Sunday, September 6, 2015

Theories of Meaning in Music

It has been said that philosophers are people who are perplexed by things everyone else takes for granted. Ontology, the study of being qua being, for example, asks questions such as if every single element in a structure like a boat is replaced over the years, one year the sails, another year the mast and piecemeal over many years, perhaps, all of the pieces making up the hull, is it the same boat? That might seem like quite a silly question, but the same applies to human beings. I think I read somewhere that due to natural processes, every single molecule of the human body is replaced every seven years. Are you the same person you were seven years ago? Well, sure you are! But, and here is where the philosophy comes in, what is it, exactly, that is the same? The structure? What do we mean by that? The memories? Who exactly is having those memories? Is there some sort of over-arching non-material being or pattern that causes the structure to endure even though all the molecules are swapped out? Something like the artisans that replace all the parts of the boat as they wear out? And what do we call this? The soul? Someone once said that the most absurd theory of all is that all there is, is a swirl of atoms in the void. Just like Socrates, I'm going to leave you hanging, tormented by these questions, so I can move on to my actual topic: a philosophical look at theories of meaning in music.

I have talked about meaning in music in a lot of posts here, but I just ran across an excellent summary in Beardsley's book on aesthetics and I would like to boil it down here as it puts the whole question into good perspective. He starts by posing the question does music have the capacity to mean as well as to be: can it represent or express things outside of music as do the representational arts? Composers are reluctant to say their music is meaningless, but they are very dodgy about saying what the meaning might be.

There are some trivial ways that music reminds us of other things:

  1. The music of a song reminds us of the words. His example is "how dry I am", but if I am melancholy sometimes the tune to Lennon's song "Don't Let Me Down" pops into my head.
  2. Music associated with certain occasions such as a national anthem, a funeral march or a hymn tune reminds us of the occasion. There were also tunes associated with certain tasks in the navy, such as hauling up the anchor, a category of "work" music. Perhaps the soundtrack used in a movie might bring to mind the scene such as Ravel's Bolero and Bo Derek in the movie "10" (sorry if that's before your time!).
  3. Music can have an imitative aspect. Any event that produces a sound can be imitated in music: birdsong, a brook, a spinning wheel, a thunderstorm and on and on.
But as I say, these are, considered from the point of view of the greatest examples of instrumental music, fairly trivial. However, it does lead one to consider whether music can imitate things that are not sounds such as the sea, clouds, a fairy, moonlight or, in the case of Honegger's "Pacific 231", a speeding locomotive. The theory that this is possible Beardsley calls the Image Evocation Theory of musical meaning. Much casual writing about music such as we find in program and liner notes, tends to adhere to this theory. Beardsley tests the theory by pointing out that it can only be true if the music exercises some degree of control over the images evoked. But of course, it doesn't, as a rule. If you play the same piece of music to ten people (without revealing to them the title, of course) they will likely come up with ten different images.

Here I would like to slightly depart from Beardsley's account to mention an actual experiment I performed. I was teaching a class in musical appreciation to about a hundred non-music majors and, without mentioning the composer or name of the piece, I played them the third movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12, the movement titled "Aurora" depicting the beginning of the Russian Revolution which was signaled by the cruiser Aurora which opened fire on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Here is that movement:

The results were fascinating. I asked everyone to simply tell me what they heard as if it were the soundtrack to a motion picture--tell me the plot, in other words. The vast majority of the responses said that the music depicted a struggle between good and evil, a gathering of forces, and that good triumphed! This was exactly what Shostakovich was aiming for, of course. This is one of his "patriotic" symphonies dedicated to Vladimir Lenin. But, and here is where we return to Beardsley's account, NO-ONE said that the music depicted a Russian armored cruiser, least of all the Aurora in particular! The reason for this is, while music can certainly powerfully suggest moods and feelings it cannot, except with a text in the form of lyrics, depict any particular object. Music can express serenity, but it cannot paint a picture of the Dalai Lama; it can suggest generalities, but not control the specifics. When Mendelssohn depicts fairies it is with music very different from that with which Tchaikovsky depicts fairies. So I think we can dispose of the Image Evocation Theory as being untrue to the facts.

The next one Beardsley mentions is the Expression Theory. A simple version of this might be "the scherzo of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 expresses joy". Let's have a listen:

Seems like a harmless enough claim. But what do we mean when we say it expresses joy? Do we mean that Beethoven felt joy when he wrote it and that emotion caused him to write it? Here we have to look at how we usually decide if someone is expressing joy or not. We recognize joy in things like facial expressions and demeanor. When we say someone is joyful we are recognizing it from our generalizations from many previous examples observed in ourselves and others. But this scherzo is a unique example and we can't generalize from a unique example. Also, we really have no evidence about Beethoven's state of mind when he wrote this movement. So, putting that aside, perhaps we mean rather that "the scherzo makes me feel joy when I hear it". The movement arouses the feeling of joy in the listener. Beardsley makes the point (one that I have made in the past) that without a specific concept or object, music cannot express a particular emotion like love or hate because these emotions take objects: we love someone or hate something in particular. So the scherzo may arouse feelings of energy or enthusiasm but not necessarily the specific emotion of joy. An example would be that in some cities shopping malls and plazas have taken to broadcasting classical music--pieces like the scherzo--to drive away loiterers and thugs from public spaces. Plainly the music is not arousing joy in these listeners!

A third possibility is that the theory is referring to what Beardsley calls "regional qualities of the music itself". The scherzo itself is joyful. This is a more aesthetic point of view as it distinguishes the expression found in artworks from simple venting of emotions as people normally do. In this view, the composer has embodied or objectified joy in his scherzo. This is a kind of synthesis for it is a compound of the ideas that the composer feels joy, and embodies it in his scherzo which the listeners then feel. Now, of course, the statement that the music is joyful has to be metaphorical, but it might still be a valid statement. The hidden assumption is that regional qualities of music (such as this quick, major mode theme in 3/4 with its bounding opening and incremental descent) are akin to human qualities. Is this true? Is it true of all music? Of some music?

And there I am going to leave you hanging, just like Socrates, because this post is long enough already. I will give Beardsley's answer to those questions in a future post.


Marc Puckett said...

I guess it is a given that when e.g. Handel makes Galatea sing of her utter disgust at Polyphemus ('go, monster, bid some other guest, I loath the host, I loath the feast') that we are right to read the presumed emotions into the music? and when Beardsley 'pos(es) the question, does music have the capacity to mean as well as to be: can it represent or express things outside of music...?' he is meaning instrumental music, or is at least not intending to discuss music written together with text? Or does he mean to consider the music apart from text for which/with which it is written?

And why, 'regional'? oh, well, because the Indian or the Chinese will utilize a different set of musical tools that seem to him more akin to the human emotion e.g. 'joy'-- is that what B. means?

Bryan Townsend said...

As soon as music has a sung text, then of course the music can underline (or, in some cases, undermine) that text so that is the big exception. Sorry, I should have made it clearer that I was just talking about instrumental music.

"Regional qualities" is a technical term in Beardsley and I should have made that clear as well. The qualities of a region in a work of art are those pertaining to a section of it, in this case, the scherzo of the symphony.