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Jacob Wheeler

Music as Nonlinguistic Expression

Music is not a language; this is true despite its ability to communicate, or, minimally, to serve as an entity from which implications can be, and often are, drawn. Music and language share many common qualities, but they are contraries. The claim that music is a language is typically based on conceptualizations of language and music that are either inaccurate or incomplete. This essay will survey and analyze theories of the nature of music and language respectively and then conclude by iterating and explaining the contrast between them. I. Music The first and simplest characterization of music is as organized sound. While a few commentators, including John Cage, seem to accept this minimalist account of music, the vast majority explicitly reject this generalization as far too broad to remain useful.1 This account of music fails to identify the agent of the organization. Sounds may be, and often are, organized by the producer of the sound. There is also a degree to which sounds are organized by the listener as experience. It is unclear where the burden of organization is placed, or even if it must be placed on one or the other. There is an additional difficulty with this description, a difficulty inherited by many aesthetic theories: namely, radical inclusivity. This definition would classify far too many sounds as music: Human speech, knocking on a door, police sirens; the enumeration would be practically infinite. These are intuitively, and with good reason I shall argue, not music. In contrast, Cages inclusive account accepts the organization of ambient noise as sufficient to render his 433 a work of music. As the inclusivity of a theory increases, the significance of its

John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings, (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961).

categorization decreases. If we accept organized sound as the sole necessary and sufficient condition for music, than the statement X is music loses meaning as there would then scarcely be any sound that was not music. If there are to be sensible things to say about music, then we cannot accept this definition A potential reprise exists in the articulation of music as not merely organized sound but the art of organized sound. Music is certainly an art, but by explicit mandate it thus subsumes all the necessary conditions for art under the necessary conditions for music. This satisfactorily excludes many of the absurdities of Cages prescription: automobile engines, construction, cardiographsetc While this is an improvement to the inclusivity of mere organized sound, it possesses difficulties of its own. Primarily, it fails to exclude poetry as a distinct art as it is both an art and an organization of sounds. Poetry is often lauded as possessing a musical quality, but this is a metaphorical expression of the aesthetic beauty of poetry and not a qualitative categorization of poetry as music. Defining music as the art of organized sound assumes music to be the sole aural art. This has been true for millennia, but with the advances of the last century, this conclusion is no longer obviously true. Andy Hamilton writes: Clearly, music over the centuries of its development has been much more concerned with sound, hence for instance the way that orchestras developed. However, the conscious or self-conscious exploration of sound, in a systematic way, occurred only in the twentieth century.2 Musique Concrte, the school of composition founded by Pierre Schaeffer, for instance, was the practice of creating a montage of everyday noises and natural sounds such as doors slamming, steam engines puffing, people talking, as well as some more traditional musical instrument sounds. Sound-art and music are distinct arts and no definition of either ought to conflate the two. Music is an art and music does necessarily include the

Andy Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), 41.

organization of sounds; as descriptive, these are necessary but insufficient conditions. Further conditions must be specified. I take as axiomatic that music is essentially involved with sounds, but there are theorists who deny this. Roger Scruton denies that sounds are the purview of music; music occurs not when sounds are heard but when we hear something in the sound, something which moves with a force of its own. This intentional object of musical perception in what I refer to by the word tone.3 This interpretation of the musical experience introduces two additional conditions: tone and subjectivity. The issue of music as a subjective phenomenon, one dependant on the listener rather than producer is a popular conceptualization. In a review of Scruton, Levinson adequately answers this issue: some music was playing in the room, though everyone has either stepped out or fallen asleep is a perfectly intelligible statement, to which any account of music should be adequate.4 Music is not and ought not be a product of active interpretation and experience; it exists independent to any listener. Scruton is not unique in his stipulation of tone as a necessary condition for music; he is mistaken in his understanding of the relationship between sound and tone as contrary. Many theorists use tone in their definitions; they merely stipulate a different definition. Michael Woods agrees with Scrutons subjectivity but articulates the meaning of a tone as being struck in a nexus of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic retention and expectation, with the silences of intervallic meaning between them.5 Scruton is not incorrect in his prescription of tones, merely in his understanding of tones as independent of sounds. A tone is a specific sound, a sound exhibiting the structure of rhythm, melody, and harmony.

Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 19-20. Jerrold Levinson, Review of The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scruton, The Philosophical Review109, no 4. (October, 2000), 609. 5 Michael Woods, Musical Meaning: Reference and Symbol, Canadian Aesthetics Journal 13 (2007) 9.

The subjectivity of Woods is as misplaced as Scrutons and is answered in the same manner. Woods does introduce a novel requirement: intervallic silences. While I am sympathetic to this as a qualitative condition, a condition for a piece of music to be of high quality, it seems to be too narrow to be a necessary condition. As often as a theory can fall victim to radical inclusivity, a theory can also be radically exclusive. To mandate intervallic silences would be to exclude many modern electronic pieces. A tone may begin before the previous tone expires, and it is plausible for a piece to maintain this pattern through its entirety. This work would likely be busy and cacophonous, but equally likely, still a work of music. Hamilton, in what he calls an aesthetic characterization of music, defines music as an artwhose ends are essentially aestheticwhose material is sound exhibiting tonal organization.6 Hamilton defines a tone in a similar manner to Woods: Tone in this less specialized, non-technical sense is a relation concept which refers not just to the nature of component sounds but also to how they are structured through rhythm, melody, and harmony.7 I suspect that the end of music may not be, essentially, aesthetic. Aesthetic, at least for Hamilton, is the enrichment and the intensification of experience.8 While this is likely the case for the majority of music, I am not prepared to assume that all music is produced with this intention. Music cannot occur by accident and therefore there must exist some intention of some kind, but to both intensify and enrich experience may not be it. Despite this minor contention, Hamilton succeeds in articulating an adequate conceptualization of music, one with which we can continue. Music is the intentional organization of tones where a tone is a sound structured by rhythm, melody, and harmony.

6 7

Andy Hamilton, Aesthetics and Music, 52. Ibid, 49. 8 Ibid, 5.


Language As organized sound was the most basic presupposition for music, communication is the

counterpart for language. Michael Devitt enumerates many conditions of language but begins with, and places a primacy on, communication: A language is a system for communicating information between ourselves and others.9 Psychologist Timothy Jay concurs: Language is communicative. Communicativity refers to the function of language. We can write, speak, or use sign language to express how we are feeling, and others can read, listen or watch, and understand what we are thinking or feeling.10 Both theorists maintain that language is, basically and essentially a means of communication. They are correct in that language is often used to communicate, but they may not be justified in the strength of their language to characterize communication as a necessary condition of language. Communication is a transfer of information; it must travel from one entity to another. If I tell someone I think it will rain tomorrow this conveys the information that I believe it will rain tomorrow. Jay realizes this: Communication is behavior directed at another member of the species that affects the recipients behavior and the initiators subsequent behavior.11 It is unlikely that communication is limited to intra-species interaction, but Jay is correct that communication must be directed at an other. Language, however, can be used internally. I can talk to myself, leave myself a note, sing to myself in the shower, three distinct uses of language yet no communication. Language is potentially communicative, not necessarily so.

Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny, Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language, (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1987), 4. 10 Timothy Jay, The Psychology of Language, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall), 3. 11 Ibid, 3.

