Wednesday 23 April 2008

Music and the 'Mind'

Someone recommended Aniruddh Patel`s book about music, language and the brain to me the other day, I thought the name 'rang a bell', I saw this lecture he gave a while ago.

I shall be buying the book (when it comes out in paperback hopefully).


Babette said...

I listened to that lecture, very thought provoking.

I now have the book from the library and have been reading the chapter on Meaning in music. He talks about how in language we can translate say a sentence in French to English and it still has the same meaning, yet in music if you try to translate a piece by Beethoven ‘into’ Gamelan music it would have a completely different meaning and not be accurate.

He goes on to talk about what we mean by ‘meaning’ anyway. Obviously goes into much more depth – embodied/intramusical (ie. Expectation in chord progressions) and extramusical meaning – but yeah definitely recommend you get it. Some of his points are similar to those in Music, Imagination & Culture (which I’m reading to) in that imagination, meaning, understanding, emotion etc all come from the concept & perception of structure – or something like that. An interesting note was that 'emotion is created when an expectation is not fulfilled' and he earlier talks about having an appreciation of Bach’s fugues but it elicits no emotion, perhaps because expectation is always fulfilled?

E.L. said...

The Nicholas Cook book is a good'un for sure, lots of interesting stuff in it and his writing style practical and to the point.

It's slipped my mind to get the Patel book so thanks for bringing it up again, i'll have a look for it (been reading that African Fractals book the past couple of days).

Re meaning in music, quite complicated, an understatement perhaps.

The prevailing 'wisdom' suggests (I think), like Scruton, that the idea that music is a language, or one which is like ordinary/natural language anyway isn't very persuasive or useful.

There is no translation for Beethoven perhaps in the same way there are no real musical synonyms (though it depends on who the observer is for one thing and the function of the music, transposition is a sort of synonym, e.g. a minor third in two different keys, but it wouldn't a synonym to someone with perfect pitch or perhaps to someone trying to sing the intervals as a melody).

Also, instrumental music lacks a clear semantic structure/content most of the time, consider a air-raid siren, when sounded to mean 'run for cover' it isn't music (it's 'sound'), but when used in a piece by Varese, it is.
And in so doing, it's meaning is thrown open to intepretation, it becomes 'art' whose function is simply to be itself (electro-acoustic/acousmatic music plays on this I suppose, as presumably you have encountered in people's responses to it, 'that's just noise or sound, not music' and so on)

Another related point is that you can't re-order a musical phrase and have it mean more or less the same thing as you can with ordinary language, because the meaning isn't clear or there is no understood sentiment e.g. the words... pint, milk, shop, tomorrow... are fairly easily assembled into a meaningful sentence whatever the order of the words, because we understand the intention of the speaker or his/her sentiment, but changing the order of pitches in a melody is not the same, it becomes something different....

Though, as per usual perhaps, not in all cases all the time, for instance a director asking a soundtrack composer for a certain musical mood for a scene in a film might consider a re-ordered melody the same as the original, given that it has a clear function outside of itself, like a air-raid siren or a collection of words used to indicate someone is going to buy some milk.

I think that is what Cook is going on about, that 'meaning' is all culturally and circumstantially contingent, hard to come up with universal rules that apply in all cases.

Interesting stuff, but perhaps the 'ontology' of music, or of things in general, never seems to be settled (meaning is 'deferred' as Derrida says), perhaps a recursive dialectic, infinite regress.....probably.