Music and reality

Authored by: Ben Curry

The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification

Print publication date:  March  2020
Online publication date:  March  2020

Print ISBN: 9780815376453
eBook ISBN: 9781351237536
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In the study of music signification, the semiotic theory developed by the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is a touchstone. This chapter outlines the role of Peircean categories in understanding music signification, arguing that Peircean thought should lead us to place special emphasis upon a mind-independent reality. The difficulties encountered in tracing musical meaning to real things and events is then addressed through a consideration of Raymond Monelle’s Peircean analysis of musical topics such as the pianto and the sarabande (Monelle 2000, 17–18). I argue that a full understanding of music signification recognizes a causal underpinning for musical events and behaviors but, nevertheless, grants a vital disconnect between the space of musical meanings and the causal nexus that is the ultimate reality of the world. In developing this picture, this essay draws heavily on the thought of the highly influential neo-pragmatist philosopher Wilfrid Sellars.

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Music and reality


In the study of music signification, the semiotic theory developed by the pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce is a touchstone. This chapter outlines the role of Peircean categories in understanding music signification, arguing that Peircean thought should lead us to place special emphasis upon a mind-independent reality. The difficulties encountered in tracing musical meaning to real things and events is then addressed through a consideration of Raymond Monelle’s Peircean analysis of musical topics such as the pianto and the sarabande (Monelle 2000, 17–18). I argue that a full understanding of music signification recognizes a causal underpinning for musical events and behaviors but, nevertheless, grants a vital disconnect between the space of musical meanings and the causal nexus that is the ultimate reality of the world. In developing this picture, this essay draws heavily on the thought of the highly influential neo-pragmatist philosopher Wilfrid Sellars.

Peirce, signification, and reality

The Peircean categories—firstness, secondness, and thirdness—are most commonly encountered as sign types: icon, index, and symbol. Because they articulate Peirce’s fundamental categories—to which, it is claimed, all phenomena can be reduced—these sign types appear both exhaustive and penetrating in their analytical potential, while remaining capable of insight into the most trivial of actions, signs, and meanings. They allow us to distinguish between meanings or connections that derive from shared qualities (e.g., color, shape, and timbre), from causal or actual connections (e.g., kinetic, spatial, and temporal connections), and from law-like connections (e.g., habitual association and pattern-governed processes). This trichotomy allows us to conceive more clearly how, in the case of an icon, the quality of a slow musical work might signify unhurried human activity, or how, in the case of an index, a particular set of musical traits might signify a particular performer (who ostensibly caused the traits in the first place), or how, in the case of a symbol, a national anthem might be habitually associated with one nation and/or territory rather than another.

Also important in Peirce is the emphasis placed on reality. The category of secondness or indexicality is, in key respects, the most fundamental of the categories. It is toward secondness as actuality, that all inquiry is aimed, and it is from secondness that all knowledge of the world stems. Thus, Peirce’s philosophical outlook is, in important respects, decidedly modern: he insists upon the existence of a mind-independent reality and, furthermore, insists that our understanding of this reality can be advanced through scientific inquiry.

A further Peircean insight concerns the interconnection of sign functions and reality. In studying music signification, we might assume that reality need not concern us excessively. The faun of Debussy’s prelude has no basis in reality, we might claim, so surely, we need not consider any connection to a real world, only to a world of fantasy. But this would be a mistake. For not only, as Peirce notes with reference to the phoenix, do real descriptions of fantastical creatures exist, such creatures do, in fact, have every basis in reality (Peirce [1903] 1998, 295). Fauns may not exist but the goat and the human, from which the idea faun derives, do.

Peirce’s position on the role of the real world in human thought is decisively laid out in a relatively early article titled “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” In it he claims that:

  1. We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts.
  2. We have no power of Intuition, but every cognition is determined logically by previous cognitions.
  3. We have no power of thinking without signs.
  4. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable (Peirce [1868] 1992, 30).
Peirce forms a picture of mental content entirely rooted in our experience of the real, articulated through interconnected categories. Through action, we confront the world (secondness: the object) such that percepts (firstness: signs) develop into further thought (thirdness: interpretants). The external world constitutes the hard facts and these bring about the cognitions (signs/interpretants) that logically develop, one from the other. Music signification, then, from a Peircean perspective, must ultimately derive from reality even when the signs we use in our thinking may seem fanciful or wholly mental.

