Sunday, May 26, 2013

What Does Music Represent?

I was just roaming around the Web and ran across this fascinating clip:

What stopped me in my tracks was Prof. Searle's first comment about Wittgenstein's picture theory of meaning where he mentions that, according to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, "if language was to represent reality, if sentences were to represent states of affairs, then there had to be something in common between the sentence and the state of affairs."

If you read this blog very extensively, then you have run into other of my posts on the philosophy of music and in particular, the relationship between music and language and why music is not a language. Here is one post. Searle goes on to mention Wittgenstein's belief that the representation depends on a structural similarity. The interesting thing about this idea is that it might offer an insight into how music communicates--which it certainly seems to! Music certainly has structure, but what in the world does that structure mirror?

There is a lot of literature, though perhaps it could be better characterized as "loose talk" about the mystical significance of music. The philosopher Schopenhauer provides an example:
Music, for Schopenhauer, was the purest form of art because it was the one that depicted the will itself without it appearing as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds, therefore as an individual object. According to Daniel Albright, "Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself." [from Wikipedia]
Schopenhauer's idea of the Will is rather too Idealistic for me. But if music does not "embody the will", then what does it represent? There are isolated instances of music mirroring the world directly; Beethoven's imitation of the songs of three different birds in his Pastoral Symphony, for example. And we might make a case for dance music somehow mirroring the movements of the dancer, though you could probably make a better case for the dancer's mirroring the movements of the music! And that itself might give us a clue. Music is partly in the world and partly out of the world in the sense that language, with its intricate conventions of grammar, orthography and meaning is a reflection on the world and not the world itself.

Music has its conventions as well, but they are not conventions that govern meaning in the semantic sense, rather they are conventions of structure. Here are some examples:

  • no parallel fifths (a rule governing counterpoint)
  • sevenths resolve down
  • important sections of the piece are ended with a full cadence
  • in fugues, the subject is answered at the fifth
and so on. These rules are designed to have a number of uses. The one about parallel fifths is to avoid the empty and usually ugly sound they produce. The rule about sevenths is because of the general nature of suspensions, which resolve down because of their origins in counterpoint. The rule about cadences gives the harmonic structure of the music clarity as does the one about the fugal answer.

But none of these conventions governs musical expression itself. Think of them as rather guaranteeing a stable container for the expression. Also note that one would be hard pressed to find anything in the world that these structural conventions of music corresponds to. But we might have better luck with the expression. The philosopher Suzanne Langer, "regards a piece of music as something functioning as a symbol, and which can thereby create in our minds ideas related to feelings." [from here] Now, I'm not sure what that means exactly, but from other reading of Langer, my impression is that, for her, a listener to music comes to regard the musical events as symbols for emotional states because in terms of energy, gesture, pitch contour and so forth, they can be seen that way. As Shakespeare put it, music can have a "dying fall".

This gets us very close to Wittgenstein's picture theory of language. It might be possible to see music as a kind of sound-image of emotional states or moods. I have argued before that music does not depict actual "garden variety" emotions (in the phrase of Peter Kivy), because these kinds of emotions, such as anger or love have objects. We are always angry AT someone or ABOUT something. We are in love WITH someone. Music has no real-world objects in this sense (even if a composer were to say "this piece is entirely about my love for Wilma" that doesn't mean that we are hearing it that way!).

But in the sense of depicting non-specific moods and emotions, then I see it. Energetic music recalls energetic moods, languid music recalls languid moods. The thing is that so much, perhaps a majority, of music seems to be depicting or symbolizing moods that we don't have words for! If this piece of music can be seen as representing a mood of powerful energy and direction:

then how would you put into words the mood of this music:

Is that the Will of Schopenhauer? Or the slow thoughts of the crystalline beings that live on the moons of Jupiter? Is it simply musical ecstasy? It's my belief that there is a lot of music that mirrors the world to us, but a lot of music that doesn't, that seems to live in its own transcendent universe. We might treasure that music simply because it takes us completely out of our daily existence and into another place. It wouldn't be that hard to observe that a lot of musicians, such as Glenn Gould, playing the Bach contrapunctus above, barely seem to live in our world!

Ke$ha's music takes us to a party on Friday night:

But the music of Mozart often seems to come to us from another reality entirely:

And that's all I have to say about that today.

No comments: