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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019 R. Staneviˇci¯ut˙e et al. (eds.), 

Of Essence and Context, Between Music and Philosophy

Humanities - Arts and Humanities in Progress 7,

Chapter 15

Where Is the Essence of a Musical Work?

Per Dahl


The essence of music engages the human ability to create symbolic meanings

from any impression. In our search for this essence, we must first followthe communicative

path of a musical performance. The double ontological status of music as

both cognitive activity and observable object makes any transition from cognition to

object a reduction from thick to thin entity, and any transition from notated/sounded

work to interpretation/musical experience a thickening of the music's properties.

The process of elaborating upon the epistemological elements in this communicative

chain positions the essence of the musical work as a discourse on relational

dimensions that are culturally contextualized by the idea of a musical work.

15.1 Introduction

Humans are able to derive a coherent world of symbols, meanings, and ideas from

a single impression. Daniel Kahneman uses the term "System I" in his description

of this prediction code theory in Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman 2012: 19-38).

When we need to think about what kind of impression we have just processed, it is

the slow "System II" that is at work. Focusing on the epistemological dimension, I

view most musical experiences as a combination of these two cognitive processes.

System II, that is, involves the search for the ontological entities and concepts that

are structuring our impressions. System I describes a musical experience whereby

symbols, meanings, and ideas come together based upon a single impression; this

is possible because previous impressions are stored in our memories and available

at the moment of the next impression. There are many potential conditions to this

particular prerequisite, but one stands out here: when we store impressions in our

memory, they are not unique and rigorous units but rather groupings differentiated

according to what is often referred to as one's "horizon of understanding". This

aggregation generates concepts that in turn facilitate the System I process. It is vital

to note, as well, that these concepts need not be only linguistic but can also be

musical, such as, for example, Tönend bewegte Formen sind einzig und allein Inhalt

und Gegenstand der Musik, as Hanslick wrote (Hanslick 1854/1973).

The double ontological status of a musical work as both a physical event (the

sounding music) and an impression of a phenomenon has blurred many of the discourses

about the musical work and its essence. Stephen Davies points out that even

the most detailed score is (ontologically) "thinner" than any performance of it (Davies

2001: 211). The musician will read the score as a collection of imperative symbols

(Ingarden et al. 1986) and thereby add more properties to the music. As a result, the

"musical work" becomes a social construct encompassing more properties than those

that are written in the score. The listener will refer to his/her concept of music when

appreciating the musical work, activating a social construction of reality (Berger

and Luckmann 1966) that relies upon his/her musical knowledge and affinities to

combine the impressions of the sounding music with its social setting.

15.2 Discourses of the MusicalWork

Communication is bound up in human activity. The traditional way of thinking about

musical communication involves three (human) figures arranged in a sequence from

the composer via the performer to the listener. This model has been paradigmatic to

nearly all discourses in music history and music theory, often without the benefit of

any distinction among the ideas of music that might accompany or even characterize

these three figures. Communication as an exchange of ideas has dominated the discourse

about the musical experience, but music's double ontological status demands

that we include the most important non-human elements (or objects) in musical life

as well. In classical music, these would be the notation, the sound of a performance,

and the discourse about the music. The model, then, will look like this (Fig. 15.1).

                        Fig. 15.1 The communicative chain

Based on this model, we might then want to link Davies' distinction between

thick and thin works to ideas and objects, respectively, making the transformation

from idea to object into a reduction from a thick to a thin entity. The composer's

idea of the musical work is developed during the process of composing the work,

and what ends up in the work's score is limited by the actual notation practice. The

notated musical work is the thin element and needs to be interpreted-that is, given

(musical) meaning through the addition of properties that consequently open up for

meanings other than those intended by the composer. The performer's reading of the

notation generates an interpretation based on the performer's horizon of knowledge

(which is not restricted to music/sound/notation) and his/her performance skills. The

performance as a sounded musical work, though, is thinner (has fewer properties)

than the performer's concept of the interpreted musical work. The listener will then

interpret the performance in accordance with his/her expectations and horizon of

knowledge (which is not restricted to music at all). The utterances in a discourse of

music are thinner than the musical experience that prompted them. Note that it is

not possible to trace this model backward, both because of the lack of a consistent

linearity to the communicative process (which involves three different people with

unique ways of structuring musical knowledge) and because of the information lost

in the process of comparing objects and ideas at each stage.

