Schlenker, Philippe: 2016, Outline of Music Semantics [Summary]. Manuscript, Institut Jean-Nicod and New York University.


[This is a summary of 'Prolegomena to Music Semantics' [], which discusses several issues that are omitted here – notably: the role of emotions in music semantics, music pragmatics,  and the radical differences between music semantics and linguistic semantics.]

Abstract:  We provide the outline of a semantics for music. We take music cognition to be continuous with normal auditory cognition, and thus to deliver inferences about 'virtual sources' of the music (as in Bregman's Auditory Scene Analysis). As a result, sound parameters that trigger inferences about sound sources in normal auditory cognition produce related ones in music – as is the case when decreasing loudness signals the end of a piece because the source is gradually losing energy, or moving away. But what is special about music is that it also triggers inferences on the basis of the movement of virtual sources in tonal pitch space, which has points of stability (e.g. a tonic chord), points of instability (e.g. dissonant chords), and relations of attractions among them (e.g. a dissonant chord tends to be resolved). In this way, gradual movement towards a point of tonal stability, as in a cadence, may also serve to signal the end of a piece, but on the basis of tonal information. The challenge is thus to develop a framework that aggregates inferences from normal auditory cognition and tonal inferences. We sketch such a framework in a highly simplified case, by arguing that a source undergoing a musical movement m is true of an object undergoing a series of events e just in case there is a certain structure-preserving map between m and e. Thus we require that inferences triggered by loudness on the relative levels of energy or proximity among events should be preserved, and similarly for tonal inferences pertaining to the relative stability of events. This yields a 'bare bones' version of a music semantics, as well as a definition of 'musical truth'. It is obtained from entirely different means from truth in language: musical inferences are drawn by treating music as the 'auditory trace' of some abstract sources, and not by a compositional procedure. We then argue that this framework can help re-visit some aspects of musical syntax. Specifically, we take (Lerdahl and Jackendoff's) grouping structure to reflect the mereology ('partology') of events that are abstractly represented in the music – hence the importance of Gestalt principles of perception (rather than of a generative syntax) in defining musical groups. We further speculate that the headed nature of groups ('time-span reductions') might reflect a more general tendency to analyze sub-events as being more or less important for events they are part of.