Devitt introduces the notion that language is independent of the medium within which it is expressed. Linguistic communication can be effected in speech, writing, Braille, and so on. There seems to be no limit to the media we could use for, say, English.12 An infinity of media is obvious hyperbole but Devitts point is essentially correct; not only can the same language be expressed in a number of distinct media, the meaning of language does not change. This is the first necessary condition of language. As another necessary condition for language, Timothy Jay stipulates that a language must be governed by rules of structure: grammar. ...language is composed of rule-governed or acceptable patterns of sounds, letters, and meaningful words. Random orderings of letters, sounds, and words usually do not have meaning. An acceptable pattern of letters or sounds form words, and an acceptable pattern of words form sentences. An acceptable pattern of sentences form paragraphs, stories, and discourse. Randomizing the sentences in a story would make less sense to us than having the sentences in the acceptably structured order.13 There are two layers of structure that are both necessary and important for language, and in this passage Jay briefly discusses both. The first layer of structure is that of grammar; these are rules that govern how linguistic constructs can be created. The phrase the dog bit the man follows the rules and does, therefore, have meaning, while the dog the bit man by disobeying the rules of grammar, despite using the same exact symbols, now has no meaning. All languages, by necessity, have such rules of grammar. The second layer of structure is that of syntax; these are also rules that govern how linguistic constructs can be created, but more specifically, how the meaning is dependant on the

12 13

Devitt and Sterelny, Language and Reality, 6. Jay, The Psychology of Language, 3.

order of symbols. As before, the dog bit the man is significantly different than the man bit the dob despite, again, the use of the same five symbols. It is true that declined languages may serve as a counterexample, but only minimally so. For instance, has the same lexical meaning as .14 For this very reason, however, the Greeks had much more liberty in the organization of their sentences and would often order them so that the first word was the most important. It would be likely, then, that is the author intended merely a description of the gods, he or she would choose the former permutation. If, however, the intent was a significant comment of remorse and anger, the latter permutation would be more prudent. Even in declined languages, the syntax can be, albeit perhaps less so, important. In the previous passage, Timothy Jay refers continuously to letters and words as the components of language. This temptation is understandable; most modern languages use sentences formed from words formed from letters. It is important, though, to recognize that some language do not. The referents for the symbols in Chinese are not single words, but often multiple. The same is applicable for individuals that communicate with Sign Language; an open hand beginning in front of your mouth and dipping forward means thank you. Language is not merely a system of words that have meaning, but a system of symbols. Both Timothy Jay and Michael Devitt stipulate that language is inherently arbitrary. In general, linguistic symbols have no intrinsic or necessary connection with their referents.15 There exists no reason, beyond accepted tradition, that the referent for the symbol desk is a desk. Without arbitrary reference, the symbol might have to resemble its referent.16 This would severely limit the quantity of symbols and prove deleterious to the goal of communication; it would delimit the content of which language could express. This symbolic
14 15

The gods are unjust, or conversely, Unjust are the gods Devitt and Sterelny, Language and Reality, 5. 16 Jay, The Psychology of Language, 3.

language system affords abstraction, which allows us to talk about things that are not in the immediate context or that do not exist at all.17 Jay and Devitt are correct that the referents of the symbols of language are arbitrary, but the important condition to abstract from this point is that each individual symbol of language does have at least one distinct referent. It is important to note that each symbol does not merely have one but at least one. In the English language the symbol with the greatest number of distinct referents is set which, at last count, was approximately four hundred and sixty four. Regardless of the large number of referents, they are relatively static and distinct. It is true that many people use the same symbol to refer to many different things, but this is not counter; errors do not grant words more referents, they are merely incorrect. Using the symbol desk to refer to a chair does not mean the symbol was granted another referent; it was misused. Devitt and Jay also both contend that language is productive. Productivity is the quality of possessing a finite number of parts which can be arranged to form an infinite number of distinct combinations. The matching of each signal with its meaning is not something that we learn signal by signal. We learn the elements of signals words together with a recipe for making complete signals sentences out of the elements.18 Devitt uses the term signal where I use the term symbol; there is no, for the sake of this essay, important distinction. This recipe of which he speaks is the productivity of the language. Using the rules for ordering words in sentences and a set of arbitrary symbols, we can produce an infinite number of unique and meaningful sentences and phrases.19 As indicated by this quotation, the productivity of language is a necessary byproduct of possessing both rules of structure and a set of arbitrary referents. It is redundant, then, to include productivity as a necessary condition for language.
17 18

Ibid, 3. Devitt and Sterelny, Language and Reality, 6. 19 Jay, The Psychology of Language, 4.