So, we might ask: Where is the essence of a musical work? Is it a quality raised

in the discourse about music? Is it something in the listener's mind, a quality of the

sounded musical work, a phenomenon governing the performer's interpretation, or

something we can identify in the score? Is it an exclusive quality only accessible

through the composer? We must remember, as well, that often when composers perform

their own music, there is a significant discrepancy between the score and the

performance or between different recordings of the same piece that were conducted

by the composer (Cook 2003: 176-191). To respond to any of these questions, it

seems we need another model-one that serves to illuminate the semiotic and communicative

aspect of music as a performative practice. First, however, I will present

three perspectives on knowledge acquisition in music that could be illustrated with

this model.

Performance practice studies often focus on the first two figures (composer and

performer) in the communicative chain and shed light on the transition from the

composer's idea to the score/notation practice, and on how this insight might guide

interpretation (Butt 2002). In an HIP (Historically Informed Performance) project,

the position of music in a given society, the aesthetics of music in a given historical

period, and the geographical area itself all supply relevant perspectives on the notation

(and then the performance). Yet all of this information only provides a secondhand

description of how the music should sound, and the performer still needs to develop

his/her interpretation in linewith expectations regarding howthemusic should sound

in the present as well. The overall goal of the performer is to communicate with the

audience in such a way that the signs and symbols that supplymeaning to themusical

work are accessible to the listener. The performer needs to develop and use his/her

practitioner knowledge to complement his/her background knowledge, and this is

the second perspective on knowledge acquisition in music.

The performer must incorporate constructing (building up) the interpretation

(thickening the score), and, in his/her performance, must be able to react to the

responses from the intersubjective contexts of audiences and venues (acoustics and

fellow musicians). Awareness of the actual intersubjective context is part of the

practitioner's knowledge and will always include non-conceptual, non-propositional

knowledge, in addition to the propositional knowledge of cultural and historical

studies. The practitioner's knowledge will further include the performer's assessment

of the possibilities for answering the composer's intended interpretation,

given the performer's skills, the condition of the instrument, the venue, and one's

fellow musicians. This knowledge is part of the thinning process by the performer

in the communicative chain model. The performer's interpretation must be both reliable

and valid. It is reliable when the performance/action is based on signs within

a relevant ideology (HIP knowledge). It is valid when the musician adjusts his/her

performance using expressions that are adaptable to the context/venue (audience

and acoustics, respectively). The challenge for the performer is to put a contextual

knowledge of signs and the musical work's expressions into the melting pot of his/her

horizon of understanding, giving the product an identity and making it meaningful

to the audience.

It is possible to regard a musical work as an objective entity-an accumulation

of actions and signs within an ideology to be manifested as a sum of expressions

in a given context. Such an approach is standard in teaching situations and used by

many performers. This perspective permits analysis of the work outside of exclusive

reference to the originator/composer's intentions, along the lines of Roland Barthes'

theories about the reader constructing the text (Barthes and Heath 1977). References

to the historical background of the work will implicitly draw upon terminologies of

style and genre and thereby give some hints about the composer's intentions for interpretation

of the music/score. However, in trying to locate the essence of a musical

work, we would be best advised to focus on the musical expressions in a performance,

and they depend upon the performer's capacity to create valid and reliable symbols

and signs. In this way, the embodied knowledge, skills, and horizon of understanding

that are necessary to the epistemological process will support the ontological

perspective of the musical work as an objective entity. From the performer's perspective,

the challenge is to see what connections exist between sign/symbol and

ideology (in classical music, that is, the theory of music and its history, styles, and

genres), and what connections the chosen expression, as a sign/symbol, can manifest

in a performance today. The artistic expression's functionality depends on references

to certain accepted musical gestures and topoi to communicate with a public (Hatten

2004). In the absence of such references, there is no possibility of meaning construction.

Music has no denotative power (only some onomatopoetic features)-it is all

based on connotations (that is, the listener's meaning construction). Being inherently

symbolic, the artistic expressions in music can only contribute meaning when it is

possible to relate new impressions to existing references.

