The language of music

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Re: The language of music

Post by jbuck919 » Thu Aug 25, 2011 10:17 pm

Leonard Bernstein wrote:“In any sense in which music can be considered a language, and there are some senses in which it cannot be considered the language, but in the sense in which it can be, it is a totally metaphoric language. Consider the etymology of the word metaphor: meta “beyond” and pherein “to carry”. Carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible (…) Meatophor is a generator, the power plant of music, just as it is in poetry. Aristotle puts the metaphor midway between the unintelligible and the common place (…) it is the metaphor, he says, which most produces knowledge. And Quintilian says it even more strikingly. He says that metaphor accomplishes the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything and by everything he obviously meant our interior lives, things that can’t be named otherwise, our psychic landscapes and actions. And it is thus the poetry and music, but especially music, through its specific and far-reaching metaphorical powers can and does name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.”
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Re: The language of music

Post by HoustonDavid » Thu Aug 25, 2011 11:39 pm

Listen you must, even if it is only a vibration traveling through the floorboards to someone
profoundly deaf. But you can listen nearly anywhere and everywhere in the world.

In so many respects, it is the most universal of all languages.
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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Fri Aug 26, 2011 12:19 am

Music isn't a language by any serious definition of language or of music. The essential elements of language are semantics and syntax. Music entirely lacks a semantics, and as for syntax, the elements of music that might be thought analogous to linguistic structures are neither essential to it nor, in much music of the last century, even to be found in it.

Bernstein's pretentious pseudo-theoretical gobbledygook gives the game away. Unable to come up with a theme for his Norton lectures at Harvard, he sat in on one of Noam Chomsky's MIT courses in transformational grammar, i.e. on syntax, believed this was a serviceable metaphor to hang his lectures on, and never looked back. The official Leonard Bernstein site actually includes this commentary on the third lecture by an English critic:
Kenneth Robinson wrote:I dipped into Leonard Bernstein's Harvard lecture on grammatical analogies in music. This was a superb confidence-trick, but I was soon won over and went along with it for two hours and 25 minutes. And I shall be switching on for the remaining three programmes in the series. I could not, in fact, believe a word of Bernstein's theories about the zeugma and alliteration to be found in Mozart and Brahms. But anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of music will have seen what he was up to and enjoyed it.
Robinson observes that Bernstein himself shies away from music having a semantic element, even with program music whose composer insists on it, and which is literally inexplicable without it:
Kenneth Robinson wrote:The best thing about this Sunday afternoon special was Mr. Bernstein's attempt to talk us out of listening to Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony as a rustic piece, full of peasant dances and bird-song. He did this by asking us to forget all the footnotes Beethoven had supplied about spring's awakening, lightning and thunder and so on, and to consider instead, the grammatical construction of the first movement. For me, this worked magnificently. It was not easy, Bernstein said, to listen to a symphony as pure music, without adding any emotional overtones, especially if you already had preconceived pictures in the mind. To show how difficult it was, he asked us to try not to think about an elephant for five seconds.
But then, Leonard Bernstein always was a champion talker, even when he didn't really know what he was talking about.

http://www.leonardbernstein.com/norton_publications.htm
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Re: The language of music

Post by living_stradivarius » Fri Aug 26, 2011 3:44 am

John F wrote:Music isn't a language by any serious definition of language or of music.
Certainly not, but it is a vessel for the transmission of ideas :):
In any sense in which music can be considered a language, and there are some senses in which it cannot be considered the language, but in the sense in which it can be, it is a totally metaphoric language. Consider the etymology of the word metaphor: meta “beyond” and pheta “to carry”. Carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible (…) Metaphor is a generator, the power plant of music, just as it is in poetry. Aristotle puts the metaphor midway between the unintelligible and the common place (…) it is the metaphor, he says, which most produces knowledge. And Quintilian says it even more strikingly. He says that metaphor accomplishes the supremely difficult task of providing a name for everything and by everything he obviously meant our interior lives, things that can’t be named otherwise, our psychic landscapes and actions. And it is thus the poetry and music, but especially music, through its specific and far-reaching metaphorical powers can and does name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.
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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Fri Aug 26, 2011 4:48 am

living_stradivarius wrote:Certainly not, but it is a vessel for the transmission of ideas
What "ideas" do you believe music can "transmit"? The philosopher of music Peter Kivy acknowledges that music can express emotions, of the common-and-garden kind, and can convey these to a listener, but while feelings can influence ideas, they are not ideas themselves.
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Re: The language of music

