Meaning in Music

Bridging Musicological, Linguistic, and Neuroscientific Perspectives

A Symposium on Music Semantics

4 December 2017

Organized by Markus Neuwirth & Martin Rohrmeier

Digital and Cognitive Musicology Lab (DCML)

École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Is music capable of representing meaning, and if so, what type of meaning? Is the semantic content expressed in music comparable to linguistic meaning? Are emotions the semantic primitives for music or just derivations in the context of a truth-conditional theory? Is it possible to tackle more complex kinds of musical meaning (social, historical, intertextual etc.) using established approaches from formal semantics? How does the semantic level in music interact with its syntax? How is semantic musical information processed by listeners both on a cognitive and neuronal level?

These and many other questions have vexed musicologist and aestheticians for decades, if not centuries. For philosophers of the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, it has been self-evident that the essence of music lies in its capacity to act as the "language of emotions." For Kant, this very capacity was highly suspicious, relegating music to the lowest among the arts; for Schopenhauer, by contrast, music was the most important art form, as it provided a window into the realm of metaphysics. Modern approaches have framed music semantics in terms of Lakovian metaphor theory, following Eduard Hanslick’s famous dictum: "What in every other art is still description is in music already metaphor." The field of music semantics has recently received novel and innovative impulses from the work of Philippe Schlenker, who is arguably the first to develop a formalized, truth-conditional (source-based) semantics for music.

In this one-day symposium, five leading scholars set out to approach the challenging issue of music semantics from three disciplinary angles: musicological, linguistic, and neuroscientific.