Timothy Jay ends his enumeration of the necessary conditions of language with the assertion that language is evolutionary. Languages are organic, growing new words and expressions and killing off expressions that are no longer useful (obsolete).20 The number of words in the English language is constantly growing as well as the uses for already established words. Many languages evolve; I am uncertain whether that is sufficient to include it as a necessary condition. Dead languages may not be used very often, but remain, naturally, languages. Ancient Greek is no longer evolving and is still a language. Language as a sentient faculty may constantly be evolving, but specific language may not be. Combining the appropriate necessary conditions of language and excluding those that are not, language is a medium independent system of symbols governed by rules of grammar whose individual signs possess both syntactic import and semantic meaning. III. Music as a Language Music shares many of the same qualities as language. Music, for instance, is also a system of symbols. While the symbols of language are commonly words, the symbols of music are notes and tones. Music is also governed by rules, though not typically called grammar. A piece in common time cannot have more than four beats in a measure and each quarter note must be held, unless otherwise noted, for a single beat. The individual symbols of music also have syntactic import, perhaps even more import than the symbols of music. While some languages allow for altered orders of symbols, the meaning of a work of music would necessarily change. 21 Reverse the opening musical phrase of Beethovens Fur Elise and the meaning drastically changes. This, however, is where the similarities end.

Ibid, 5. There is extensive literature on precisely the question of whether music has any meaning at all. I am presupposing for this particular point that it does though this occasion does not afford the opportunity to defend my position in detail.


Music is not medium independent. While language can be both spoken and written, music cannot exist but in the medium of sound. Music can be produced by a number of different instruments but these are not distinct media. Analogous to how painters can use different brushes and different paints, sculptors can use different materials and different chisels, musicians can use different instruments, but their media are, respectively, painting, sculpture, and sound. Sheet music is certainly manifested through a different medium than performed music, but this is irrelevant as sheet music is a misnomer; sheet music is not actually music. Music is an exclusively aural phenomenon, and while sheet music is symbolic of music, there is no organization of actual tones. The symbols of music do not possess at least one distinct referent. While the symbol chair refers to an actual chair and nothing else, the note C refers to nothing specific. No notes have specific meanings, but perhaps some combinations of notes do. The C seventh diminished, just as the root of the chord, has no semantic meaning. This is the vital contrast between language and music; music does not have semantic significance. Despite this, some theorists maintain quite adamantly that music is a language; I will concentrate on two of the more famous instances: Susanne Langer and Deryck Cooke. Langer contends that all art, and therefore music, is linguistic in that it is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling.22 A symbol is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction.23 All arts are alike in creating forms symbolic of human feeling, she declares, but differ in the creation of primary illusions, each of which is the essential symbolic device in that particular form of art. For music, the primary illusion is virtual time, time created solely for

22 23

Susanne Langar, Feeling and Form, (New York: Charles Scribers Sons, 1953), 40. Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form.

perception. Supposedly, virtual time is not the same as ordinary time, it is an analogue of concretely experienced time, of time as felt, as lived. A necessary condition for a symbol is to possess a structure similar to the referent of that symbol. In this way, for instance, a painting, in as far as it bears a similar structure, could exist as a symbol to some other entity. The tonal structures we call 'music' bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling-forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses..."24 It is within virtual time, time as felt, that music is able to symbolize the familiar form of the emotional life. Langer is contending, perhaps, that the individual symbol of music is its structure and as its distinct referent, emotion. Langers position, while clever in its own right, is fraught with difficulties. The primary problem is that to contend music bears a similar structure to that of the emotional life is to maintain that the emotional life has a recognizable structure. She inherits the burden of describing the structure of excitement, of conflict and resolution, of subtle activation, or of a dreamy lapse. She fails to demonstrate this vital component to her theory, in part, I suspect, because there does not exist such a thing. Langer further claims that art cannot really be said to refer to something outside itself.25 This is contradictory to her assertion that art is a symbol. No entity can exist as both a symbol and entirely self-referential. The symbol chair does refer to the symbol chair but rather to an actual chair. It is a necessary condition of a symbol to refer to something other than itself. Even if we were to concede both incorrect points, Langer never mentions the problem of