Post by lennygoran » Fri Aug 26, 2011 7:15 am

>What "ideas" do you believe music can "transmit"?<

You beat me to it--I was about to ask Strad what idea Beethoven's 4th symphony conveys--I was cooking dinner to it yesterday? Now opera--there are your big ideas! Regards, Len :)

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Re: The language of music

Post by premont » Fri Aug 26, 2011 8:34 am

It is indeed very simple. Language is a way of communication, and music is another way of communication, which communicates affects and emotions. Constellations of letters (linguistic sounds) have specific meanings (of course depending on the language in question) and in the same way mucical symbols (combinations of harmony, rhythm et.c.) harbour a special meaning, of course different from culture to culture. The success of the musical communication depends of course on the interpreters familiarity with the musical symbols in question (the musical "language" in the broadest sense), but it depends also on the horizon of the recipient (listener), whether he understands this specific musical "language" or not. Some musical styles were intended rhetorical, and it is important to be aware of this both as an interpreter and as a listener.

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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Fri Aug 26, 2011 11:34 am

More about music and syntax here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_syntax

This page only attempts to discuss syntax in Western tonal music. As I recall, a large theme in Bernstein's Harvard Lectures was an argument in favor of tonal music (over atonal music) because it had this syntax which allowed listeners familiar with the syntax to derive meaning from the music.

I would not care to defend everything Bernstein may have said in those lectures, but the premise that tonal music has a commonly understood syntax, while atonal music tends in varying degrees to eliminate this syntax does help explain why many people find atonal music impossible to come to terms with. Most people will cite dissonance as their reason for disliking it, but I think it's the consistent failure to follow the patterns of dissonance resolution they have internalized from tonal music that is the real problem, at least as far as harmony is concerned.

The question that interests me now is: if atonal, or post-tonal music lacks syntax, what are those of us who enjoy this music responding to? What allows us to derive meaning from it?

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Re: The language of music

Post by some guy » Fri Aug 26, 2011 1:42 pm

Mark, I find that what I enjoy in the non-tonal musics that rely on pitch relations is pretty much the same thing I enjoy in music that uses common practice tonality.

Phrases. Question and answer. Statements. (Wow, I agree completely with John F about language and music, but the language metaphor has really infected the way we talk and think about music, hasn't it?) Anyway, motifs, development, recapitulation, inversion, retrograde, rhythm, timbre, modulation, variation.

Mostly the post-tonal musics of the early twentieth century as well as the later serial musics of up to now sound to me very much like tonal musics. The post-tonal ones don't have as strong a sense of a dominant tone as the tonal ones, and the way they modulate is quite different. (I'm wondering right now if it isn't that that puts some people off. But it's too hard to tell, I think. The people who report as disliking certain non-tonal musics seem unwilling to move beyond opprobrium. Expression of disdain is everything; explanations seem thin on the ground--mostly these don't seem to amount to any more than fanciful ways to express disdain.)

Of course, each piece sounds like itself. And Berlioz is very different from Telemann. And Ferneyhough is very different from Saint-Saens. But Ferneyhough is more like Vivaldi than Cage is, or Higgins. You can hear sequence and melody and "ideas" in the first two. In the latter two, who are quite different from each other, you don't have those things any more. You have each thing that sounds as something that's important on its own terms, not as part of an overall plan. Or the overall plan is to let the sounds be something on their own without having to be sequenced or put into a clearly discernable structure.

I don't know about Higgins, but Cage's idea about this was that humans perceive structure whether you give it to them or not. One of his anecdotes was about hunting for mushrooms one day. Some deer ran by. Then he went back to the mushrooms. You know, the perfect ABA form.

Anyway, for preference, I'll have random noise for 1,000, Alex.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Sat Aug 27, 2011 8:58 am

some guy wrote:Mark, I find that what I enjoy in the non-tonal musics that rely on pitch relations is pretty much the same thing I enjoy in music that uses common practice tonality.

