Monday, October 19, 2009

Music as a Language

The readings in Music: A Very Short Introduction were fascinating, and I thought that I would focus on those for this week's entry. In particular, I thought I would comment upon and dissect the quote that attention was called to in this week's reading assignment. The quote is by Phillip Brett, and it reads as follows: “ [music is] an enclave in our society—a sisterhood or brotherhood of lovers, music lovers, united by an unmediated form of communication that is only by imperfect analogy called a language, 'the' language of feeling” (pp. 122).

“Music is a language”—it's a phrase used ad nauseam by many when asked “what is music,” and it's a phrase that I have always believed to be false. Frankly, I don't always even think of music as a form of communication (perhaps the idea fits into the category of “transparent ideology”), although such an argument goes beyond what I want to talk about here—for now, I want to focus just on the idea that music is a language of some type.

The first word in the quote that I would point out is the word “enclave.” What is an enclave? It is “any small, distinct area or group enclosed or isolated within a larger one” (definition can be found here). This idea of an enclave of music lovers speaks of a number of different things. First, an enclave of music probably speaks of an enclave of a certain type of music; there are, in this view, probably many enclaves of music. Second, an enclave of music lovers—that is, this enclave is made up of people for whom the love of music is found to be larger than in the average person, thus the distinction. So, what is here is a group of people who love a particular type of music more than the average person—and furthermore, the idea of an enclave further connotes the idea that these people are in some way separate, as if shielded or insulated. Also interesting in this regard is the passage “a sisterhood or brotherhood.” Why the distinction made by the word “or?” Apparently, it is impossible for it to be both. That is rather fascinating, as it presents a further degree of separation.

Next, I would point out the phrase “united by an unmediated form of communication” and continuing through “by imperfect analogy called a language.” I find this phrase to be a bit peculiar, and I believe that it especially supports my general thoughts on music as a language. “Unmediated” connotes several things: 1.) that there are no established or agreed upon musical items/parameters/etc. that convey any particular thought or meaning; 2.) that there is no person/group/etc. who can define or establish such guidelines (it can be attempted, but not achieved—sorry music theorists and musicologists); 3.) that any such attempt must be in some way a form of censorship, causing things to now be “mediated.” Now, for this to a be a form of communication that “only by imperfect analogy [is] called a language” to me not only seems to be a stretch, but it seems impossible. To even be called an imperfect analogy is too generous.

The problem is that music is not attempting in any way to be a language—no, not even of feeling (in fact, let me point out a subtlety—music cannot attempt anything, even though we often speak of it as something that does; we are the ones who attempt, and thus we often have to explain, verbally, our music). As I would image one would notice from the readings, music, composed or performed, is actually a reflection of thought and feeling, not thought or feeling itself, and not the attempt of communicating thought or feeling—music has more to do with mirrors than it does with words.

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