Meaning and Music

I'm a huge fan of 13th century liturgical chant--who isn't, after all?--and one of the interesting differences between Catholic and Protestant liturgical music is nicely illustrated by a prominent feature of such composers as Perotin and Leoninus. Listen to some of the clips available at from the collection "Music of the Gothic Era." The very first clip in particular, "Viderunt omnes", nicely illustrates the feature I am talking about. In this kind of music, single words can be drawn out over hundreds of notes, constituting a kind of meditation in itself, independent of the word's function in the overall sentence in which it occurs.

This is in marked contrast with the polyphonic and harmonic music that came to dominate Protestant liturgical music starting in the 16th century, where the emphasis is on the semantics of the whole text. In some ways this is typical of Protestantism, I think: forget about the imagery and sheer beauty of incarnate sound and zero in on meaning meaning meaning. If you're not saying anything then you're not expressing anything worth paying attention to. It's all very logocentric. I don't mean to be too bitchy about this, but it's a point of view that, when taken to an extreme, tends to be exclusivist, denying the authenticity and value of other modes of expression, sometimes to the point of iconoclasm. I don't think that the same is true of the chant tradition, since there are certainly many passages in chant that amount to melodic expressions as direct as any in later polyphony.

I was put in mind of all this by a story I heard on NPR about the musical accompaniment to the movie The Da Vinci Code. It's mostly mood music, obviously, but I was particularly interested in the bit in the interview with the singer, Hila Plitmann, where she talks about trying to communicate feelings and even conceptual matter by singing non-words, that is, she literally vocalizes in the sense that she is articulating phonemes, but for the most part what sounds like language is nothing more than meaningless sounds.

And yet not meaningless, seemingly, if feelings and conceptual content can be "communicated" by articulating these sounds. The interview is quite interesting from the musical point of view: it does, indeed, seem to be true that certain nuances lie in the effects produced by softening a consonant here, blurring a vowel there, and changing the timbre of one's voice from time to time. The 13th century liturgical chant that I love to listen to will sound a lot like meaningless sounds to many people--even to some people who know Latin, I imagine, due to the dramatic melisma employed--and yet, as I remarked above, it is precisely the same here as in Plitmann's work: nuances of meaning are communicated by this very distortion away from the ordinariness of the spoken version of the same sounds.

Is this use of sound texture, tonality, timbre, etc., a kind of language in itself? If it really does "communicate" something, it seems as though it is at least like a language, but it is difficult to see how there could be any grammar to it, rules of syntax, accidence, etc. It all seems very subjective, somehow, and yet not entirely--the old saw about minor keys sounding "sadder" than major keys hits on something that strikes people from all cultures as somehow right. Chomsky's project of trying to uncover a "universal grammar" in the hardwiring of the human brain has borne little fruit, but there appears to be a grain of truth to it; maybe there is something analogous in the case of music, a kind of universal "grammar" governing the modes that we use to express certain kinds of ideas.

Probably not, I'm guessing, and even if there were such a thing it's hard to imagine what sort of confirmataion one could possibly find for guesses about its various features, but it's fun to speculate.


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