Phrases. Question and answer. Statements. (Wow, I agree completely with John F about language and music, but the language metaphor has really infected the way we talk and think about music, hasn't it?) Anyway, motifs, development, recapitulation, inversion, retrograde, rhythm, timbre, modulation, variation.
Right. It's the parts of the "syntax" that are not related to pitch.

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Re: The language of music

Post by some guy » Mon Aug 29, 2011 9:06 am

I'm surprised I didn't mention melody, now that I've seen Mark's post and looked over my list of things. I guess I thought that things like phrase and question and answer and stuff like that covered "melody."

One thing I like about 12-tone melody is that it seems endless. It doesn't have quite the same chopped up feeling you get in tonal music, a feeling reinforced by repetition. It's as if once you're launched, the whole experience is melody. The piece is the melody.
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:08 am

The "chopping up" is part of the syntax, though. Long strings of notes may not be very interesting from a melodic standpoint, in fact are much less likely to be so. Punctuation and repetition are necessary parts of a comprehensible melody, no matter what pitch system is employed.* Otherwise you're likely to get -- as Stravinsky said of Wagner's so-called endless melody -- "the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending".


(* With the understanding that in art nothing is 100% sure, and exceptions are always possible)

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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:26 am

I've recently heard Schubert's Unfinished Symphony again. You want long strings of notes that are interesting from a melodic standpoint, the main themes of the first movement stand out, and so does the second theme of the second movement. Indeed, the themes of many slow movements in the 18th century have very long lines, familiar examples being Bach's air from the 3rd orchestral suite to the andante of Mozart's 21st concerto.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:36 am

John F wrote:I've recently heard Schubert's Unfinished Symphony again. You want long strings of notes that are interesting from a melodic standpoint, the main themes of the first movement stand out, and so does the second theme of the second movement. Indeed, the themes of many slow movements in the 18th century have very long lines, familiar examples being Bach's air from the 3rd orchestral suite to the andante of Mozart's 21st concerto.
They are nevertheless broken up, through cadences and repetitions, into digestible bits.

More to your point would be Renaissance counterpoint, with its long-arched phrases that dove-tail rather than coincide. Even here there are no lack of cadences within the individual voices.

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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Mon Aug 29, 2011 11:57 am

Look, every long string of notes is broken up - into notes. And if the string is longer than 12 notes, then there's repetition. Some long strings of notes are more "melodically interesting" than others, but why they are is one of the impenetrable mysteries of music. It certainly isn't about syntax.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Mon Aug 29, 2011 12:58 pm

John, this is Theory 101 stuff. Motif, phrase, period, full cadence, half cadence, deceptive cadence. These are all concepts used in music to break down the stream of notes into smaller units. They're real, they have meaning and they can't be wished away.

Look at Schubert: (in lieu of music notation I'll have to settle for the infamous doggerel)

"This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished" end of first phrase.
"This is the symphony whose seventh chords are all diminished"* second phrase

The second phrase is, of course, a varied repetition of the first, with a 2-bar extension that leads back to a repetition of the same two phrases. Sorry for the music appreciation verbiage. Here's more of the same:

Each phrase is made up of two motives which are repeated within the phrase. A = "This is" and "finished". B = "the symphony", extended in "that Schubert wrote and never".

The point being that there is a structural hierarchy in which smaller units are built into bigger ones. Music is NOT just a series of notes.



(* Yeah, I made up this part of it. I can't remember how the rest of the cursed verse goes.)

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Re: The language of music

Post by Sator » Tue Aug 30, 2011 9:42 am

John F wrote:Music isn't a language by any serious definition of language or of music. The essential elements of language are semantics and syntax. Music entirely lacks a semantics, and as for syntax, the elements of music that might be thought analogous to linguistic structures are neither essential to it nor, in much music of the last century, even to be found in it.
BTW what is to say that there is an absolutely valid definition of what a language is? Or to put it another way isn't it like trying to define what "blue", "beauty" or "truth" is?

That is a serious answer and if you have ever studied philosophy you will know that there is no straight answer to that. Yes, people have tried to pin down a definition of language but what is to say that these are absolutely valid anyway?