Peircean signs and music

A useful example of how Peircean sign types can be deployed in elucidating musical meaning is found in the second chapter of Raymond Monelle’s The Sense of Music (2000). In it Monelle argues that while the musical topic as codified by Ratner is essentially symbolic (because it is controlled by rules or conventions), it can be further analyzed by appealing to the icon/index distinction. Monelle posits a two-fold process whereby music signifies. In his examples (pianto and sarabande), the first stage can be either iconic or indexical and signifies an “object,” which, it seems, has a relatively clear relationship with reality. This object, in turn, indexically signifies a “signification,” which is more abstracted or generalized. Monelle’s diagram is reproduced in Figure 3.1a, and the entities he has in mind for each of the terms in boxes are added by me in Figure 3.1b, drawing on the main body of Monelle’s text (2000, 18).

a. Monelle’s Peircean Diagram of iconic and indexical topics; b. diagrams specifying

Figure 3.1   a. Monelle’s Peircean Diagram of iconic and indexical topics; b. diagrams specifying pianto and sarabande

There is little doubt that Monelle brings us closer to understanding the musical topic through his discussion, but there are limitations. Consider first Monelle’s claim that the pianto signifies the moan of someone in tears iconically, that is, through resemblance or shared qualities. This is a reasonably clear case of a Peircean icon in that the music and the moan might be said to share the quality of falling or the shape of tension followed by release (something that is heavily encoded, but that need not undermine Monelle’s point). But is there not also a causal connection here? Could it not be said that humans have developed the habit of articulating the musical pianto in response to the sounds of moaning, and therein lies a causal relationship, albeit a highly complex one? Like a shadow, then, the pianto is simultaneously iconic and indexical, it is just that a shadow is not stylized like the pianto, because it is not fed through human behavior.

Now consider Monelle’s claim that the metric structure of the slow movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony (K. 551) indexically signifies the act of dancing (as an object). The index here is conceived in line with Peirce’s example of a bullet hole in glass. Thus, we can work back from the “object” to the “musical item” to identify a causal link. In the case of the sarabande, then, we have a fairly clear index in the way that the dance as a real-world action or behavior causes the musical item to be structured and articulated in a particular way. The arrow of signification subsequently works the other way, so that the music signifies the dance just as the bullet hole signifies the bullet. But again, the icon/index distinction seems tenuous. Surely the act of dancing also shares qualities with the meter and articulation in Mozart’s slow movement—the qualities of temporal shaping and organization—so the relationship is, again, just as successfully analyzed in terms of iconism as it is in terms of indexicality.

The ambiguities here stem, I would suggest, not from faults in Monelle’s grasp of Peirce, but from ambiguities in the Peircean categories themselves. Indeed, any indexical connection can be recast in iconic terms. The object, for Monelle, is something more concrete than the signification. But we should bear in mind that Monelle wisely keeps in play the question as to what extent the object concerned is something real as such. Indeed, Monelle states: “Music does not signify society. It does not signify literature. And, most of all, it does not signify ‘reality’” (2000, 19). The quotation marks around “reality” perhaps indicate that Monelle is altogether uneasy with such a concept, and while we may challenge such an apparent rejection of the role of reality in human understanding and behavior, there is an important reason for Monelle’s uneasiness with the role of reality in music signification.

The arrows in Figure 3.1 (based on Monelle 2000, 18) suggest a process of signification that runs from the musical item to the object and then to a signification that is more general, but, nevertheless, somehow more accurate in its account of the meaning posited. These arrows suggest something of the thinking we find in Peirce. In the case of the bullet hole, the arrow of causation runs from the bullet, together with its movement to the hole in the glass; then, on inspection of the glass, the arrow of signification runs in the opposite direction where the bullet hole (through an interpretant) brings to mind (or provides evidence for) the actual bullet and its movement. Similarly, in Monelle’s account of the second movement of the “Jupiter” symphony, a generalized behavior that can be described as seriousness or decorum becomes manifest in (or plays a role in causing) the dance known as the sarabande, and this leads to (or plays a role in causing) the musical item. In listening to the musical item, the arrow is reversed, such that the music can be said to signify “seriousness” with reference to dancing (and perhaps to the Spanish court).