24 25

Ibid, 27. Langer. Feeling and Form, 380.

media independence. While a substantive attempt to defend the linguistics and representation of music, Langer fails to overcome some fatal difficulties. Deryck Cooke attempts the same task from a different perspective. Cooke attempts to establish a semantic connection between specific melodic shapes and specific emotions. Every distinct unit or phrase of a musical work has a specific emotional meaning attached to it. Music is a language, not just in a vague, general sense, but in the detailed sense that we can identify idioms and draw up a list of meanings.26 Cooke is arguing that music does indeed have individual symbols with distinct referents; the symbols are not notes or tones, but rather what he calls the elements of musical expression.27 The elements of musical expression, to Cooke, are the thirds, the fifths, the seventhsetc There are sixteen basic melodic shapes which are statically related to a different emotion or feeling. These shapes are based on the elements of expression in various ordered permutations. For instance, the descending 1,3,5 minor corresponds, supposedly, to a passive falling away from the joy of life.28 The full list of melodic shapes have, as corresponding feelings, obsessive, outward-looking, assertive, despairing, anguished, reassuring, joyful, sorrowful, happy, consoling, gloomy, inward-looking, exuberant, innocent, painful and passive. This conceptualization of music as a language while technically plausible would create a language difficult to impossible to use or understand. These sixteen melodic shapes played at tempo would be nearly impossible to distinguish. The presence of harmony, a necessary condition for music would render this, if possible, even more trying. It is interesting that Cooke selected these particular emotions as opposed to similar ones. There is not enough detail in the
26 27

Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959) . Ibid. 28 Ibid.

melodic shape to possess such a specific referent. There is insufficient information to differentiate between despair, gloom, pain, sorrow. The English language possesses an excess of hundreds of thousands of symbols which affords, as noted by Timothy Jay and Michael Devitt, the potential to convey a nigh infinite number of meanings. Sixteen melodic shapes severely delimits the amount of communication that can occur with music as a language. As a final note, as with Langer, Cooke fails to address the problem that music is not a medium independent system. Some of my objections to Cooke and Langer initially appear as if I am maintaining that music might be a language, but merely a poor language. I would understand this interpretation but allow me to illustrate the difference. There must be an extent to which poor qualification of criteria is not qualification at all. I cannot sit at a chessboard, begin to move pieces and then veridically claim that I am playing a poor game of soccer.29 There must be a threshold after which music is no longer a poor language, but not a language at all. At some point, I am playing a game of chess.


I owe this thought to my undergraduate professor, Dr. David Johnson.

Bibliography Alperson, Philip, Ed. Musical Worlds: New Directions in the Philosophy of Music. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 1994. Budd, Malcom. Music and the Emotions: The Philosophical Theories. New York: Routledge, 1985. Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Cooke, Deryck. The Language of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959. Devitt, Michael, and Kim Sterelny. Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1987. Hamilton, Andy. Aesthetics and Music. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Jay, Timothy. The Psychology of Language. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Langar, Susanne. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribers Sons, 1953. Levinson, Jerrold. Review of The Aesthetics of Music, by Roger Scruton. The Philosophical Review109, no 4. October, 2000. 607 612. Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Woods, Michael. Musical Meaning: Reference and Symbol. Canadian Aesthetics Journal 13 (2007): 1-15.