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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:31 pm

Sator wrote:
John F wrote:Music isn't a language by any serious definition of language or of music. The essential elements of language are semantics and syntax. Music entirely lacks a semantics, and as for syntax, the elements of music that might be thought analogous to linguistic structures are neither essential to it nor, in much music of the last century, even to be found in it.
BTW what is to say that there is an absolutely valid definition of what a language is? Or to put it another way isn't it like trying to define what "blue", "beauty" or "truth" is?
Absolutely not. I've studied both philosophy and, more to the point, linguistics, and there's really no serious question whether language can be, and has been, properly defined, in whatever terms are relevant to the topic under discussion. The definition of language relevant to this thread's topic is "a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning," as the Wikipedia article on language puts it. Music can be described as a formal system governed by quasi-grammatical rules of combination, but it lacks a semantics (signs, as defined by semiotics) and therefore cannot communicate meaning in the linguistic/philosophical sense of the word. And what other sense of the word "meaning" is relevant here?

Peter Kivy, a leading writer on the philosophy of music, deals with this last question in "Another Go at the Meaning of Music," an essay in his book "Music, Language, and Cognition." He discusses another author's assertion that if you broaden the definition of "meaning" beyond semantics, you can arrive at something that can arguably be attributed to music. Kivy says, of course you can, but then you're talking about something else. Lewis Carroll made fun of this trick when Humpty Dumpty insists to Alice that "glory" means "a nice knock-down argument" because he says it does.

"Blue" certainly can be defined, very precisely: it's "a color the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm." This definition doesn't evoke the experience of seeing the color blue, but why should it? "Truth," likewise, can be defined, though the word is used variously and needs to be defined in terms relevant to its context; one definition is, "that which is in accord with fact or reality." The odd term out is "beauty," which is a matter of individual subjective judgment and can't be meaningfully defined in objective terms. But there's no such difficulty in defining "language" objectively.
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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Tue Aug 30, 2011 12:47 pm

Taking one step back:
diegobueno wrote:Long strings of notes may not be very interesting from a melodic standpoint, in fact are much less likely to be so. Punctuation and repetition are necessary parts of a comprehensible melody, no matter what pitch system is employed. Otherwise you're likely to get -- as Stravinsky said of Wagner's so-called endless melody -- "the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending".
Reading this again, I still see it as a critique of "long strings of notes" as such, whether tonal or atonal, melodic or otherwise. What follows doesn't really clarify the issue, for me anyway. Citing Wagner's "so-called endless melody" and Stravinsky's criticism of it rather cancels out what you'd just said about such melodic features as repetition and articulation (i.e. punctuation?), since Wagner's "eternal melodies" are as marked by repetition and articulation as anything in Schubert or Mozart - cf. the prelude to "Tristan und Isolde."

Perhaps, then, you might spell out the kind(s) of "long strings of notes" you consider "not very interesting from a melodic standpoint," with an example or two.
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Re: The language of music

Post by RebLem » Tue Aug 30, 2011 1:15 pm

I remember watching an episode of Allen Funt's Candid Camera way back in the late 1950's which featured a fifth grade class singing a simple patriotic song. I think it was My Country Tis of Thee, which, for those of our British friends who may not know, is sung to the tune of God Save the King/Queen. After the song, Allen Funt commented, "The class has about 3 kids who really know the whole song, and they are carrying all the rest." Funt demonstrated his point by talking with a number of the kids in a separate room with only him, the kid, and the cameraman. Very few knew all the words, or even half of them.