But how, we might ask, can one claim that the dance (as a set of behaviors) caused the musical item? Surely, the musical item is just as likely to have caused the dancing. The idea that seriousness and decorum caused the dance is similarly problematic. A better understanding would be that the very notion of seriousness and decorum evolved in relation to the dance just as a certain kind of sound (the music) and a certain kind of bodily movement (the dance) evolved in relation to one another.

This way of understanding signification processes draws into question the Peircean framework in which reality can be straightforwardly drawn into meaning-making processes. Monelle, it seems, is right to be uneasy with the idea that reality is referenced or signified by music. It would be a mistake, however, to dispense with a mind-independent reality altogether, and it would also be a mistake (pace Monelle) to suggest that musical meaning has nothing to do with reality.

Sellars, music, and the logical space of reasons

I have identified two key concerns with the application of Peircean thought to music: (1) the problem of distinguishing the iconic and the indexical, and (2) the problem of positing causal reality as the basis of music signification. We can overcome these problems by enlisting the work of Wilfird Sellars, who, in certain key respects, developed key ideas introduced by Peirce. 1 We begin by recognizing that in encountering (1) and, in particular, (2) we are, in a sense, caught between the two horns of a dilemma. The first is a Peircean insistence that all thought derives from reality or external facts. The second is a Monellean insistence that music signification does not concern reality at all.

To move through these horns, we need to open up a space, compellingly theorized by Sellars, termed the “logical space of reasons.” To understand it, it is useful to first consider another of his most influential concepts: the myth of the given.

It is tempting to think, as Peirce appears to have done, that our knowledge of the world derives from a direct experience of the things (objects and their qualities—secondness and firstness) that constitute it, and that these experiences are subsequently brought under concepts (rules—thirdness) to form fully-fledged thought. For Sellars this is the myth of the given: the claim that experience can be both immediately given to the senses and at the same time epistemically efficacious. DeVries and Triplett (2000, xxxi), provide a useful summary of Sellars’s myth of the given:

Sellars’s argument against all forms of giveness focuses on (1) that the given have some positive epistemic status in its own right, (2) that it have this status in a way that renders it epistemically independent of all other knowledge, and (3) that it be epistemically efficacious with respect to other elements of a person’s epistemic system.

In simple terms the difficulty is this: if some experience is to act as the foundation for knowledge then it must allow inference; it must, in a sense, be some sort of mental entity that can act as a basis for reasoning; that is, it can justify the inferences considered to follow from that mental entity. But if some experience is such a mental entity, then it is not independent of mind, and cannot provide access to the real that is assumed of it. Another way to approach this point is to consider that there is no experience that is not conceptual. There is, for example, no sense data that is not already conceptualized.

The myth of the given allows us to understand how music signification can be both distanced from reality while remaining ultimately subject to the real world of causal processes. If there is no epistemically efficacious data given directly to the mind, there must be a fundamental disconnect between music’s reality and the meanings the mind develops through listening processes. The space of reasons, however, is ultimately beholden to the real, for the space of reasons is not to be explained in terms of transcending or going beyond the real. It is explained in terms of human behaviors and habits in the world. These are not transcendent ideas, but normative operations situated within a psychological-social-historical network thoroughly penetrated by a causal reality.

The term “normativity,” then, is vital in understanding the space of reasons and, indeed, Sellars’s philosophical system as a whole. O’Shea, for example, subtitles his book on Sellars’s philosophy “naturalism with a normative turn” (2007), and given the importance of this term in Sellars’s philosophy and in modern philosophy generally, it is surprising that it has been afforded so little attention in the study of music. The notion of norms does gain some currency in music theory following Hepokoski and Darcy’s use of the term in formulating sonata theory, where it indicates more-or-less consciously deployed and recognized formal devices in sonata-form movements (2006, 36–40). But sophisticated decisions of this sort are only a part of the far-reaching notion of normativity as it is deployed by Sellars in mapping the logical space of reasons. Normativity concerns not just highly sophisticated decisions such as those outlined by Hepokoski and Darcy, it concerns far more fundamental decisions that characterize human behavior. The notion of normativity captures biological and social norms of human behavior and thought and is not, therefore, exhausted by intentional human behaviors.

