Wednesday, February 14, 2007

music ⊄ language?

Talking about music as language isn’t something I’ve heard much since my college days, so it came as a little jolt, albeit not an unpleasant one, when I came across ‘The Semanitcs of Music’ at Musical Perceptions. I left a question there which asked:

…Why are we consistently looking for links between language and music?
Exactly when did we start to theorize music as a subclass of language, and under what circumstance? Why is this hypothetical relationship so much more compelling and durable than others (e.g. in comparison to a hypothetical link between dance and architecture)?
I don’t think I’m the only musician who’s come to believe this ‘is-a’ relationship is not particularly helpful, or, some quirky scholarship aside, illuminating.
I have no idea how, or when, the link between language and music was initially postulated. Some musicians have managed to get significant mileage out of this postulated link, but I have, on the whole, found it less than advantageous.
As an exercise, let’s take some of the minimum requirements of language and see how music shapes up. Does music have syntax? Well, yes, sorta, except apparently having no discernible syntactical structure does not stop you from ‘understanding’ something as music. How about a lexicon? Well, er, under certain circumstances it might. Semantics? Hmm… Hard to say, maybe only when you find something analogous to a lexicon, and the lexicon seems to have some sort of associated… er….
Conclusion: music is sorta, kinda, maybe, almost, sometimes language.frame from Bill Griffith’s Zippy 12-19-06Perhaps the confusion is to do with the ‘is a’ relationship. Thus, if I were to make a link between music and language, I might be tempted to formulate it the other way around: Music is not language, but language is a very limited and specialized form of music. (Or, taking a leaf out of the cladists’ book, I might say that music and language share a common ancestor.) Whatever the criteria that could conceivably bound music, whatever common denominator that could possibly define the multiplicity of musical acts, language can easily be accommodated within it. Really, compared with the range, diversity and variety of music across cultures, language is, by comparison, oddly homogeneous.

Anyway, I’m off-blog for a few days, but, you never know, I may bring back some wondrous (or not) traveler’s tales when I get back….


Jeb said...

you'll probably be interested in reading this article about Derek Bailey and the language metaphor.

--Jeb Bishop

the improvising guitarist said...

Thanks for the link!

S, tig.