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Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Belinda » November 27th, 2012, 5:23 am

Dumbo wrote:
Short version though: Listening to music is like looking at a Rorschach inkblot. It's subjective. No objective semantics. However, I take a position that was an extreme move for me that your projection upon the music, just like your projection upon the inkblot, exists and has great value, though it is not objective, and that this ability to impose meaning on music and inkblots is an essential founding block of what makes us conscious and human. Not just an interesting quirk. Essential.
I persist in my belief that there is an element of direct causation between sound and recipient. If music is analysed into its components i.e. rhythm, pitch, interval,range,texture, timbre and counterpoint there is evidence that rhythm at least directly causes, with no intervening symbolism, physiological effects. I suggest that this discussion could be handed over to the neuroscientists from where there are issues of political and commercial control.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Dumbo » November 27th, 2012, 7:06 am

Causation between sound and recipient? Yes. But going from there to musical semantics is a bit of a stretch. I could make music that sounds like a woman shrieking (Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme) and you might experience a chill from it, and that chill would be the intent of the composer.

When I hear the phrase musical semantics, though, I suppose I think of connections between groups of notes and chords vertically and horizontally aligned.

Some great pieces of music are very powerful... and yet they make no pretense at being "about" anything at all, the way Psycho or Nutcracker Suite or even (stretching it a bit) Beethoven's Fifth does.

Where does that power come from? Hell of a good question.

When I was in fifth grade, I think, they played classical music for us on the school's crappy old turntable. One of the pieces was an orchestrated version of Bach's Little Fugue in G Minor. I've written about many times now because it was a powerful life-changing moment. The Little Fugue is totally analytical, no sounds of dancing sugar-plum fairies in it. Yet it left me stunned. And horrified, too, as it also dawned on me "Nobody else in this room heard it the way I just did." (Wow, me, a philosopher at 10, who would have guessed). That thought terrified me out of proportion to what it seems like it should have. It made me feel very, very alone.

If you want to get an opposing view on this, you can google "Bernstein phonology" to find the youtube video of Leonard Bernstein talking about the phonology of music and his belief that there might actually be a semantic language to music.

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Belinda » November 28th, 2012, 4:27 am

Dumbo wrote:
Causation between sound and recipient? Yes. But going from there to musical semantics is a bit of a stretch. I could make music that sounds like a woman shrieking (Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme) and you might experience a chill from it, and that chill would be the intent of the composer
.

A woman shrieking is not only sound but is a symbolic sound . It is poossible that a woman shrieking is biologically imprinted as part of human genotype in such a way that a woman shrieking has a biologically normal effect, probably a rise in blood pressure, enlarged pupils and quichened reflexes.Those effects may be due to culture not nature.

Biological effects dues to nature with no symbolism could be discovered via correlating measurable physiological effects with drumming rhythms upon subjects who are as musically naive as possible. It could not be conclusive as no subject is perfectly naive, but control groups of musically sophisticated listeners from various cultures could help with the conclusions.

I think nit is possible that musical intervals may likewise have biological effects shown by physiological changes.#

If you want to get an opposing view on this, you can google "Bernstein phonology" to find the youtube video of Leonard Bernstein talking about the phonology of music and his belief that there might actually be a semantic language to music.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Dumbo » November 29th, 2012, 12:20 am

I took formal languages in college (computer sci). We studied grammars and syntax and Chomsky and all that but never got into the deeper realms of linguistics, so bear with me if I get some of the lingo wrong.

It seems to me that music is like syntax WITHOUT semantic meaning. Just as the rhythm of a limerick (da dada da dada da dada...) has a form without a meaning before you fill in the words.

Can syntax ever create its own semantics? I think to a limited extent it can, and if it does, it does it in music, which is all form, all da dada da dada... without the words.

For my amusement (maybe yours too) I just now made a limerick melody. It has no words, just notes in the form of a limerick. I don't know how to embed youtubes (can you do it here?) so here's the link to it. It's unlisted so it wont' show up on google, and I'll probably delete it at a later time.
Aha! You can embed youtubes here. Excellent...