What no one commented on, however, what no one except me seemed to notice, was that every one of the kids knew the tune. Not the words, just the tune. This suggests to me that music is even more fundamental to the human nature than speech or language. It is etched deep in our psyches, this yearning for music and beauty. It therefore seems more appropriate to me to look at music and try to figure out how it may have helped us develop language than to speak of language as if it would tell us something about music.
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Re: The language of music

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Aug 30, 2011 1:23 pm

RebLem wrote:I remember watching an episode of Allen Funt's Candid Camera way back in the late 1950's which featured a fifth grade class singing a simple patriotic song. I think it was My Country Tis of Thee, which, for those of our British friends who may not know, is sung to the tune of God Save the King/Queen. After the song, Allen Funt commented, "The class has about 3 kids who really know the whole song, and they are carrying all the rest." Funt demonstrated his point by talking with a number of the kids in a separate room with only him, the kid, and the cameraman. Very few knew all the words, or even half of them.
That's terrible, when they were singing to the republic, for Richard Stands.
What no one commented on, however, what no one except me seemed to notice, was that every one of the kids knew the tune. Not the words, just the tune. This suggests to me that music is even more fundamental to the human nature than speech or language. It is etched deep in our psyches, this yearning for music and beauty. It therefore seems more appropriate to me to look at music and try to figure out how it may have helped us develop language than to speak of language as if it would tell us something about music.
That may be true, but it is even truer of (real) words and music learned together, which are stored in our brain in a different place than either separately (forgive me for not looking up a citation). That is why I can remember "Mr. Rabbit" even though I am certain the last time I heard it other than in my head was when I was in third grade.

Mr. Rabbit, Mr. Rabbit, your ears are mighty long.
Yes, my Lord, they're put on wrong.
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine.
Every little soul must shine, shine, shine.

Taught to me by a Chamorro-speaking nun of the pre-Vatican II type in Dededo, Guam.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Wed Aug 31, 2011 10:23 am

John F wrote:Taking one step back:
diegobueno wrote:Long strings of notes may not be very interesting from a melodic standpoint, in fact are much less likely to be so. Punctuation and repetition are necessary parts of a comprehensible melody, no matter what pitch system is employed. Otherwise you're likely to get -- as Stravinsky said of Wagner's so-called endless melody -- "the perpetual becoming of a music that never had any reason for starting, any more than it has any reason for ending".
Reading this again, I still see it as a critique of "long strings of notes" as such, whether tonal or atonal, melodic or otherwise. What follows doesn't really clarify the issue, for me anyway. Citing Wagner's "so-called endless melody" and Stravinsky's criticism of it rather cancels out what you'd just said about such melodic features as repetition and articulation (i.e. punctuation?), since Wagner's "eternal melodies" are as marked by repetition and articulation as anything in Schubert or Mozart - cf. the prelude to "Tristan und Isolde."

Perhaps, then, you might spell out the kind(s) of "long strings of notes" you consider "not very interesting from a melodic standpoint," with an example or two.
John, if I were to cite you an example, it would just turn into a battle on the merits of the particular piece in question. You might want to ask some guy what he was thinking of when he said
some guy wrote:One thing I like about 12-tone melody is that it seems endless. It doesn't have quite the same chopped up feeling you get in tonal music, a feeling reinforced by repetition. It's as if once you're launched, the whole experience is melody. The piece is the melody.
which I took, in the context of the discussion about Leonard Bernstein using the syntactical properties of music to demonstrate the superiority of tonal music, to be saying "We don't need your steenkin' syntax". There's no reason why different kinds of music shouldn't try to construct melodies in different ways. If in the course of writing new music, a composer helps develop a new kind of musical syntax, that's a coup. But I wished to warn against the offhand denial of traditional melodic syntax, or the denial of the whole concept of melodic syntax. The whole point of doing something new should be to expand the possibilities of the art, rather than restricting them by setting old practices out of bounds.

It was also some guy who introduced "endless melody" into the discussion. I couldn't find any words to counter the concept of endless melody more colorful than those of Stravinsky's in regard to Wagner's supposed use of the same. The idea of endless melody sounds grand, but in practice it runs the serious risk of formlessness, which I find abhorrent (or at least not very interesting).

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Re: The language of music

Post by some guy » Thu Sep 01, 2011 2:06 am

diegobueno wrote:
some guy wrote:One thing I like about 12-tone melody is that it seems endless. It doesn't have quite the same chopped up feeling you get in tonal music, a feeling reinforced by repetition. It's as if once you're launched, the whole experience is melody. The piece is the melody.
[W]hich I took, in the context of the discussion about Leonard Bernstein using the syntactical properties of music to demonstrate the superiority of tonal music, to be saying "We don't need your steenkin' syntax".
Well, there's your problem right there, Mark! You don't read what I say how it was intended but as an attack of all you hold dear. Perhaps if you gave over the demonizing and the straw men, we could actually have a civilized discussion of music. We do, after all, disagree about many things, which can be an excellent context for a fruitful discussion.

