Music as Language — structured thought without content

Recent discussion on this blog has prompted me to think about how much music really is like a language.

Language is constituted by syntax, grammar, structure, adjectives and so on; this seems to be basically all that language is. And music, too, has all of these things.

One can compose a sonata where one theme struggles against another. The result is often one where the initial theme is transformed a new. Beethoven’s music often exemplifies this idea. For instance, his fourth piano concerto, second movement. Occasionally, this dialectical movement between the demanding orchestra and the pleading, comforting words of the piano are believed to be Beethoven’s musical realization of Plato’s dialectical method, which Beethoven was probably reading at the time of this composition. In contrast to Plato, we have no content, we have no definition of Justice that must be tested against another. With Beethoven’s concerto, each theme is anonymous. What we do have is the fact that the piano is finally able to convince the orchestra to agree with its serene idea. One can easily make up a story to go along with it: the shepherd David comforting the raging king Saul with his harp. In any case, we don’t know. We only have the struggle. We do not know what the struggle is about. The explicit meaning escapes us.

So, music does not, however, have the same relatively fixed meaning that nouns have in language, one of its essential cores. Still, bits of pieces of music carry with them connotations derived from context. More generally, specific genres of music are associated with certain peoples or genres of art. Wagner’s late operas were composed in such a way that specific characters or themes received their own motif. These associations provided the listener with new ways of deciphering what was happening on stage. More broadly, Wagner’s music was also played during Nazi propaganda videos. As a consequence, his music is associated with anti-Semitism (which Wagner was. Ironically, Zizek claims that Wagner’s music actually epitomizes the wandering Jew).

One could easily imagine a musical composition that could carry this even further where a Wagnerian theme would struggle against a Jewish klezmer theme. The struggle would be easily recognizable as the Nazi’s struggling to wipe out the Jewish people.

But these examples with such obvious connotations are exceptions rather than the rule. The explicitness of these kinds of connotations are actually quite few and far between. Often, the connotations are rather subtle and are lost on those who have not spent many hours with the work. For instance, upon the first hearing of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, we don’t understand that the aria Mein Teuer Heiland is composed as a pastorale (Christ the shepherd), where the believer (bass soloist) asks the Christ nailed to the cross if he has redeemed the whole world. While the believer petitions Jesus, a choir sings a chorale with text of the realized eschatology of the church, nor does one immediately grasp that when the believer is asking if the world is redeemed, the word redeemed (Erlösung) wraps around the chorale’ affirmative answer in continuous sixteenth notes. Thus, Bach emphasizes the scope, steadfastness and persistence of this redemption. There are many other examples of this kind of work in this aria, and Bach’s work in general, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

The point I’m trying to make is that music contains the structure of language without much of the content. The content that does become associated with music is extremely unstable and often only understood by a few. One can use music to have a nuanced conversation in purely musical terms, about musical terms. But one cannot have a nuanced conversation that is not about music with music.

If language structures thought, then, what is structured thought without explicit content? Is it merely an invitation to fill the empty envelope of sound with whatever content one likes?


About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

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