Music signification is distanced from the world because the meanings so often postulated as musical (including those considered as pertaining to music theory) concern normative patterns of behavior that relate only indirectly to real things and events. The indirect connection (or “hook-up”) does, however, provide a means of explaining an ultimately causal underpinning, even though the logical space of reasons and the normative processes that define it cannot themselves be reduced to a causal reality. We now consider in more detail how Sellars maps the space of reasons as a complex of normative operations before looking in some detail at how reality and (musical) reason connect.

Topics as normative operations in the space of reasons

Understanding musical meaning in terms of normative operations within the space of reasons has profound implications, which can be usefully explored by returning to musical topics. Consider measures 1 to 13 of the finale of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 (Example 3.1). After hearing a particular performance or “sounding” of these measures, I might state “measures 1 to 13 are Sturm und Drang,” which can be formalized (following conventions in the study of logic, with square brackets added for clarity) as: [S&D] [mm.1–13]. We can adapt Sellars schematization of the “standard” conception of such statements to give the diagram in Figure 3.2 (Sellars 1985, 285).

Haydn, Symphony no. 39 in G minor “Tempeste di mare,” Hob. I:39, finale, mm. 1–13

Example 3.1   Haydn, Symphony no. 39 in G minor “Tempeste di mare,” Hob. I:39, finale, mm. 1–13

Sellars’s schematization of the “standard” conception of predication adapted to concern

Figure 3.2   Sellars’s schematization of the “standard” conception of predication adapted to concern Sturm und Drang in mm. 1–13 of the finale of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39

In this model of the standard conception (a conception that Sellars will reject), both “S&D” and “mm.1–13” are taken to be singular referring expressions. They are thought to be meaningful because they refer or relate to some sort of entity. So, mm.1–13 refer to, or name, a particular sounding of mm. 1–13, whereas S&D refers to S&Dness. The label “mm. 1–13” is more straightforward as it names a particular thing, a particular sonic event. The more complex dual role of S&D, in the standard conception, results from the idea that, to paraphrase Sellars, “S&D” is semantically related both to S&D things and to S&Dness, the property that “S&D-things” have in common (Sellars 1985, 286).

Sellars demonstrates that the standard conception of (in this case) a S&Dness that is exemplified by mm. 1–13 and other S&D things (in this case sounding entities) is problematic. Unlike the naming connection between “mm. 1–13” and a particular mm. 1–13, which Sellars retains (albeit with considerable qualification), the exemplification connection is jettisoned, because the notion of S&Dness as a more primitive entity that can be instantiated by an object or event is not sustainable. One way to demonstrate this is to invoke, following Sellars and deVries, Bradley’s paradox.

In this paradox, we begin by recalling that we represent the claim that mm.1–13 is S&D as follows:

[S&D] [mm.1–13].

If we adhere to the model in Figure 3.2, we will read this connection (between S&D and mm. 1–13) as a predication relationship between S&Dness and mm. 1–13, whereby mm. 1–13 as a single entity is said to exemplify S&Dness. Now, in doing this we are bringing to bear a new concept, exemplification, to explain the relationship formalized as “[S&D] [mm. 1–13].” But in doing so, we are again invoking predication: just as we predicated S&Dness of mm. 1–13, we are now predicating exemplification of “[S&D] [mm. 1–13].” This further predication can be formalized as follows:

Exemplification ([S&D] [mm. 1–13]).

We hereby enter into a vicious regress. For we must now surely recognize that in positing “exemplification-ness” we are invoking a further process of predication which acts to exemplify “exemplification-ness.” This can be written as follows:

Exemplification (Exemplification ([S&D] [mm. 1–13])).