From the listener's perspective, a performance that is both reliable and valid will

release the essence of music through artistic expression as a personal reflection (that

is, using System II), based on the cultural context (manifested in System I). For the

listener, the essence of music no longer implies a search for ontological entities in

the performance but instead implies an acceptance of the epistemological process of

an impression residing in the category of music. The traditional discourse in music

analysis, however, seems to skip the performer and jump directly from the listener's

position to the score, searching for the composer's intentions as though they contain

the essence of the musical work. Using the score as an objective representation of the

musical work, the theorist can reveal a great deal about the syntactical structure of the

work, the way in which it was composed, some characteristic elements of its style,

and the reasons the composer chose that kind of notation. In the extensive literature

on composers' lives and music, though, many theorists have gone a step further and

incorporated (literate) information about the composer's social context in a semantic

fashion, attaching meaning to the composition's syntactical structure and reflecting

upon the composer's intentions and, in turn, the essence of the musical work. There

are some serious methodological problems with this practice, however. As my model

illustrates, moving from the object (the composer's notated work) to the composer's

idea of a musical work entails a reversal of the thinning process. Using the objective

facts, we purport to see into cognitive processes in the composer's mind, but our lack

of access to the composer's entire horizon of understanding will make any logical

inference invalid. Living in a time and space other than those of the composer, the

theorist's understanding is incommensurate with the composer's horizon of understanding

(Kuhn 1962). The amount of information available about some composers

(including their own autobiographies) allows some insight, but any logical inference

concerning performance and the essence of the work will be invalid.1 Nevertheless,

it is the lack of logical inference that makes different interpretations of the "same"

musical work is both possible and enjoyable.

15.3 The Triangulation of the MusicalWork

In their search for the essence of music, many books and theories have presented an

ontological approach, and all have failed to provide a final answer. It is impossible

to establish a discourse on the essence of music without involving knowledge about

the cognitive processes in the human mind as an epistemological dimension that is

fundamental to all musical contexts. Therefore, I will propose a semiotic model to

sort out some central concepts and relations in establishing the musical work and its


In this model, there is a triangular relation between the person (performer/

receiver), the performance (action), and the product.2 First, I will present

an everyday situation as an illustration:

A person (A1) approaches another person (A2), and A1 lifts his right hand to greet

the person he approaches. When the approaching person has identified this act as

part of a greeting ritual, the person in question (A2) will (likely) lift her right hand

to return the greeting.

I will describe this situation with terminology that includes three levels.

1 This view is in contrast to the fusion of horizons (Gadamer 1960) and more in line with accepting

the "inductive cliff".

Some consequences of this model for artistic research are elaborated by Dahl (2017).

Level 1: PersonA1 has an intention to greet personA2 and acts by raising his right

hand (element B). A2 identifies the act (B) as a product in the context of greeting

rituals (element C) and lifts her right hand. To identify a sign is to categorize a segment

of reality (the act) as a single element (the product) that is classifiable according to

a pre-existing category (the context). Insofar as both people perceive the greeting

the same way-that is, relate it to the same familiar context of greeting rituals-a

meaning transfer of A1's intention to A2 is possible. A2 has interpreted A1's action.

This can result in a joint action (they greet one another), given that it is appropriate

to shake hands in this situation. If a shared understanding is absent, the sign or

gesture can still be identified, but its result will depend on the interpretation that A2

attaches to it. This demonstrates that interpretation is more than the identification

of signs. It also involves situating sign identification within the interpreter's mode

of expectation (A2's intention). In addition to the identification of the sign and its

contexts, A2's appraisal of the consequences-that is, the possible contexts-and

the sign's potential comes into play. Without this appraisal of consequences, we could

say, preliminarily, that A2 had no contact with the essence of this action (the greeting

ritual): she simply identified it.

At level 2, this simple situation can be described as follows: a person has a belief

(the personal meaning) (A) that is shown through the signs used (B) to express the

action (C). The beliefs of the person can be articulated as intentional explanations.