Strangely enough, and this may tie into what I'm saying, before I was done putting in the harmony, I realized, hey, I think I heard this before! I rummaged through my mind and came up with this, from the film Copying Beethoven, the scene where the copyist shows him a melody she wrote that is almost identical in form to the one above. Beethoven unwittingly breaks her heart by laughing at it and calling it a new musical form, Fartissimo! He starts to play it and makes farting sounds while he plays it. Compare it if you like.
Now, you and I might wonder, hmmm... Was Dumbo unwittingly plagiarizing the film? Yeah, could be. But I wanted to show the similarity and difference here between music and poetry because I think it goes to the issue of the semantics of music.

Beethoven, in the film, finds it hilarious, even though it's deeply personal and serious to the poor girl who composed it. Who is right? Is the rhythm itself humorous? I think I side with the film's Beethoven on this. Is it because of cultural associations with the limerick rhythm? I suppose that's the biggest part of it. I also think there may be something about the limerick rhythm itself that makes it a bit humorous. There's often something crude about 6/8 rhythm. And the sudden full stops at the end of each verse take away from the seriousness for me.

So there may be something there, but it's tenuous. I can analyze things like this and find all kinds of anchor points for getting agreement between us on what this (or some other piece) means this way, and it is actually enlightening for both of us. I feel like I learned something just doing the exercise above and then going, whoa, I heard this before!

However, there's still a mystery here, because there really are no words to it. At some level we are always projecting onto it.

There was a famous music theorist, Schencker, who proposed the theory that western music before the 20th century kookiness was all based on a type of grammar. He didnt' call it a grammar, I don't think. The basic idea is, everything comes down to I-V-I, or, if you started as a garage band guy like me, you could say that as C major chord, then G major chord, then C major chord again. Everything else is almost fractal-like elaboration on that.

There are some very basic elements of music that do seem to have a non-random basis. I'm reading Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony right now. Tough going. Schoenberg, of course, is the guy who first popularized atonal music at the beginning of the century, so his 1906 book is about half and half music theory and diatribe against everybody else in the world. As he teaches the elements of traditional harmony, he goes to great, great lengths to make the argument that all of this is cultural, that what is too dissonant today is interesting tomorrow, and what is just interesting today is boring tomorrow. Schoenberg was influenced by Darwin in his thinking, and viewing this as more than just changing fashion, he saw himself as raising music up the evolutionary ladder.

Yet he's fair enough to note that there are basics that you just can't get around. The strongest chord progression is V to I (like G major to C major). G loves to go to C and it has a kind of oomph to it, while C to G isn't as strong. Just about all tonal music ends with some kind of V to I conclusion, like the period on the end of the sentence.

Is that syntax or semantics? That V to I conclusion (called a cadence) is mandatory to conclude a phrase, but does it have its own meaning? Because we certainly get that oomph from it that tells us, "Okay, this is a plateau of stability, like coming back to rest after a roller coaster ride." I usually describe a cadence as punctuation, a period at the end of the sentence, but in another way, it's like a goalpost.

If we're in C major, things that take us further afield from C major affect us by raising tension. Returning to C major at the end is ahhhh...

Have we been conditioned, like Pavlov's dogs, by a lifetime of cultural exposure to this game of delayed reward? Yup. Finding meaning in it for you and me as individuals is easy. Finding common meaning in it is a harder task.

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Naughtorious » November 29th, 2012, 1:01 am

Dumbo wrote:
For my amusement (maybe yours too) I just now made a limerick melody.
I don't think that flat piano note you hear at approximately 0:05 of the video was necessary.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Belinda » November 29th, 2012, 6:00 am

Music all without semantic meaning? Can Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata be separated from its Romantic context, even if it could never be shown to have certain biological effects?

By the way, if the melody reproduced above in staff bore the instruction 'Largo' it would no longer read like the same light hearted joke although due to its melodic associations the Largo version would be a suitable accompaniment for official ********.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Dumbo » November 29th, 2012, 6:57 am

Yeah, it probably could. There are a number of melodies like that, I think, that sound light-hearted, but when slowed down, seem serious or tragic.

