Music and communication

Composers and/or performers may intend a certain reaction to be experienced by listeners, and that reaction may occur, but this is neither essential nor universal in much music making, except in the very broadest sense that audiences (mostly) know when to applaud… in cultures that applaud.

Some of the intelligibility of music to typical listeners seems to be semiotic in nature, depending on very basic parameters like high/low, fast/slow, loud/soft, complex/simple, bright/mellow, etc. However, every generation experiences the fact that its “musical symbols” are different from the last, sometimes hugely so. In response to music that one generation finds teeth-grating, another generation closes its collective eyes in mellow nirvana. In other words, musical gestures and structures are not interpreted in a universal way, even among culturally related listeners.

It’s important not to confuse communication with expression and the perception of it. A listener can hear a crescendo, or a nice turn of phrase, and even respond to these on some level, perhaps by assuming a certain emotion on the part of the composer or performers, but the content of the communication is very difficult to define. This is not to say that music is not emotional in some absolute sense; it seems clear that sometimes composers and performers do feel things about the music, and sometimes audiences will feel some of the same things. However, the music and its performance may simply signal some form of emotional intensity, and the listener may easily infer a different emotion (as the one to be intensely felt) than the one “intended” by the composer or performer.

There are many theories of emotion. In order for a theory of communication in music to be based in its assumed emotional nature, it will be necessary to choose one of those theories first. Assumptions about the nature of emotion underlie most theories about the nature of musical communication. For a taste, try typing “theory of emotion” into a web-based search engine, and sample the variety of theories. Each one would have different implications for the nature of musical communication, if such a theory is based in the musical communication of emotion.

To illustrate the problem: everyone has a face, and uses facial expression to communicate, but the very same facial expression may express great pain or great pleasure. Tears may signal sadness or joy. A smile can be truly joyful, or darkly evil. In other words, communication via facial expression depends on a context understood by both parties to the communication, and is not inherent in the facial expression itself. There may be only a few distinct facial expressions, with all the subtleties inferred by the viewer of the expression. Emotions can be exceedingly complex, as any slightly introspective person knows. That does not mean, however, that the face actually communicates them with any great specificity.


How much more complex is musical structure and gesture than facial expression?

If musical symbols have been previously assigned (i.e., a melody stands for a certain person or place, etc.), some communication may be said to have happened, but it will be based on a simple sign or leitmotiv. Short of that, the communication may be said to be musical communication, about musical things… a tautology if ever there was one.

If music is primarily communication, and if the communicative potential is merely semiotic and very general, then the structural subtleties matter relatively little. That is, of course, the exact opposite of the professional opinion of virtually every music theorist, and not a particularly helpful point for the beginning of an attempt at faith-integration, particularly in music theory, because it invalidates the reason for most of the content, i.e., the study of the structural subtleties that matter so much to musicians.

If a theory of faith integration in music, and especially music theory, is to celebrate the inquiry into the subtleties of musical structure and gesture, that theory will need to be based on something more than the assumption that music communicates emotion, semotically or otherwise.

Words mean things, but music doesn’t use words.

This is another in the chain of posts dedicated to disposing of common misconceptions about the nature of music, and how it can interact with faith in God.

Music has (more often than not) grammar, syntax, spelling, micro-structure and macrostructure. The study of music is enhanced with all kinds of useful analogies to language, especially in terms of how we process input, and understand sonic gestures in the context of what follows. Does that make music a language, let alone “the universal language?”

To put it simply, if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. For music to be a language, the meaning of the term must be stretched to include structures that make or have no external reference. Without externally assignable meanings to musical “statements” and “gestures”, it seems difficult to contend that music is a language at all (at least in any conventional sense), let alone a universal one.

Those who are persuaded of music’s supposed universality may appeal to culturally conditioned musical gestures that seem to convey meaning between a particular composer and a particular audience. Of course, the same may be said of smiles, frowns, yells, laughs and cries. We do not ascribe to them the status of language, however.