But, as so often online, what we get in threads is either "I agree" or "You're a jerk," neither one of which really encourage discussion.

In any case, contrary to Bernstein, I wasn't trying to demonstrate the superiority of anything but just trying to answer a question of Mark's about how I react to music. And that is one of the things that I like about non-tonal melody, is that it often seems to go along and keep going, a new surprise, a new location with each successive note. Like taking a walk where you never circle back around to places you've already been.* That's all. That's not superior or inferior, it's just what I like about those kinds of pieces.

Actually, what I prefer is random noise. And that preference has never kept me from thoroughly enjoying and valuing Mozart and Monteverdi, either.

*Hey, there's a metaphor for ya. Travel instead of language.
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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Thu Sep 01, 2011 7:04 am

some guy wrote:Well, there's your problem right there, Mark! You don't read what I say how it was intended but as an attack of all you hold dear. Perhaps if you gave over the demonizing and the straw men, we could actually have a civilized discussion of music. We do, after all, disagree about many things, which can be an excellent context for a fruitful discussion.

But, as so often online, what we get in threads is either "I agree" or "You're a jerk," neither one of which really encourage discussion.
Michael,

Michael,

Turn off the random noise for a minute. It's making you see demons. There are no demons in this discussion, OK? Calm down. No one's calling you a jerk. No one's attacking everything you hold dear. We're talking about an abstract concept, something which shouldn't raise anyone's blood pressure.

Just relax, everything's going to be alright.

Everything's going to be

al-

right.

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Re: The language of music

Post by living_stradivarius » Fri Sep 02, 2011 2:32 am

John F wrote:Peter Kivy, a leading writer on the philosophy of music, deals with this last question in "Another Go at the Meaning of Music," an essay in his book "Music, Language, and Cognition." He discusses another author's assertion that if you broaden the definition of "meaning" beyond semantics, you can arrive at something that can arguably be attributed to music. Kivy says, of course you can, but then you're talking about something else. Lewis Carroll made fun of this trick when Humpty Dumpty insists to Alice that "glory" means "a nice knock-down argument" because he says it does.
But the potential to assign a consistent, discrete meaning is possible. If we assign "happy" to an A-B-A appoggiatura because 90% of the population experiences an warm emotion upon hearing it, then it has that potential to become a full-fledged language if we continued to use A-B-A the same way. The only thing is nobody has bothered to standardize such symbolism because music is so meta-context-dependent (i.e. the meaning of A-B-A changes if used in a different cadence). If someone bothered to wade through every single possible combination and assign contingent meanings (yes, semi-arbitrary, but there is a fundamental basis in the type of emotion evoked), you'd have a working language ya'know.
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Re: The language of music

Post by alarickc » Fri Sep 02, 2011 2:50 am

I find this topic rather interesting. The use of music as a language would be an interesting one I would think to anyone who has ever closed their eyes at a symphony and let their mind interpret the music as a myriad of emotions and pictures. Surely music speaks to us. I would like to however posit a question for those here better able to explore it. It is understandable that we have only been discussing western tonal music here, but what about other global traditions? The thoughts and feelings conveyed in the classical music of India, China, or Japan would be very different than those of our own to us, but perhaps not to those whose main experience is with them. The point I'm driving at is that using western tonal music wouldn't be a very good universal language, just as in normal speech there are too many language barriers between traditions. So, could one in theory create a musical "Esperanto", a truly universal musical language combining the "lingual" strengths of many traditions?
"Private human life is anything but dull. On the contrary, it is far too interesting. The troublesome thing about it is that it has no real conventions, makes no inner sense. Anything can happen. It is mysterious, unpredictable, unrehearsable. Professional life is not mysterious at all. The whole music world understands music. Any musician can give to another comprehensible rendition of practically any piece. If there is anything either of them don't understand, there are always plenty of people they can consult about it.
Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. Religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one's training on an instrument nobody know's how to tune and before a public that isn't listening anyway." -Virgil Thomson