Speaking of the Moonlight, for instance, the final movement is the same theme as the first movement, but it speeded up to Presto. The result is to make a theme that had seemed sad and reflective in the first movement into something furiously angry and manic.

I know what you're saying about something BEING THERE in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I don't mean to minimize it. I just doubt it intersects completely with the objective world. You and I might agree in many ways about what it sounds like, but I've heard it so, so, many times, and I know I don't hear it the same way that I did when I was younger.

Compare that to Mozart now... I'm a big Mozart fan. I kinda liked Mozart when I was young. I could have talked about him at length and told you my favorite Mozart pieces, and some of them still are. But I listen to them VERY, VERY differently now. Even though they are the same music. The elements of narrative arc in Mozart that used to enthuse me when I was young... er, I've heard all that. That has worn off a bit. Now I notice the details, and that is where Mozart's music is the richest. Other composers' music that I like, like Tchaikovsky, for instance, aren't rich in details that only emerge after the thousandth hearing the way they do in Mozart. I can zero in on one little itty bitty thing he does that is fantastic. It's all the more fantastic to me because I've listened to it so many times and I just now notice it.

Now, if music doesn't mean the same thing to the same person from day to day, what hope do we have that music can really mean something universally? That doesn't mean there is nothing there to share, or that what we imagine we hear isn't real. I think it means /our interpretations/ of the music are the greater part of the miracle that takes place when we listen to something like The Moonlight. Not to take any credit away from Beethoven, of course, but I think the listener's part in this poses the more interesting metaphysical issues.

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Side_of_nothing » November 29th, 2012, 8:20 am

see, I'm not sure about this no objective meaning thing. Of course, everything is subjective and something can only mean something to someone as THEY percieve it, but surely there is a correct way to hear music, and that way is WITH THE EMOTION/STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS THAT THE COMPOSER/PERFORMER EXPERIENCED WHILE CREATING THE MUSIC. Sorry for shouting, I thought I'd emphasise then it got out of hand (lol). But if music is truly a way of expressing how we feel, and that is its primary function (I believe it is) then empathy in the listener should allow that way of feeling to naturally flow through the listener. That is why we listen to music that makes us feel good, and we don't listen to music that doesn't - we strive to feel like the creator (of the music). If we don't want to feel, at least in part, like the creator of music did in the act of creation, we don't listen to it. So OK, there is no way of knowing what the correct semantic meaning of a piece of music is, I would say there always IS a correct objective meaning to music, just one that we can never know for sure. (unless we ask the composer/performer, and he/she has enough self-awareness to know exactly how he/she felt at the time of composition/creation)

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Naughtorious » November 29th, 2012, 3:52 pm

Music is a product of self-reflection. This is why it falls into the category of bias. What we experience when we listen to music changes on itself as we find ourselves fluctuating between different moods.

When I'm calm and collected I listen to: 3 Hours Unmixed Chillout & Lounge Tracks

When I'm off-set or wild I listen to: Crystal Castles - Empathy

It varies from time to time because we're always going to keep fluctuating between moods to experience all kinds of different moments. We are never the same person and always remain the same on the surface while changing beneath the surface. This is because our fake persona can be shaped into whatever we want it to be and our eyes never seem to change.

Music has no effect on the deaf. If you play a song with heavy bass the vibrations will affect them but the melody and everything else will have no effect.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Toadny » November 29th, 2012, 3:56 pm

The answer is: no, nothing has intrinsic semantic meaning. Meaning is always ascribed on a momentary basis, it is always exclusively in the mind of the individual.

However, it is possible for us to work out what other people (probably) have in their minds, and that leads to complex language and to our present situation where it is very difficult to remember that words, gestures or music don't have intrinsic meaning.

When shared meanings are developed there are many practical reasons why a particular kind of word, gesture or wordless sound might be associated with a particular entity or phenomenon. For example, mama, dada, papa are sounds that babies make automatically, and most languages have words like that for mother and father. Similarly it's easy to see why fast music would be associated with certain emotions and slow music with others.