The identification of the sign is indicated through operational explanation (the operationalization

of the sign), and the understanding of what it expresses can be explained

through causal explanation (a discovery of the causal connections obtained between

the expression and the perceivers of the expression). While the person, action, and

product (all at level 1) are observable to others, only the sign is directly observable

at level 2.

This elementary situation can also be described on a level 3 as follows: a person

has a horizon of understanding (the representational world) (A) that is evident in

his/her choice of ideological statements (B) in given contexts (C). In our case, this

means that the person has a conception of the elements of a greeting ritual and of

situations in which those elements are typically used. Implicitly, the elements are

culturally conditioned: what counts as belonging to a greeting ritual varies from

culture to culture. These differences might be described as alternative ideological

superstructures that set up the framework for the development of the cognitive structures

in greeting rituals. Within each cultural context, an intersubjective agreement

(an understanding) exists about which expressions (ways of understanding sign elements)

are presupposed for the signs to be understood as a greeting. In our culture,

the right rather than the left hand is the one used for a greeting. This kind of understanding

presupposes an imaginary organization of the elements or signs in relation

to the ideological frames constituting the cultural context. This structure can be

called a pre-judgment, in Gadamer's sense, insofar as it is not the conscious act of

an individual but rather belongs to his/her way of being (Gadamer 1960) (Fig. 15.2).

What makes this an interesting communication model is its insistence on the

necessity of reflecting upon the difference between sign and expression-on the sign

as an observable element in the performance and the expression as an element in the

intersubjective context of understanding the performance. The performer's intentions

generate the signs used in the performance, but it is only when the receiver

accepts those signs as expressions in the receiver's intersubjective context that a

communication of musical content has taken place. The model shows that

the significance/meaning of music for the public depends on the actions/signs and

ideological superstructures that are discoverable in the work and also that these elements

must be operationalized according to the context and expressions in which

the sound product appears. This intersubjective context of operationalization forms

the basis for the establishment of code recognition (Eco 1976: 48-151), interpretive

communities (Fish 1976: 191), and good taste (Hume 1995; Kant and Weischedel

1790/1974). Music's ability to shape real-time social interaction facilitates the construction

and negotiation of personal and collective identities, or what Bourriaud

(2002: 18-20) called "relational aesthetics".3 Moreover, it is in this intersubjective

context that the personal legitimacy of a musical experience is transmuted into public

legitimacy through the application of a pre-existing (standard) discourse. This act

does not undermine the ontological basis of music, but, in this situation, I would say

that the listener's value-driven statements are more dependent on the communicative

context and its epistemological potential than on the ontological chain of elements

in music. Based on the elements in the discourse, we could differentiate between

Kenner (using more technical terms) and Liebhaber (using their appreciation of the

music). However, this should not be taken as evidence of the possibility of different

musical experiences. It is only that the transformation of the personal experience to

a public statement has different traces and will establish different (social) contexts

for the utterances.

There are no references to music in Bourriaud's book, however.

15.4 The Essence of a MusicalWork

Given a pointed focus on the performer, the relation between essence and effect in

music becomes crucial to the search for the former. In Absolute Music (Bonds 2014),

Mark Evan Bonds devotes part 1 to the period from antiquity through the middle of

the sixteenth century, an era when music's essence was understood to be the direct

cause of its effect. According to my model, this would mean that the effect that the

sounding musical material in a performance had on the listener could be taken to be

the essence of the work. It would then follow that a search for the essence of a musical

work would focus on its sounding elements (the doctrine of ethos)-scales, modes,

and so on. In the period between roughly 1550 and 1850, the most important of 

qualities used to explain the connection between the nature (the sounding object) and

the power (the effect on the mind) of music were expression, form, beauty, autonomy,

and disclosiveness, that last of which valued music as an organon of knowledge-a

means by which to gain access to truth.