In a language, meaning is conveyed by a combination of definition and grammar/syntax/structure. Words mean something in the absence of grammar/syntax/structure (or at least there will be several possible meanings — i.e., the word “fish” in English will never mean “shoe”, regardless of syntax/grammar/structure). Possible definitions in a particular instance are constrained by context, i.e., syntax/grammar/structure, but the possible definitions pre-exist the context.

Music lacks any pre-existing definitions to correlate musical gestures or fragments with external meanings. To repeat: if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. Whatever “meaning” it has is almost exclusively internal.

What are the implications of this for music and faith integration?

Essentially, music will do a very poor job of conveying any kind of concept. That doesn’t mean the listener can’t find analogies between various concepts and music, but music does not convey them in the manner of a language. To the degree that anyone believes that music conveys in language any particular truth about faith in God, disappointment seems certain.

The next post will discuss communication and music, which is related to all of this, of course.

Music is no more mathematical than breathing

Music has some mathematical aspects, to be sure. Musical intervals are ratios of frequencies of air pressure variation. Musical tone quality is partly a result of the cumulative effect of various frequencies on/in the overall pattern of air pressure change (what physicists would call the “waveform”). Scale degrees are numbered in some systems, and mathematical relationships of scale degrees are observed. Rhythmic relationships are described in numerical terms.

Nevertheless, the experiences of musicians and listeners are not fundamentally mathematical, any more than the perception of color is experienced mathematically, though the frequencies of reflected light are essential aspects of the physical reality behind our experience of “color.” It is a canard that music and mathematics go together in some a priori way, either in content or in perception, except in the same senses that most aspects of human living can be counted or measured.

The rate of breathing can be counted, the volume of breath can be measured, the percentage of oxygen uptake can be measured… but breathing isn’t fundamentally about mathematics, either.

Some musicians are also gifted mathematically; but many are not. As a professor of music theory and music technology, I’ve observed many talented music majors struggling with their math classes. I’ve also seen them scratch their heads trying to do the low level math involved in converting sample rates and resolutions into RAM usage for a length of time to be sampled. Binary arithmetic is at the bottom of many concepts in music technology, and I’ve seen no particular affinity on the part of music majors for absorbing it.

So what does all of this imply? Theories comparing the “internal elegance” of mathematics to music don’t tell us much more than comparing mathematics and breathing. There is no causal relationship (in either direction) between musical ability and mathematical ability, though they may coexist in many people. Music and mathematics both involve perception of patterns, but so do about a million other things.

The relevance of all this to faith integration and music is straightforward: if their is no privileged relationship between music and mathematics, then faith integration strategies that are appropriate for mathematics aren’t particularly likely to apply to music.

Coming next: music and language.

OK, Time To Get Down (To It)


Some readers of this blog will probably be confused about all the fuss. What’s the big deal about integrating music and faith? Isn’t it obvious? Aren’t some songs Christian, and some not? Aren’t some styles of music more worshipful than others? Isn’t music the universal language? Isn’t it the words that make some music Christian?

And so on.

Just to start at a nice clear point, my answer to most of the questions above is, “probably not”.

You may disagree… and there’s a comment button below this post where you can say so.

In any case, my opinion is that we can’t have a real discussion of the integration of faith and music until we dispense with some common canards about music, and about the music of faith. So, over the next few days (if I’m lucky), or weeks (if I’m not), I’ll post explanations of why there aren’t that many useful analogies between music and mathematics, or music and language, or music and art, or music and communication.

I’d like to start a conversation here… so feel free to respond, and express your opinion.

Applications of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to Music Making/Teaching/Learning Applications of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to Music Making/Teaching/Learning

Just as it is possible to be an excellent scholar of the Bible without being a Christian, it is possible to know a great deal about music and be a poor musician. One may have a genuine heart for God, sincerely attempting to practice Godly living, and yet be relatively ignorant of Scripture and reasoned teachings flowing from it, so that without some correction from traditional interpretations one is at risk of being led significantly astray by poor teaching, trendy ideas, or cultural pressure. Similarly, one may be a very talented natural musician, but without training that includes study of the classics, the development of traditional interpretive skills, and much effort in personal internalization of these things, one’s ability to express that talent will be very limited.

