(Original posting 10/24/2017) Today’s post follows up on the previous topic of the music communication debate which I left somewhat hanging yesterday in a rather unsatisfying ending. Let’s looks a little closer at some of the theories of musical communication:
Felix Mendelssohn once said, “What music expresses is not too indefinite to put into words; on the contrary, it is too definite.” In other words, language lacks the specificity of music so that when we have trouble describing the meaning of music, it isn’t the music’s fault, it’s because we lack the words to fully define the music. Thus, music can very exquisitely describe emotion; as per Susan Langer’s contour theory, music sounds the way emotions feel. Or, as Stephen Davies describes it, music has the appearance of the characteristics of emotion. So, music has the ability to express what words can’t.
Thus, music is very powerful, and it is needful for church musicians to have some understanding of this ability because music can teach and shape our hearts. First of all, contrary to popular thought, some level of musical meaning is discernible. In similar fashion to how we can interpret body language, facial expression, and tone of voice to better grasp the meaning of a person’s words (often on a very subtle level), humans are built with the ability to discern meaning from music’s characteristics. Second, to at least some degree, musical meaning is universal to all humans. We are made with physiological, and emotional characteristics such that we respond in similar fashion to certain musical characteristics. This makes sense when we consider that without some commonality in the perception of emotions people from different cultures would find themselves unable to relate at all. It is also true that much, maybe most, of music’s meaning is derived from conventional associations (sleigh bells imply Christmastime, etc.), but we must be aware that there are also universals.
Now, what are the mechanics of how music accomplishes this? A common theory is the hypodermic model, namely, that music has a direct and irresistible physiological effect on the body. It operates outside of symbols to affect everyone in the same way. Its effect is a result of the acoustical properties of the sounds. Most scholars reject his model as it is obvious that music is not irresistible except, perhaps, at a primitive level where sounds can impact pulse, respiration, etc.
A second, more promising, theory is the semiotic model which posits that musical meaning is accomplished through audible symbols and references. It has two streams of thought: bio-acoustic signification and iconic signification.
Bio-acoustic signification proposes an analogical relationship between music and the shape of emotions, what Langer and Davies were describing above as the morphology of feelings: music sounds the way emotions feel. Here is a crude example: sad music is slow and soft as sad people are somber and quiet. In this theory, music doesn’t stimulate emotion, it expresses its shape.
Iconic signification posits that melodic phrases, tonal progressions, rhythmic patterns, etc. are icons that the listener must interpret through culturally imprinted associations. Drum rolls and brass fanfares convey martial imagery while calliopes imply circuses.
Both means of signification have proponents who strongly argue for the preeminence of one means over the other, while many others argue for a blend of the two. But either way, current scholarly thought sees some version of the semiotic model as the best explanation of music’s emotive communication. The semiotic model can be thought of as music using emotional metaphors as its means of communication.
Job 30:31 is often proffered as a biblical argument for the bio-acoustic model. It says, “My harp is turned to mourning and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.” John Makujina argues that the language clearly leans to supporting the bio-acoustic version of semiotics. Whether this is the case or not, it is apparent that the writer of Job saw music functioning semiotically, very much like Langer and Davies’ morphology of feelings, whether that morphology is natural, conventional, or both.