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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Fri Sep 02, 2011 4:15 am

The quick answer is no, because music isn't a language, though it can indeed often be interpreted as emotions and sometimes as "pictures," representations of nonmusical phenomena. That aside, western music has long since gone global; the traditional classical musics of India, China, and Japan are less appreciated and understood even in those countries than Beethoven and the Beatles. Western music takes what it can use from other musical traditions (cf. Puccini's "Turandot") but that's like the French picking up American idioms that strike their fancy, and I think not what you're talking about..
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Re: The language of music

Post by alarickc » Fri Sep 02, 2011 12:55 pm

I think my thoughts were not very clear and for that I apologize. I think it is clear that trying to use exsisting works of music as a language would be next to impossible. But what if you did creat an artificial standard for what certain things in music would mean and create a language, using musical attributes instead of traditional words? Languages have been created before, why not with music?
"Private human life is anything but dull. On the contrary, it is far too interesting. The troublesome thing about it is that it has no real conventions, makes no inner sense. Anything can happen. It is mysterious, unpredictable, unrehearsable. Professional life is not mysterious at all. The whole music world understands music. Any musician can give to another comprehensible rendition of practically any piece. If there is anything either of them don't understand, there are always plenty of people they can consult about it.
Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. Religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one's training on an instrument nobody know's how to tune and before a public that isn't listening anyway." -Virgil Thomson

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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Fri Sep 02, 2011 1:46 pm

alarickc wrote:But what if you did create an artificial standard for what certain things in music would mean and create a language, using musical attributes instead of traditional words? Languages have been created before, why not with music?
Oh, I'm sure such a language could be created - but it would be a purely intellectual exercise, as nobody would use it. Why would they? Esperanto has been around for more than a century, yet nobody speaks or writes it, because they don't need to. Instead, one existing language or another has been a lingua franca with which people of different native languages can communicate; English serves that purpose today, French used to, and Latin before that.

The main interest of an artificial language based on music would probably be musical. Composers might well find the new systematized patterns of tones etc. artistically usable, as they did the system of serial composition invented by Schoenberg. But that's not what you're talking about.
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Re: The language of music

Post by alarickc » Fri Sep 02, 2011 7:01 pm

John F wrote:The main interest of an artificial language based on music would probably be musical. Composers might well find the new systematized patterns of tones etc. artistically usable, as they did the system of serial composition invented by Schoenberg. But that's not what you're talking about.
You're correct, that was not what I was talking about, but you do bring up a fascinating idea. What if someone took the emotional language of music, one that is subjective in it's entirety, and made a non-subjective language to express thought through music; and then after all of that, the possibilities opened by that new structure was reabsorbed back into the emotional language of music. Thereby enriching the form it originated from. What if, like Japanese poetry prints that use words and imagery at the same time to create the poem, there were tone poems that contained a real thought driven musical language within the larger scope of the piece. Allowing traditional music and poetry to be combined into a single medium. Even if it is pure conjecture it is a fascinating thought none the less.

@ John. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I know that I'm talking from inexperience and lack of knowledge; but this subject is fascinating and is really helping to think a little bit more about what makes music music. I am grateful that you would take the time to respond. :)
"Private human life is anything but dull. On the contrary, it is far too interesting. The troublesome thing about it is that it has no real conventions, makes no inner sense. Anything can happen. It is mysterious, unpredictable, unrehearsable. Professional life is not mysterious at all. The whole music world understands music. Any musician can give to another comprehensible rendition of practically any piece. If there is anything either of them don't understand, there are always plenty of people they can consult about it.
Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. Religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one's training on an instrument nobody know's how to tune and before a public that isn't listening anyway." -Virgil Thomson

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Re: The language of music

Post by diegobueno » Fri Sep 02, 2011 7:48 pm

alarickc wrote: You're correct, that was not what I was talking about, but you do bring up a fascinating idea. What if someone took the emotional language of music, one that is subjective in its entirety, and made a non-subjective language to express thought through music; and then after all of that, the possibilities opened by that new structure was reabsorbed back into the emotional language of music. Thereby enriching the form it originated from. What if, like Japanese poetry prints that use words and imagery at the same time to create the poem, there were tone poems that contained a real thought driven musical language within the larger scope of the piece. Allowing traditional music and poetry to be combined into a single medium. Even if it is pure conjecture it is a fascinating thought none the less.