Amidst the babble of conflicting discourses concerning the essence of music in

the mid-nineteenth century, Bonds suggests that Hanslick's book Vom Musikalisch

Schönen (1854) and various Wagnerian polemics in the 1850s were the watersheds

for the idea of absolute music. Nevertheless, in my search for the essence of music,

I would point to four other developments in the period 1750-1800. First, there was

the establishment of aesthetics as a distinctive discipline of philosophy in the works

of Baumgarten (1961) in the 1750s. Second, literature on music began to emphasize

the performer's responsibility for making music more than just a sensuous sound

experience in the first textbooks on playing instruments: the flute in 1752 (Quantz

1956), the clavier in 1753 (Bach and Schwickert 1780), and the violin in 1756 (Mozart

1956). This shift was part of the gradual division of the composer/performer role into

two distinct pursuits; along the way, it loosened the composer's control over music

performances and allowed for different interpretations of the same composition. To

the growing bourgeoisie, this articulation of several market participants represented

access to a new kind of knowledge that became part of their new identity. Third,

and in tandem with music's disclosiveness, these two developments (aesthetics as

a discipline and the division of labour/new identity for composer versus performer)

generated the concept of the musical "work of art" by the end of the eighteenth

century-a concept that would become fundamental to the appreciation of music in

Western culture for the next two hundred years (Goehr 2007). It was materialized

via the beginnings of modern music publishing, and Beethoven could be considered

the first composer to benefit from this paradigmatic shift. Fourth, the listener's perspective

became important in philosophical works. In his widely read System des

transzendentalen Idealismus (Schelling and Brandt 1992: 299), Friedrich Wilhelm

Joseph Schelling declared that art "constantly makes known that which philosophy

cannot present externally, namely, the primordial unity of the conscious and the

unconscious". And one important premise of Kalligone (Herder 1800: 811-812) is

the idea of listening with the entire body.We see, then, that the act of listening comes

to unite the sense of hearing and the mind at the deepest possible level, as the mind

simultaneously analyzes the structure of what it hears. The move from searching

for ontological entities in the sound of music to an epistemological perspective now

became very important to defining the essence of music.

Small (1998: 218) is quick to note that the performance came first, whether historically

(the musical history of the human race), ontogenetically (musicking in the life

of the individual human being), or aesthetically (the critical evaluation of the experienced

impression). The aesthetic dimension is what I would further characterize as

conceptualizing the symbolic potential of musical expressions. As such, Small's aesthetics

is in fact, a continuation of the disclosiveness of music- its means of gaining

access to truth. In artistic research, the primacy of performance in music (and especially

the practitioner's knowledge) is an important point of departure for seeking

knowledge acquisition in music, which implies more focus on musical elements and

less on extramusical knowledge and truth. However, the communicative potential in

music seems also to be part of the universal/genetic constitution of the human race.

Music is performed and appreciated in all human cultures, and this appreciation is not

restricted to cultural expressions that are part of one's own identity. This apparently

borderless acceptance of musical expressions as potential meaning constructions

(aesthetic experiences) represents a challenge to certain theories in philosophy (Is there a universal essence in music?) and cognition (is there a generative element

in all music?). The main question, however, is this: How can musical expressions, that

is, symbolic/ideological content- be transferred via the sonic objects from the

performer to the listener or from one subject to another subject?

According to Niklas Luhmann, communication is constituted by three elements:

"information", "utterance", and "understanding". Luhmann explains:

Communication succeeds and is experienced as successful when three selections (information/

utterance/understanding) form a unity to which further communication can connect.

Participation in this occurrence-whether as a source of information, as an utterer, or as

someone who understands the utterance in relation to information-is the basis of all socialization.

(Luhmann 1995: 243)

In Luhmann's theory, information is not restricted to propositions or linguistic

utterances, as it is in most theories of communication. A "bit" of information is

defined as a difference that makes a difference.4 While human perception stands

ready to scan a familiar world for information without requiring a special commitment

to do so, works of art, by contrast, employ their perceptions exclusively for

the purpose of letting the observer participate in the communication of the invented

artistic expressions. From the perspective of consciousness, that is, perception frames

all communication. The music intensifies the awareness of communication; in turn,

as our consciousness becomes aware of being directed and captivated by communication,

experiencing the discrepancy between external control and our unlimited

operative possibilities:

4Luhmann uses the same concept of information as Bateson in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind

(Bateson 1972) and reveals an interesting affiliation to Derrida's différance.