The key point here is that by positing abstract entities such as “S&Dness” to which real world entities relate, we are obliged to recognize an infinite series of further entities, each reproducing a comparable abstract relational idea set up in the initial predication. For Sellars, the answer to problems with predication is to understand entities such as S&D not as qualities or properties in the world, but as normative entities that reside in the logical space of reasons. Thus, a claim that “mm. 1–13 of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 is Sturm und Drang” is not primarily a statement about how the world actually is, but rather it is a statement about, in Levine’s words, “the normative properties that govern the linguistic tokens the mind uses in its thinking” (Levine 2007, 252). It is better understood as a statement about the kind of role (defined by normative processes) played by “Sturm und Drang” or sentences deploying these terms in a linguistic economy. If we are to conceive topic labels as statements about musical meaning, we need to be clear that “meaning” here does not concern reference to existent entities but concerns instead a normatively defined role for the topic label in question. Statements about topic labels, then, are metalinguistic: they tell us about the kinds of roles terms like “Sturm und Drang” or “pianto” or “sarabande” play in a linguistic economy and relate only indirectly to reality.

From the perspective of Peircean theory, what Sellars has done is to problematize the notion of a separable iconism that somehow governs a qualitative dimension of actual things. This allows us to avoid the problems encountered earlier when trying to distinguish between iconic and indexical functions. Furthermore, we are able to move away from Peirce’s highly speculative picture of a universe reducible to three categories (quality, actuality, and rule)—described by Hookway as “mind-numbing” (1985, 4)—toward a picture in which qualities reside in the logical space of reasons and in which reality is ultimately constituted of causal processes.

Sellars provides a diagram designed to correct the traditional understanding of predication (for our purposes, the process by which qualities are ascribed to things) (Sellars 1985, 320). Figure 3.3 is an adaptation that demonstrates Sturm und Drang in Haydn’s symphony. In this diagram Sellars uses the term “individual constant” or INDCON for something approaching a Peircean index. Unlike the Peircean index, however, an individual constant does not relate directly to actual things, and does not provide, thereby, a more primitive relation to the world (secondness) as the basis for fully-fledged thought (thirdness). This would be to fall into the myth of the given. Individual constants hook up with the world only by virtue of what Sellars terms psychological-social-historical (or PSH) relations. They do not directly refer to things in the world but, instead, get caught up in reality as actual existing acoustic entities, what Sellars terms “natural linguistic objects.” This process of “getting caught up” or “hookup” is subject to PSH relations and can be termed “picturing” (a term derived from Sellars’s reading of Wittgenstein) or linguistic representation (LR).

Sellars’s schematization of a corrected conception of predication adapted to concern

Figure 3.3   Sellars’s schematization of a corrected conception of predication adapted to concern Sturm und Drang in mm. 1–13 of the finale of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39

In Figure 3.3, we can now see that both mm. 1–13 and *S&D* connect via “linguistic representation” (LR) to actual S&D things. But notice that it is not S&D as such (and certainly not an abstracted S&Dness) that connects to the real world of S&D things. The asterisks indicate that it is the “sign design” S&D concatenated with “mm. 1–13” that connects to reality. That is, the pattern illustrated between the asterisks, regardless of assumed meaning (i.e., the sign design), concatenated with “mm. 1–13” forms the basis upon which S&D comes to be connected to reality. Or, in Sellars’s words: “[T]he truth is that by virtue of being an ‘a’ [or a mm. 1–13] concatenated with an *f* [or *S&D*], an ‘fa’ is an ‘a’ which has a character by virtue of which it is semantically associated with f-things” (Sellars 1985, 320).

A key point here is that the association is semantic. It is “semantically assertible” that “mm. 1–13 is Sturm und Drang,” but that does not mean that a more primitive Sturm und Drang(ness) is being instantiated in mm. 1–13. Sturm und Drang does not exist in reality. We see in Figure 3.3 that it does not relate to reality (S&D things) at all directly. This is because it resides, like so much musical meaning, in the logical space of reasons. When we talk about musical topics as having certain meanings, then, we are not connecting music to reality (or only very indirectly). We are, instead, entering into a categorization of normative functions. We are saying, in effect: take any performance of mm. 1–13 of the finale of Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 and, under normal circumstances, it will be semantically assertible that it is Sturm und Drang.

