Sunday, January 13, 2013

Music, Language and Society

My post the other day on "radical new musical languages", a phrase taken from an Alex Ross post, drew some interesting comments that made me realize there is a lot more to say.

Let's go back for a moment to something discussed by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He points out that the idea of a 'private language' is incoherent. Here is the Wikipedia article. As they say,
One compelling theory about language is that language maps words to ideas, concepts or representations in each person's mind. On this account, the concepts in my head are distinct from the concepts in your head. But I can match my concepts to a word in our common language, and then speak the word. You then match the word to a concept in your mind. So our concepts in effect form a private language which we translate into our common language and so share.
It is Wittgenstein's point that this has to be wrong. Language is essentially social. Perhaps this is too simple for Wittgenstein, but I am tempted to say that language is essentially social for the extremely good reason that it is essentially communication between people. If it's not communication (or cannot result in communication) then it isn't language.

Music, while not a language, has language-like properties. It has things that resemble syntax (but aren't) and even things that resemble semantic (but aren't). One commentor referred to the "rules of counterpoint". They aren't really 'rules' in the way that the rules of grammar are rules. Instead, they are stylistic choices. Palestrina followed a certain set of stylistic practices such as "a leap in the melody will always be followed by a step in the opposite direction". This is one thing that enabled his smooth, flowing style. Bach, however, though an equally strong composer in counterpoint, did not follow this practice. Neither did Beethoven. The classical period had certain stylistic practices handling cadences that might seem rule-like such as "every composition will end with the tonic chord in root position". No exceptions to that rule. Not in the classical era. But we find exceptions in every other era!

The semantic-like aspects of music are a bit vague, but very important nonetheless. They are different from the meaning of words in language, but still significant. One example is the rhythmic structure of a dance: it signals to the dancers what dance is being played and therefore what steps they should follow. This is not syntax, is it? No, I think it is more semantic. The music is saying to the dancers "get ready, now we are doing a waltz":

The signals are quite different for a tango:

Other semantic clues in music are things like the ascending minor sixth interval, which has been used to signal sorrow by opera composers for hundreds of years. Or the tritone, often used to indicate something demonic. Liszt based a whole piano sonata on it:

In music it is always more vague than explicit--unless there are words, of course. Sung music has a whole other level of meaning. But since the notes in music have primarily a musical function rather than a language function, I think it is always better to think of syntax and semantic in music as being metaphorical.

But still, like language, music is a social act. We can more easily imagine a painter working for years on paintings that may rest unseen in his studio than we can music manuscripts lying unheard. This is simply because we don't quite believe a piece of music is a piece of music until it is performed. The score is just the instructions. But a painting is complete in itself, even when shut in a closet.

Now the fact that music is a social art form has some interesting implications when you set that alongside Wittgenstein's remarks and alongside the practice of a lot of composers in the 20th century. As a kind of radical extension of one of the precepts of romanticism, modern composers strove for complete individualism in their work, even to the point that a writer could plausibly refer to "radical new musical languages". So what composers tried to do, some composers at least, was come up with unique, individual and essentially private musical languages. Which is why it didn't work. If it's private it's not a language and, more importantly for music, it doesn't communicate. Some modernist composers re-thought and re-structured music, but still used the public 'language' of music. Just go and listen to Stravinsky. Even though he is a modernist composer, he is constantly using fragments and phrases of traditional harmony and melody, but fragmenting them rhythmically. A brilliant solution to the problem of how to sound new, but still communicate. Here, have a listen:

The most radical composers, who thought they were creating "radical new musical languages" tend not to communicate:

The 'meaning' of those notes is not intended to have any relationship to the meaning they might have had in the past. This is why the composer strives to create new types of rhythmic gestures that do not sound like music of the past--even in a fragmentary way. This is highly-structured music, but I have no idea what it is 'about' so it is, to me, 'about' nothing. Which is what Boulez intended. But this is music NOT as a social act! It is music as a private language. We are, presumably, supposed to learn the language. But Boulez is notoriously reluctant to say how his music is composed, so no clues there. He doesn't want us to listen to it the way we listen to the music of the past, presumably, but to listen to it the way he does. Privately. But I think that Wittgenstein has shown how this is simply incoherent.

Or is it just me?


Nathan Shirley said...

Wow, excellent post!

Though I still like the metaphoric phrase "music is the universal language", perhaps I should update it to "good music is the universal language."

Bryan Townsend said...


I think what you like about the phrase "music is the universal language" is that it underlines the fact that music is overwhelmingly a bridge between people. At its best it unites, which is why the Beethoven 9th last movement theme was chosen as the anthem for the European Union. I think it is the word "universal" that is important in your use of the phrase.

I just have some philosophical reservations about the use of the word "language".