The self-awareness induced by art is always the experience of a difference. (Luhmann 2000:

21) Elsewhere, he notes:

Communication can no longer be understood as a 'transmission' of information from an

(operatively closed) living being or conscious system to any other such system. (Ibid. 9)

Communication emerges only if the difference between information and utterance

is observed, expected, understood, and used as the basis for connecting further

behaviour. When I underlined the difference between signal/symbol and expression, it

was primarily from the performer's perspective. Translated according to Luhmann's

thinking and taking the receiver's perspective, we might say that signal/symbol would

be the information, and expression would be the utterance in the receiver's understanding.

Communication is a self-determining process, and whatever is established as communication

is established by communication. Vagueness, incompletion, ambiguity,

irony, and so forth are part of the realm of communication and can introduce uncertainty

in ways that secure a certain usage. This deliberate vagueness (like the musical

expectations) plays a significant role in communication, especially in the artistically

mediated variety. This freedom is especially relevant in classical music, where

we are confronted with the apparently infinite interpretability of "finished" canonical

works. It is important to remember that the distinction between determinacy and

indeterminacy is an internal variable of the communication system and not a quality

of the external work. From the performer's perspective, uncovering the ontological

entities (the qualities of the external work) is but the first part of the process of developing

the performance. The communicative elements also have to be integrated into

the interpretation to make the performance both reliable and valid.

An artistic expression is an external event that we take in as an impression and

compare to an existing horizon of understanding. To be expressive, the given impression

must contain more information/knowledge than a comparable impression. In any

process of knowledge acquisition, the establishment of the primary interpretative elements

becomes the fundamental source of knowledge. These interpretative elements,

developed via differentiation, can be non-conceptual and non-linguistic as long as

they can be differentiated. This differentiation is based on our previous knowledge

and is a result of cognitive automaticity, in contrast to more reflective awareness (Systems

I and II). As such, this process is fundamental also to identifying an impression

as an artistic expression, even though this identification might be non-conceptual.

This is in line with Derrida's idea of différance:

Différance should function not as a concept, not a word whose meaning should be finally

'booked into the present', but as one set of marks in a signifying chain which exceeds and

disturbs the classical economy of language and representation. (Norris 1987: 15)

As listeners, we can identify an impression as an artistic expression in music

without any identifiable property (ontological element) in our awareness of the aural

sound. This is unique to the performing arts, as opposed to fine art, and particularly

to music, which is abstract and has only the potential of connotative meaning. From

the performer's perspective, the interpretative elements represent a set of marks in

a signifying chain that exceeds and disturbs the tight bonds between language and

representation. Artistic expressions might, therefore, introduce new perspectives to

already existing knowledge and challenge propositional knowledge.

In an artistic expression, the set of marks (the aural elements of the performance)

can be distinguished from other objectivations by their intention to serve as a pointer

to or indicator of meaning. Musical signs are explicitly intentional and formed with

the purpose of referring to something meaningful beyond the actual acoustic soundscape.

It is important to remember that not all elements in a performance are necessarily

part of the same meaning construction. Listeners seldom completely agree

on details in the performance, even if their overall judgment is congruent. However,

combined with the multitude of cognitive processes, the possibility of establishing

meaning-bearing signs in music arises among differentiated elements. The processes

of meaning construction, therefore, take different paths for a musician and a listener.

This complicates the search for the essence of a musical work unless one denies the

primacy of ontological definitions and accepts the relational dimensions and contexts

of the musical work.

15.5 Conclusions

To answer the old question of how aesthetic communication achieves its goal, Luhmann

goes a step further:

Communication is made possible, so to speak, from behind, contrary to the temporal course

of the process. (Luhmann 1995: 143)5

Positioning communication as ultimately perfected in the addressee makes it possible

for our "understanding" to construe a communicative event where there was

none intended, or where it was intended as an entirely different thing. The listener

might decide to experience any sound aesthetically in the same way that he/she

experiences music. This freedom is restricted to the intersubjective social/cultural

systems founded in the difference between actuality and potentiality, with actuality

presented by the performer (A-B in my model) and potentiality experienced by the

listener/receiver (C-A in my model). The distance between sign and expression (B

and C) can be reduced in my model by narrowing the angle in A. This would represent

a situation where A1 and A2 share a greater part of their horizon of understanding

through a united context and ideology.