The music-reality hookup

When Sellars presents the diagrams that I have adapted in Figures 3.2 and 3.3, he is not discussing music, he is discussing language. Where I discuss “S&Dness,” Sellars discusses “redness.” Thus, the points I am making concerning music are formulated in relation to language. For this reason, the long-standing problem as to why or how language is able to refer to the world, while music seems unable to do so, drops away, but perhaps not in the way we might have expected. As it turns out, language, like music, primarily operates within the space of reasons as a complex of normative functions, which do not refer to the world but, instead, can be said to get caught up in the world through the role they play in human behaviors, which we can, in turn, frame as a complex of PSH relations. We now consider this “getting caught up” in more detail.

When we discuss music signification we have to be careful to make an important distinction. This can be framed in Peircean terms as the distinction between (1) music as sign/interpretant, and (2) music as object. From a Sellarsian perspective we might reframe this to give (1) the role music plays in hooking up with reality, and (2) the role language plays in hooking up with music’s reality, where “music’s reality” is the actual physical reality of vibrations of a medium in the world.

In our discussion of S&Dness we have been treating music as an object. We have been considering the role language plays in hooking up with music’s reality, in that we have discussed the way linguistic terms such as S&D (and by extension—pianto, sarabande, and other musical topics) hook up with actual S&D things—i.e., particular sounds situated in time and space. I claim that music’s role in hooking up with reality follows precisely the same patterns as the hookup between language about music and actual music. But first let us consider the hookup in more detail.

In his rethinking of predication, what Sellars has done, in O’Shea’s words, is to “trade the problem of abstract entities [like redness and S&Dness] for the problem of norms” (2007, 71). Norms can be understood as rule-following processes. In “Language as Thought and as Communication” ([1969] 2007), Sellars makes an important distinction between these rules: (1) ought-to-do rules, where rules are followed with an awareness of the rules, and (2) ought-to-be rules, where rules are followed without an awareness of the rules.

Ought-to-do rules involve intentionality and take the form “if one is in circumstance C, then one ought to do A.” Ought-to-be rules do not involve intentionality; they take the form “Xs ought to be in state φ, whenever such and such is the case.” Ought-to-be rules form the groundwork upon which ought-to-do rules are built. For example, in sonata theory, the self-conscious rule of which medial caesura to deploy in a given sonata, is an ought-to-do rule. But such an ought-to-do rule will be underpinned by expectations of certain states (i.e., ought-to-be rules), such as instrument construction (a piano ought-to-be comprised of a certain set of keys), tuning systems (an instrument ought-to-be tuned in such and such a way), and the system of tonality (keys ought-to-be established, departed from, and re-established).

In understanding the hookup between the space of reasons and the causal natural order, Sellars posits the example of an ought-to-be rule, formulated as follows: “one ought to feel sympathy for bereaved people” (Sellars [1969] 2007, 60). This might appear to be an ought-to-do rule in that the levels of sophistication seem high and feeling sympathy is something we do. But, on reflection, we recognize that we do not generally intend to feel sympathy for bereaved people; it is rather something that people find themselves experiencing within a certain cultural context and which they are capable of cognizing as such. “One ought to feel sympathy for bereaved people,” then, is actually a form of ought-to-be rule.

These same ought-to-be rules are key to understanding how language and the space of reasons hook up with the causal order and how music theoretical language (by which I mean sentences containing terms like “Sturm und Drang,” “sarabande” or “dominant chord”), hooks up with music’s causal reality. Important examples of three ought-to-be rules are (1) language-entry transitions (transitions from world to language involving perception); (2) intra-linguistic transitions (transitions from language to language involving inference), and (3) language-exit transitions (transitions from language to world involving volition/intention).

“Sturm und Drang” may have no actual existence, but as a natural linguistic object it gets caught up in the causal order, the actual reality of music, by (1) language-entry transitions: for example, when a student of music is disposed to respond to the sounding of example 3.1 with the statement “that is Sturm und Drang”; (2) intra-linguistic moves: for example, when a student is disposed to make an inference from “that is Sturm und Drang” to the statement “that is a minor key,” and (3) language-exit transitions: for example, when a student reliably responds to her own statement “this is Sturm und Drang” by playing a recording of example 3.1 or another Sturm und Drang passage.