On the question of the meanings of the major and minor keys, I think that is almost entirely conventional, part of a highly complex system of shared meanings which have to be learned. Other cultures use entirely different musical scales and intervals where major and minor have no place.

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Dumbo » November 30th, 2012, 3:34 am

Different but not entirely different. The tuning can be very different, but the basic harmonic series seems to be the starting point for almost all of it. There is rhythmic music that has no scale or pitches, but that's a different matter. Probably the most universal scale found on every continent is the pentatonic scale, a scale which is equivalent to using only the black keys on the piano. Pentatonic music is easier for people to sing because it doesn't have any half-tone intervals. It also makes the music more harmonically stable because you don't have the clashes of tritones (notes like B and F which when played together or sequentially make a very dissonant sound because there's no easy common ratio).
side_of_nothing wrote:but surely there is a correct way to hear music, and that way is WITH THE EMOTION/STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS THAT THE COMPOSER/PERFORMER EXPERIENCED WHILE CREATING THE MUSIC. Sorry for shouting, I thought I'd emphasise then it got out of hand (lol). But if music is truly a way of expressing how we feel, and that is its primary function (I believe it is) then empathy in the listener should allow that way of feeling to naturally flow through the listener.
I think most people either feel that way or USED TO feel that way. I'm one of the USED TOs. I wish I could believe that when I hear a piece of music, I'm hearing an intended piece of emotional message that they intended to convey, but I don't think so anymore. I spend a lot of time trying to tell people how to listen better to music, and I do a lot of it by telling them what the parts are, how the parts fit together, what this or that thing makes me think of...

But I have to face the fact that when I tell them what the music reminds me of, it's like I'm telling then that when I look at a certain Rorschach image, I see dancing bears.

Image

If I tell you that with enough conviction, you'll start to see them, too. Especially if I convince you that I have a lot of expertise at telling what the inkblotters REALLY MEANT when they made the inkblots. After a while, you might be able to see nothing but dancing bears. You might even start arguing with people who say they see butterflies and tell them they're wrong.

"Oh, but Dumbo, composers are really deep people with a lot of deep feelings! I know because that's how I feel when I hear their music!"

One of the two most influential composers of the twentieth century was Igor Stravinsky. He once said, "There are no emotions in music." When I tell people that, they sometimes visibly wince. They get angry. It sounds preposterous. But I think I know what he meant. It didn't mean he didn't have emotions when he composed it, or that you don't have them when you listen to it. It's just not built into the music as part of it.

We probably can agree on some things about music, so there may be a small element of objective meaning, perhaps, at least within our culture. Minor key music sounds sad or serious. We can get almost universal agreement that the Moonlight Sonata, for instance, is kind of sad. But when you start trying to be more specific, which is WHAT YOU MUST DO when you are a good listener, then things get sketchy.

And teaching people how to listen to music is a lot like teaching them how to look at inkblots. Trying to help them get something out of the inkblot experience. If you didn't think there was something there to get in the first place, you might think that is a worthless endeavour. But I don't. I've had to think hard about that.

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Belinda » November 30th, 2012, 8:15 am

Do you think that perhaps it would be helpful to differentiate between natural sounds and music as artefact?

Clearly Mozart was a maker of artefacts.The musicians who reproduce Mozart's compositions are artificers. Is an Neanderthal mother soothing her baby making an artefact?

I suggest that music, and by contrast the natural but living sounds made by crying babies and rutting stags be arranged in a hierarchy with a zero point which marks intention to create truth or beauty. Thus we could put the simplest hymn melody or folk rhythm above the zero, and the more cerebral the music becomes the further above the zero. The model is suspect because the above and below, but we could adjust for that.

This model becomes problematic when inanimate natural sounds, by their sheer forms, indicate beauty and truth. Bird song, or the wind in the trees, for instance.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Side_of_nothing » November 30th, 2012, 10:02 am

Belinda wrote:
I suggest that music, and by contrast the natural but living sounds made by crying babies and rutting stags be arranged in a hierarchy with a zero point which marks intention to create truth or beauty. Thus we could put the simplest hymn melody or folk rhythm above the zero, and the more cerebral the music becomes the further above the zero. The model is suspect because the above and below, but we could adjust for that.