The epistemological process of listening to classical music engages the concept

of the musical work. If there is no musical idea beyond the sounding music, there

is no need for a discussion of the essence of music: the essence of music equals

the effect of the music. On the other hand, we do have this concept, and this makes

Wolfgang Fuhrmann, in his presentation of Luhmann's theory, concludes rather bluntly: Without

listeners, there is no music (Fuhrmann 2011: 147).

possible a discourse based upon a performance of (classical) music works where one

issue could be the essence of the musical work. However, the arguments would be

bound to the (intersubjective) context, and Luhmann underlines that one cannot get

at the work's "essence" while disregarding the "nonessential", as there is no such

thing as a distinguishable essence (Luhmann 2000: 204). Therefore, an answer to my

question regarding the location of the essence of a musical work is that a successful

performance of classical music will offer the audience possibilities to reflect

upon the essence of music as a relational dimension within a cultural context and

contextualized by the idea of a musical work.


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Luhmann's Challenge to Music Sociology. Acta musicologica 83 (1): 135.

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Per Dahl (b. 1952), dr.philos. He studied musicology, philosophy and psychology at the University

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Article delivered 2017 02 03

Of Essence and Context : Between Music and Philosophy, edited by Rta Staneviit, et al., Springer International Publishing AG,

2019. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Created from uisbib on 2022-08-01 10:57:57.

Copyright © 2019. Springer International Publishing AG. All rights reserved.

Applying 'literacy' in music reading

First published in Academic Letters 2021

The history of dividing music theory and practice has not ended yet. Even after the fusion of Conservatories and Music High Schools into universities, we find this division manifested in several layers of governance.[i] In big institutions, the fusion is only visible on the top level. The different activities in music are separated into various departments/faculties. Smaller institutions might be in the same faculty/department, but only a few institutions have a unique building housing all music research and performance studies. The educational programs at the university level have some possibilities to combine musicology and music performance studies, but the cooperation between staff members is sometimes a big challenge. In the new branch named artistic research, the need for competence from both sides is only partly welcomed. The need for identity in their own culture and history creates many obstacles to the new opportunities for music educators in today's higher education.

In this short paper, I will present a reading of the concept 'literacy' as a lens for developing an understanding of the differences between musicologists and musicians in their relation to printed music. Brian Ferneyhough describes the music notation as being in "a strange ontological position: a sign constellation referring directly to a further such constellation of a completely different perceptual order." (Ferneyhough 1998). The score is a common platform for the analyst and the performer in this perspective. However, the musician and the analyst read the music/score/parts with different mindsets, making their consecutive actions very different. To say it simply, the analyst discovers the parametrical structures in the composition (studying melody, rhythm, harmony, and form), describing the syntactical dimension (the plan of succession) in the music. A professional musician will have the proficiency to perform the succession of note signs and search for signs and symbols that could give some information on making the performance musically expressive and coherent, focusing on the plan of simultaneity.[ii]

Literacy is defined (UNESCO) as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.[iii] The definition of literacy has three parts: 1) assembling different verbs, 2) a connection to printed and written materials, and 3) associated with varying contexts. The parts could be linked to 1) subjectivity/epistemology, 2) objectivity/ontology, and 3) intersubjectivity/cultural processes. Then it will be possible to uncover the differences in approaching music notation.[iv]

Music notations (scores/parts/sheet music) are ontological elements independent of human relations. Literacy is an ability and, as such, a concept within an epistemological dimension bound to humans and their contexts. Therefore, what we can do when approaching music notation is strongly connected to our aims of studying music. The definition of 'literacy' includes verbs towards ontological and epistemological elements. I will comment on some of these relations to demonstrate how/why analysts and musicians have different discourses around music.

The ability to identify printed music is mandatory for both professions. It is the objective, ontological element common in music reading. However, we enter the epistemological domain as soon we go to the next level to understand the printed material. Then each person's horizon of understanding will be activated, and differences might develop. Their cultural capital[v] and social context[vi] can be decisive in shaping the understanding.

