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.

Go here for an interesting experiment in facial expression. **NOTE: THE PREVIOUS LINK IS BROKEN. THE CONTENT THAT WAS THERE APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN MOVED. I AM TRYING TO LOCATE IT ELSEWHERE.**

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.

9 thoughts on “Music and communication

  1. In listening to some Boznian folk song the other day, I was completely floored by the complete otherness of thier musical system. They really, really enjoy minor seconds belted out in unison without resolve as the a musical structure that aids their communcation in that cultural context. It is clear that this would not work in western societies to accompish the same effect, ok.

    However what can be universally linked is the seeming natural desire/tendency to use music as a hieghtened mode of communication, no? This is true among virtually all human cultures, and the angels themselves. As previously discussed this does not make communication more precise, but rather it provides a medium for expression deeper than intellect.
    As a composer, I know that most of my music thus far has been born almost solely out of my understanding of theory/musical intuation, and has had little to do with the deep utterances of my heart and soul, at least consiously. As Shack said, farbeit for anyone to limit the expression of an infinite soul with a finite range or sequence of sound structures by creating and conforming to a given system. But the system is useful for creating the contexts needed to begin communicating certain ideas interpersonally, i.e. long unresolved m2 interval from a happy Boznian/unresolved m2 from a deeply troubled European. Regardless of the system, the correlation is that they both use music, in a sense, as a higher way to express, and in a thier respective systems, comminicate.

    Why did I say all this? I don’t know.
    – James G.

  2. Hmm.. I think the Bosnian example demonstrates that stylistic norms and (culturally bound) semiotics (like a cadence in western music) will communicate *something* inside the cultural context, but the communication will be of a very broad nature, and close to impossible to quantify or describe verbally with any precision. In other words, it fits in the category of “musical communication about musical things”, with extra-musical references made at the listener’s whim, perhaps.

    And, I’d like to comment on a statement in the previous comment: “most of my music thus far has been born almost solely out of my understanding of theory/musical intuation (sic), and has had little to do with the deep utterances of my heart and soul, at least consiously (sic)”. Yes, theoretical and stylistic understanding help a composer to have more choices available in any given situation, but they don’t necessarily help a composer choose from among many “workable” alternatives. The really interesting part is what causes composers to make the choices they make, when many things would have worked…. and the more choices you have available, the more mysterious all this is… at least to me.

    Regarding the assumption that music is a “higher” form of communication…. I’m not so sure, maybe because I’m not sure “communication” is the essential element in music, and if it is, I’m not sure that whatever *is* communicated is necessarily “higher”.

  3. Phil:

    I think there might be two directions to go with this. One direction is to argue that ALL cultures have music of some kind or another- a fairly uncontroversial claim. That is, there is a natural desire to make and enjoy music. Thus, we could say that the human species is “homo musicalis” or some such thing. Although cultures vary in their composition of music (e.g., the chord progressions or whether they use 5 tone or 12 tone scales), there is still the FACT of the music itself. One creative element of the “imago dei” is the universal desire to make music. Faith integration with music thus operates on the level of an aspect of human nature as created by God.

    The second route you could go with this is by appealing to the philosopher Wittgenstein who argued that there are many “forms of life” in which various locutions are used and expressed. In order to understand how each locution is used one must first be immersed in that form of life. Obviously, the world of music composition is a Wittgensteinian “form of life” and can only be understood from that context and therefore attempting to find a common thread throughout all musical expressions may be a very difficult task.

  4. I’d have to agree that the existence of music seems universal, of course, if music is broadly defined. The problem for music theorists who want to do “faith integration” is that the “imago dei” approach offers no guidance about which music to study, which theories to pursue, etc. In other words, music theorists’ faith won’t have much impact on the content of their discipline, the fact that they chose that discipline, the lines of research they pursue in the discipline, etc. It may, just barely, have something to say about the application of music theory to a task like composition or arranging, but it is by no means clear just what that application will be… except that when a text or lyric is involved, skill with stylistic elements of harmony or melody will make it easier to “portray” the text. And in the meantime, we’ve just left the exclusive province of music and entered the musical presentation of poetry.

    The “form of life” notion of Wittgenstein, as far as I can tell from my small acquaintance with it, is mostly about the communal nature of language. A previous post here discusses music and language in a brief way; suffice to say that while the communal nature of music is obvious, that still doesn’t allow us to effectively discuss what music *means*, except in musical terms (I don’t mean words about music… I mean actual MUSIC). The faith integration problem is obvious, I think.

  5. Shack, how do you interpret Gen. 1:27 and the whole “imago dei” idea? I tend to have a fairly unconventional view, so I am just wondering about your brief exegesis on the topic, since it undoubtedly has a large baring on our discussion of music and faith integration.

  6. Hmm.. I’m afraid I must defer to all the fine commentaries on a topic like this. But… I tend to think that the imago dei must include all the ways we are different from the animals, which includes a certain kind and level of mind, ability to make moral choice, physicality that is informed by both, and a process of life as all of these develop, into a unity of personhood. There are problems “at the margins” with this, having to do with mentally or emotionally (a different kind of “mentally”?) disabled people…

    To try to stay on this blog’s topic, I don’t see the imago dei as having lots of direct application to the nature of musical activity, except that it’s very existence (music, that is) is probably part of the imago dei. I don’t see how that helps in the details, though.

  7. Dude-great to see you blogging. Thanks to Mike Lee for showing a link to your site on his blog, which I linked to from my bro-in-law’s blog (Jon Mann). WHew, it’s like 7 degrees to Kevin Bacon or something…anyway I’m going to CalState LA for a Commercial Music Master’s in Arranging. I start Jan 3rd. Hooray!!!!!

  8. Do you find a valid distinction between “faith integration into music” and “music integration into faith”? If so, which do you find to be a more realistic and purposeful challenge?

  9. Hmmm.. not to be trivially picky about wording… but the term “integration” doesn’t feel comfortable to me with a preposition like “into”. I think the correct usage might be “with”… and that invalidates the directionality of the question. The term “with” is “commutative” as I understand it, meaning that it works the same way in both directions. “Into” might be used with a word like “insertion” better than the word “integration”.

    I assume, however, the intent of the question is to determine the primacy of faith over music. That sounds simple on the surface, with an obvious answer… except that things which can’t be realistically separated are usually distorted when this kind of operation is done on them. Faith is the overarching underpinning (think about those last two words… something wrong there) of life…. everyone’s life. We all live in the grip of beliefs we can’t prove conclusively beyond a shadow of doubt.

    If you’re looking for a personal statement, I have faith that music was given to us by God… but that probably doesn’t answer your question, which I don’t truly understand. Thankfully, I won’t be required to choose today between my brain, my heart, my stomach and my liver… nor will I have to choose between my faith and music.

    I’m happy to respond my completely, if you can flesh out the question a bit, describe what you mean by “integrate into”, and perhaps give examples of doing it each way… and then I may be able to answer more fully.

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