One way to the internalization of musical structure, style and practice is to say it, sing it, read it, write it, play it and hear it. The musician in training should do all these things, using as subject matter the best music that has come down to us. The musician should learn theories about the grammar and syntax of musical structure, and learn to say them, sing them, read them, write them, play them and hear them, so that concept, skill and practice are integrated in the musician.

Just as it is tempting for anyone to avoid what is difficult and do more of what seems to come more naturally, it is tempting for musical theorists to avoid praxis, for singers to avoid music theory, and so on. Similar observations can be made about the difficulty a theologian may have in some aspect of personal living, or the tendency of some good-hearted Christian laborers to misuse, misconstrue or misappropriate theology.

John Wesley’s teachings on the integration of scripture, tradition, reason and experience in the individual’s life would seem to apply to becoming a “complete musician.” The goal of university training in music should be to encourage the development of a musician who can say it, sing it, read it, write it, play it and hear it, from a reasoned understanding of the “canon” of music that has come down to us (but is still “open”), and in light of the traditions of interpretation and praxis that are expressed in the work of the finest performers, composers and conductors. The result should be a musician who has internalized musical structure and gesture, understands both deeply, connects modern musical life to best of the past, and who never stops growing in any of these areas.

Music students in a Christian university can be introduced to the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral fairly soon in their coursework. Applications of this general approach to learning music can be made, so that students have more appreciation for the integrative possibilities of the (seemingly unrelated) activities and coursework that music majors do. Faculty should be more intentional in explaining and modeling this approach. Frequent reference can be made to a musical activity or assignment as being more or less reflective of different aspects of the analogy to the Quadrilateral, reminding students of the integrative target.

For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, see Donald Thorsen’s book, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral and Music Making/Teaching/Learning

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is the term applied by some modern scholars to the confluence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience in the Christian life, as presented in the writings of John Wesley. While affirming the primacy of Scripture, Wesley added experience to the Anglican triad of Scripture, tradition and reason. To Wesley, correct interpretation of Scripture required the application of reason to traditions of interpretation, and the confirmation of experience and practice in personal life.

Though Scripture is the primary starting point, there is an implied role for tradition, reason and experience in the formation of the canon. While not discounting the role of divine inspiration, there is virtually universal recognition of the roles of oral/priestly tradition, personal experience and reason in the creation of the Scripture itself, and selections made for the canon. Much of Biblical scholarship consists of the identification and illumination of these threads.

In music, there are metaphors for scripture, tradition, reason and experience/practice. The musical notation that has come to us through history is the “scripture.” The “tradition” includes the performance practice (one aspect of “interpretation”) that allows an audience to hear the music performed. This includes a good deal of information from the tradition to clarify aspects of performance practice which are not notated in a specific way in the printed music itself. The tradition also includes writings about music, perhaps in a role similar to commentaries on Scripture. “Experience” includes the internalization of music on many levels, requiring adequate exposure to the “canon” (notation of traditional classics), traditions about how to interpret the notation, techniques of personal practice and study that aid in that internalization and its expression, etc. “Reason” would include disciplines like music theory and musicology, which develop theories about the structure of music, its relation to the culture that produced it, its grammar and syntax, etc., and the application of these understandings to interpretation and the creation of new music (the “canon” is still “open”).

The notation that has come down to us (musical “scripture”) is sometimes the result of the experiences in music making of many people (a sort of oral tradition existing before any notation). Other times, existing musical manuscripts represent the labor and “inspiration” of one creative individual. Some of the music seems to have been improvised first, and then recorded in notation by a very skilled person with excellent memory (who perhaps did some editing of the original performance). The comparison to the development of Scripture is obvious.

Just as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral represents an attempt to grasp the nature of special revelation in our lives, music making/teaching/learning exhibits a similar set of concepts about the general revelation of the arts. It is possible that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral represents not so much the nature of special revelation itself as it represents the nature of human beings who receive it, attempt to understand it, and apply it to living.

For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, see Donald Thorsen’s book, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.