So, music-theoretical language, which involves sentences containing terms like “Sturm und Drang,” “sarabande,” or “dominant,” does hook up with musical practice, but it hooks up through normative channels in the selective reinforcement and suppression of behaviors—a highly indirect connection. Music-theoretical language, as normative, pattern-governed behavior, does not track music directly. But, in laying plain the normative functions of words such as “Sturm und Drang,” it does get caught up with music’s reality as natural linguistic objects via entry, inference, and exit transitions.

Recognizing these points, it seems to me, puts us in position to understand the hookup between musical practice and reality, i.e., music as sign (Peirce), or the role music plays in hooking up with reality (Sellars). This connection, I argue, is made in much the same way as that in which music-theoretical language hooks up with reality. Music as vibrations in air has a highly complex but non-problematic causal connection to the non-musical world. Music as abstract form, however, does not directly connect with musical reality. Our imagining of music in terms of abstracted shapes, forms, and processes connects only indirectly with the reality of music. Music as abstracted shapes, forms, and processes are, if you like, music about music—they have a meta-musical discursive role exemplified by scores, analytical charts, and systems of numbers.

These abstractions are saturated by normativity and cannot be reduced without remainder to the world of objects and actions that they are taken to represent (recall “the myth of the given”). They reside in the space of reasons. However, just as music’s theoretical language tracks music’s natural acoustic objects indirectly via entry, inference, and exit transitions, our musical imaginings indirectly track the world of musical practice via entry, inference, and exit transitions. These transitions are the playing of “appropriate” music in response to non-musical things and actions (think of slow music at a funeral) or in introducing non-musical things or actions (a fanfare followed by the entrance of a person, for instance). These transitions are ought-to-be rules that align non-musical events and musical events. They do not, for the most part, involve intentional rule-following, but the following of rules that are second nature. So, in playing slow music at a funeral there may be ought-to-do rule-following, such as complex choices of particular pieces and how to perform them, but there will also be a groundwork of ought-to-be rule-following that leads us instinctively (albeit via bio-social training) to use slow music. These ought-to-be rules are enormously important in music signification. In the same way that they allow Sellars to explain how we come to find ourselves experiencing sympathy for a bereaved person, ought-to-be rules help us explain how, in certain socio-historical contexts, humans might find themselves moving with a due sense of decorum and seriousness to a sarabande, or how humans might feel an urge to weep, or find themselves contemplating weeping, on hearing the pianto. Furthermore, in the theory of ought-to-do rules underpinned by a groundwork of ought-to-be rules we can begin to theorize more convincingly why compositional practices, as a complex set of behaviors, might result in the deployment of the sarabande, the pianto or Sturm und Drang. The behaviors and the patterns they form are real, even if the music-theoretical abstractions we develop in relation to them cannot ultimately be said to exist.

A neo-pragmatist, Sellarsian perspective on music signification, then, allows us to radically rethink the processes by which music listening engenders meaning. In the emphasis upon an evolving, functionalist, role-oriented theory of communication, and in the flat rejection of abstractions, Sellarsian thought certainly works against a naive conception of music signification—a conception in which music is conceived to operate as a relatively stable sign that signifies a specifiable entity. However, aspects of this ingenuous picture can be retained. For although music signification is now conceived in normative, non-referential terms, it is conceivable as a practice that hooks up with reality in much the same way that language does, allowing a complex process of meaning generation to be recognized, even if the kinds of one-to-one correspondences of more naive models have to be rejected. This, I would suggest, keeps the door open for music signification to thrive as a vital practice that contemplates the fascinating interpenetration (the hookup) of music and world.


Chief among these is Peirce’s central claim that human understanding progresses towards truth. Sellars posits (as a regulative idea) the prospect of a language that will ultimately allow us to accurately picture the world. He terms this language “Peirceish.” For a summary of “Peirceish” as well as the overlap between Sellars and Peirce’s conceptions of truth, see Hooker 1976.

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