This is something of what Wagner had in mind with his Leitmotiv technique, where there are musical motives pegged to certain things or ideas in the operas and all he has to do is have the orchestra play one of these motives and the listener knows, for instance, that Parsifal suddenly thinks of Amfortas and the Grail and therefore can't succumb to Kundry. Or in Strauss' Salome, if you follow the motives, you can tell the moment when it occurs to Salome that the severed head of John the Baptist will not refuse her kisses, The trouble is, in order to get the connection you have to have the motive appear in connection with the text and it has to be underlined strongly enough so that every time you hear it you know "OK, so this is the Grail" or "This is John the Baptist".

If you wanted to follow this to its logical conclusion you could have a piece of music where someone sings a text and every word has its own motive, then you just go and recombine the motives to make new sentences. The musical results of this effort would most likely be dubious, and the whole enterprise would kind of a game like "John Brown's Baby had a cold upon its chest" where you substitute gestures for the words.

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Re: The language of music

Post by alarickc » Fri Sep 02, 2011 7:56 pm

Ah, yes I could see how that would be an issue. However, what if you used voices in a piece, say one or two thought driven and the rest more traditionally musical. You would have a piece were the majority was traditional music with a digression now and then into poetry. Highlighting the music with thoughts, and the thoughts with music. They only way this could work that I can see is if the talking is definitely in the minority as compared to the whole piece.
"Private human life is anything but dull. On the contrary, it is far too interesting. The troublesome thing about it is that it has no real conventions, makes no inner sense. Anything can happen. It is mysterious, unpredictable, unrehearsable. Professional life is not mysterious at all. The whole music world understands music. Any musician can give to another comprehensible rendition of practically any piece. If there is anything either of them don't understand, there are always plenty of people they can consult about it.
Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. Religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one's training on an instrument nobody know's how to tune and before a public that isn't listening anyway." -Virgil Thomson

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Re: The language of music

Post by living_stradivarius » Sat Sep 03, 2011 7:43 am

Music can definitely create memes and are certainly comprise an intricate part of communication :)
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Re: The language of music

Post by John F » Sat Sep 03, 2011 7:50 am

alarickc wrote:Ah, yes I could see how that would be an issue. However, what if you used voices in a piece, say one or two thought driven and the rest more traditionally musical. You would have a piece were the majority was traditional music with a digression now and then into poetry. Highlighting the music with thoughts, and the thoughts with music. They only way this could work that I can see is if the talking is definitely in the minority as compared to the whole piece.
That's essentially the expressive strategy of song and opera; the words convey meaning, to those who understand them, while the music provides emotional and sometimes representational color. I don't see how your idea differs from this in a fundamental way, but maybe I've missed something.
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Re: The language of music

Post by alarickc » Sat Sep 03, 2011 11:51 am

John F wrote:That's essentially the expressive strategy of song and opera; the words convey meaning, to those who understand them, while the music provides emotional and sometimes representational color. I don't see how your idea differs from this in a fundamental way, but maybe I've missed something.

It doesn't really, I just think it would be interesting if the words were part of the music itself, simply patterns of notes played or sung in a certain fashion instead of having normal words be sung to do the same thing. It's not fundamentally different, I just thought it might be kinda neat. :)
"Private human life is anything but dull. On the contrary, it is far too interesting. The troublesome thing about it is that it has no real conventions, makes no inner sense. Anything can happen. It is mysterious, unpredictable, unrehearsable. Professional life is not mysterious at all. The whole music world understands music. Any musician can give to another comprehensible rendition of practically any piece. If there is anything either of them don't understand, there are always plenty of people they can consult about it.
Private life, on the other hand, is beset by a thousand insoluble crises, from unrequited love to colds in the head. Nobody, literally nobody, knows how to avoid any of them. Religion itself can only counsel patience and long-suffering. It is like a nightmare of being forced to execute at sight a score much too difficult for one's training on an instrument nobody know's how to tune and before a public that isn't listening anyway." -Virgil Thomson

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