Friday, February 09, 2007

The Semantics of Music

Dave Munger has a post about whether music conveys meaning like language does. He explains an experiment by Stefan Koelsch, et al, a team at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. The short explanation: music can convey some meanings the same as language. But I recall someone pointing out that no one has been able to write music that says, "Go get a gallon of milk, tomorrow." Or "I would have left if she spoke again." You may argue that the first example is done every day with commercial jingles, but those rely upon visuals or accompanying words to get the meaning across. And musical subjunctives only work in incredibly deep analyses that won't be universally understood (or even culturally understood).


the improvising guitarist said...

Question: why are we consistently looking for links between language and music?
Exactly when did we start to theorize music as a subclass of language, and under what circumstance? Why is this hypothetical relationship so much more compelling and durable than others (e.g. in comparison to a hypothetical link between dance and architecture)?
I don’t think I’m the only musician who’s come to believe this ‘is-a’ relationship is not particularly helpful, or, some quirky scholarship aside, illuminating.

S, tig

Scott said...

That is a good question. The issue arises from our knowing that language conveys meaning through grammer and syntax. We also feel that music conveys meaning, and it definitely has a grammer, so it should be relatd to language. Language is relatively understood in terms of cognition and evolution, so if a relationship can be proved then the same types of tools that are used to explain language cognition could be used to explain music cognition.

As far as appreciating music, it may not make a difference, though there are composers who are definitely interested in the cognitive limits of music composition (Fred Lerdahl and Roger Reynolds, for example).