This model becomes problematic when inanimate natural sounds, by their sheer forms, indicate beauty and truth. Bird song, or the wind in the trees, for instance.
I think that model falls apart from the word go because there is no way to say this is just incidental; this is an artefact. Birds are communicating by whistling, and therefore they are truing to get at some kind of truth. And from my own experience, birdsong is far from 'inanimate' and is very beautiful. The sound of the howling wind can be very beautiful, but is not intended for any purpose. Could the same not be said for any music, that it has no real purpose or intention, other than being beautiful?

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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Naughtorious » November 30th, 2012, 10:13 am

Side_of_nothing wrote: that it has no real purpose or intention, other than being beautiful?
Being beautiful is implying an intent and a subjective experience that doesn't exist further than our matrix.
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Re: Can wordless music have intrinsic semantic meaning?

Post by Side_of_nothing » November 30th, 2012, 10:21 am

Dumbo wrote: But I have to face the fact that when I tell them what the music reminds me of, it's like I'm telling then that when I look at a certain Rorschach image, I see dancing bears.

If I tell you that with enough conviction, you'll start to see them, too. Especially if I convince you that I have a lot of expertise at telling what the inkblotters REALLY MEANT when they made the inkblots. After a while, you might be able to see nothing but dancing bears. You might even start arguing with people who say they see butterflies and tell them they're wrong.

"Oh, but Dumbo, composers are really deep people with a lot of deep feelings! I know because that's how I feel when I hear their music!"

One of the two most influential composers of the twentieth century was Igor Stravinsky. He once said, "There are no emotions in music." When I tell people that, they sometimes visibly wince. They get angry. It sounds preposterous. But I think I know what he meant. It didn't mean he didn't have emotions when he composed it, or that you don't have them when you listen to it. It's just not built into the music as part of it.

We probably can agree on some things about music, so there may be a small element of objective meaning, perhaps, at least within our culture. Minor key music sounds sad or serious. We can get almost universal agreement that the Moonlight Sonata, for instance, is kind of sad. But when you start trying to be more specific, which is WHAT YOU MUST DO when you are a good listener, then things get sketchy.

And teaching people how to listen to music is a lot like teaching them how to look at inkblots. Trying to help them get something out of the inkblot experience. If you didn't think there was something there to get in the first place, you might think that is a worthless endeavour. But I don't. I've had to think hard about that.
I think what stravinsky meant was, in his opinionated way, 'I choose not to put my emotions in music, and so should others'. I think he probably tried to transcend emotions in music, and a lot of the best comosers do that, to make way for pure consciousness. Could feeling like god or pure consciousness be called an emotion? I don't know. I think it is highly possible to put raw emotions in music, for example, if you're listening to jazz and the saxophone plays a line that is like weeping, that is sad. If he plays a line that sounds like laughing, it is joyful and light-hearted. These are emotions and I hear these devices used a lot in music. I know i can't say for sure whether it's INTENDED to be heard as crying/laughter, but its something most people would agree on, and therefore you can estimate that it was probably intended that way by the sax player.

That meaning is only in the beholder, I'm afraid I just can't agree with. The creator of the words/music speaks/plays with a universal type of consciousness, that anyone can relate to because we are all the same deep down, and that part of their experience is also part of our experience. If a teacher says 'this passage of beethoven is about drinking martinis' and he is adamant enough to persuade the students of this, it has no bearing on if that's actually what its about. Beethoven meant something when he wrote this, he didn't just write anything and say 'make of it what you will'. Even if he was totally detached from the task, feeling as if it wasn't really HIM writing it, which was probably the case, it was still his hand that wrote those notes, so it was a specific experience of composing this. You can't ever feel nothing. You can be in denial of or detached from your emotions, but it is not possible to have NO emotions. So the emotions he experienced when writing, however in-the-moment, were emotions nonetheless, and his compositional logic was the logic of someone experiencing a specific set of emotions.

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