Torben Sangild, in reaction to my article on "Foundations of Musicology as Content Processing Science" (Leman, 2003) says that “Measuring responses or brain activities can never replace the hermeneutical-phenomenological description, analysis and interpretation of musical gestures.” He is right, of course, but fails to see the point of my article. What follows are some thoughts about postmodern musicology, its hermeneutic methodology, and assumed status of “science”.
Let me start with the observation that music mediation is all about technology, nowadays (see e.g. the ISMIR, CMMR conferences), and this technology calls for a differentiated set of tools and methods for dealing with musical description. The question is whether the postmodern approach may contribute to this development, of whether its role, due to the constraints of its own methodology, is necessarily restricted to mere criticism.
My position with respect to postmodern musicology is a pragmatic one. If postmodern musicology has really something to offer to modern music mediation research, then we should size the opportunity and investigate what are the weak and strong points of this approach. The main issue to be taken seriously, in my opinion, is the role of the subject in a dynamic practice of signification that involves cultural conventions. Is it possible to account for subjective experiences in the context of modern music mediation? And how should we deal with that topic in computer-oriented research?
I assume that the readers of this text already know what kind of knowledge the postmodern project is looking after, so I don’t go deeper into this. Instead, I want to investigate into the underlying principles that justify the particular focus on subjectivist signification. Otherwise stated, what view of the world is implied by the postmodern point of view and why should alternative accounts, such as my own account of content processing musicology, be needed?
The essence of the hermeneutic method, as I understand it, is the creative seeking for speculative correlations and interpretations (Hatten, 1994), which come down to the projection of culturally embedded subjective categories onto anchor points in music. The method has been experienced as the ``emancipation of the sign'' (Tarasti), that is, a liberation of subjective interpretation beyond the constraints of mere structural descriptions. Hermeneutics, of course, builds upon a large tradition of European musicology (see e.g. Faltin & Reinecke, 1973).
A tacitly implied assumption of the projection of culturally embedded subjective categories onto anchor points in music, anyhow, is that neither physics nor biology can in fact give an account of it. Tarasti (2002, p.~24), for example, expresses this point of view when he says that the reduction of a musical phenomenon to a statistical fact is anti-semiotical in nature: ``For semioticians to model a phenomenon in hard-science terms is a kind of mystification, since we deal primarily with human, cultural, and social behaviours -- not physical laws.'' Engagement with music, whether practically experienced or theoretically conceptualized, is about personal experiences, intuitive judgments, and interpretations. All we can do is providing descriptions which are grounded in our personal ontology of experienced musical intentions that embody the subject in relation to cultural conventions. The descriptions, then, are based on language, which is the main vehicle of the hermeneutic signification practice.
The distinction between subjective experienced musical intentionality and its cultural signification, on the one hand, and musical material as physical object in relation to physiological mechanisms, on the other hand, suggests the assumption of a dualist ontology, of which in fact only the subjective part is taken into consideration. In that perspective, the subjective world and its signification practice is considered to be autonomous and sufficient. There is no rule system that governs its meaning, hence interpretations are by definition speculative potentialities. Interpretations of music are therefore not falsifiable because there is no truth correspondence of these interpretations, except in the experience of each individual subject. Välimäki (2003, p.155), for example, says that ``Postmodernist musicology welcomes the heterogeneity and endless multifariousness of meanings, and accepts the fact that we can not master ourselves, nor can we master music and its textual force. Meaning is multiply determined, and there seems to be no ultimate, true meaning in music, but rather a possibility for infinite production of meaning''.
The tacit assumption in postmodern musicology is ontological dualism (distinction between mind and matter), with an exclusive focus on mind. Unfortunately, the tacit dualist position is no longer a purely philosophical question because the context of music mediation forces us to acknowledge the fact that the physical existence of music has a profound impact on how music is experienced. These questions cannot be solved by hermeneutic ``talk''. Instead, empirical evidence is needed, and the theoretical foundations need to have an instrumental character because we want them to become practical tools in bridging the realm between matter and mind in music. After all, if we assume access to the physical world, then we may also assume that our theory has a certain degree of correspondence with this physical world, and hence draws on knowledge that is reliable in the sense that it can be repeated under controlled conditions. Otherwise, the theory might not work, or not so good as we would want it to work.
But even if we accept postmodern exclusiveness, and reject the notion of physical world and truth correspondence all together, then questions can be asked about the hermeneutic methodology and its practice of justification. If all what matters is conversation, or talking, with the hope of being engaged in social or intellectual interactions, whose ``talk'', then, is the most useful one to put into practice? Whose talk is the one that entertains us most? If anything goes, all talks are equal, and all meanings deserve equal respect, it is often tradition and authority that provides the framework of reference. This leads to the strange observation that postmodern relativism in fact is based on the acceptance of an interpretative authority as counterbalance to subjectivity.
A hermeneutic methodology, in combination with adherence to authority, is not without problems for the development of music research, mainly because of the fact that scientific experimental methods are hardly taken into consideration, or even entirely neglected. The problem I have with postmodern musicology is not about its focus on subjectivity. After all, we all engage in signification practice and the communication of signification forms an important aspect of our human existence. The problem I have is about its exclusive focus on subjectivity. Too many opportunities for human sciences will be missed if we continue to deny the possibility of understanding interactions between musical audio-streams and our personal experiences and interpretations on the basis of scientific experiments and modern scientific methodologies. And this is what I experience in the important domain of music mediation research. There is hardly any musicologist that look at what engineers are nowadays doing, how music, in many cases, is reduced to some simple assumptions. My article on Foundations of Musicology as Content Processing Science is one attempt to contribute to a science of musical content processing that does justice to musical subjective experiences, as well as to the reality of musical mediation.
So, Torben, the hermeneutic methodology applied to music is what most people do, and as music critical practice there is nothing wrong with it, but please don’t call this a science. Or would you call the interpretation of the Bible also a science?
Hatten, R. S. (1994). Musical meaning in Beethoven markerdess, correlation, and interpretation. Bloomington (Ind.): Indiana university press.
Faltin, P., & Reinecke, H. (Eds.). (1973). Musik und Verstehen: Aufsätze zur semiotischen Theorie, Ästhetik und Soziologie der musikalischen Rezeption. Cologne: A. Volk, H. Gerig.
Leman, M. (2003). Foundations of musicology as content processing
science. Journal of Music and Meaning, 1(1).
Tarasti, E. (2002). Signs of music : a guide to musical semiotics. Berlin ; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Välimäki, S. (2003). Some reflections on the postmodern project in musicology and its semiotic essence. In E. Tarasti (Ed.), Musical semiotics revisited (pp. 147-158). Helsinki: Hakapaino.
Empirical research is fine, but it can never be the final answer to musical semantics. A musicological positivism like the one Marc Leman advocates, locates musical meaning in statistical response. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Here is the most important one:
There are objective structures and gestures in music. They may not be equivalent to the average response. They cannot be reduced to “subjective emotions” (3.4). They are specific (not universal), complex, historical and objective and nevertheless related to the emotional. Measuring responses or brain activities can never replace the hermeneutical-phenomenological description, analysis and interpretation of musical gestures.
Positivist musicology may think of itself as more “serious” (3.3) and objective, “a science rather than an art” (3.3). The implication is that a hermeneutical, critical, historical or phenomenological musicology (or, logically, any aesthetic-cultural science) consists of “metaphors” (3.3) and has therefore nothing to do with science but should be called art. This dismissal is not only arrogant, but false. So far, the interesting musical semantics and concrete analyses of concrete pieces of music have come from what Leman calls art, but what is no more than a scientific understanding of music.