Interpret the written music involves knowledge about notation practice, which is most common to analysts and performers, but their perspectives are different. The analyst searches for an interpretation that can support their arguments referring to compositional technique or music theory concepts.[vii] The performer must add a considerable amount of knowledge of conventions (genre, style, composer's notation practice) supporting the actual notation to create an interpretation of the sounding music. The musicologist's interpretation aims to create a conceptual, sometimes cultural, context based on the printed music work.[viii] The performer's interpretation seeks to create a coherent, conscious, and sounding idea of the music work.

To communicate and compute using printed and written materials in different contexts is what the musicologists do every day. It is essential to underline that their communication and computing are primarily done in various contexts, all having a specific discourse, making their communication about music a second-order communication. They(we) do not communicate music or musical expressions but ideas and concepts, arguments, and metaphors, all in a verbal language under the spell of music notation as a representation of the music. Here the contrast between to two roles becomes extreme. The performer communicates and computes using printed materials in a different context having the performance on their mind. That involves activating his practitioner knowledge; how to transform the idea of an interpretation into performative actions that will give the audience a glimpse of the interpretation developed in their mind. Then information outside the printed score like the acoustics in the venue, the temperature on stage (and among the other musicians), and all impulses from the performer's body and instrument, will now be part of the process of computing the sounding result.[ix] Even if the printed score is the same for the musicologist and the musician, the context is different and more critical; the mindset using the knowledge related to the score is entirely different.

Is there any way these two worlds could meet? Is an amalgamation of these competencies necessary, something we want?

The objective printed score as the common ground could be the ontological fact initiating some terminology and measurement based on this object. However, it soon becomes impossible to agree on the next level, developing relevant terminology. There is no context-free terminology, and therefore the aims/ideologies generating new terms need to be contextualized. The two roles in reading printed music are partly incommensurable as they belong to different paradigms (worldview on what music is). I called it mindsets at the beginning of this text. I will not go into a detailed analysis of incommensurability and paradigms between the musicologist and the performer for this short text. I hope that my reading of 'literacy' connected to the differences in knowledge in reading music can contribute to seeing some common areas of knowledge acquisition for analysts and performers. On the other hand, I do not see the need to fuse different competencies into a standard vocabulary. It is more important to develop each horizon of knowledge within their paradigms; the scientific revolutions in music will come soon enough.

Agawu, Kofi. 1999. "The Challenge of Semiotics." In Rethinking Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist, XVII, 574 s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Borgdorff, Henk. 2012. The conflict of the faculties: perspectives on artistic research and academia. Leiden: Leiden University press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cook, Nicholas. 1987. A guide to musical analysis. London: Dent.

Cook, Nicholas. 2013. Beyond the score: music as performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dahl, Per. 2019. "Where Is the Essence of a Musical Work?".

Ferneyhough, Brian. 1998. "Aspects of notational and compositional practice." In Brian Ferneyhough: Collective writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop, 2-13 London/New York: Routledge

Luhmann, Niklas. 2000. Art as a social system. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Schuiling, Floris. 2019. "Notation Cultures: Towards an Ethnomusicology of Notation." Journal of the Royal Musical Association 144 (2):429-458.

UNESCO. 2004. The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for politics and Programmes. Edited by Education Sector. Paris: UNESCO.

[i] (Borgdorff 2012)

[ii] (Agawu 1999)

[iii] (UNESCO 2004)

[iv] (Schuiling 2019)

[v] (Bourdieu 1984)

[vi] (Luhmann 2000)

[vii] (Cook 1987)

[viii] (Cook 2013)

[ix] (Dahl 2019)

Text, Identity and Belief in Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms


Stravinsky was a leading proponent of neoclassicism who repeatedly underlined in his statements and writings that there was no alignment between text and music in what he composed. Analysis of the Symphony of Psalms (as well as other works) reveals many possibilities for the listener to experience meaning-construction based on text-music relations in this work. Stravinsky re-joined the Russian Orthodox Church in 1926 and made his conversion a central role of his identity. In this article, I present some refl ections regarding his religiosity and revisit the idea of absolute music as a premise for neoclassicism. Taking the listener's perspective in my analysis of text-music relations, I will focus on the epistemological possibilities for creating meaning based both on the text and the relation to expressive qualities in music. In order to understand Stravinsky's statements, I fi nd it necessary to accept his view of music and religious texts as two incommensurable paradigms.