the same way, nor does any single music have universal meaning.  We inhabit a heterophony of musics, each speaking in its own voice:

“There is no universal musical language because the musical universe is completely heteroglot.  It consists in the proliferation of competing and intersecting voices which coexist within any given historical space: divergent dialects, each with its own repertoire of genres, the idioms of different generations, classes, genders, races and localities asserting their presence, and each contributing their
own utterances to the cultural heterophony of the times” (1994:106).

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