Truth and Method: How Can We Be More Objective When Analysing Music

I read a review of Frank Zappa and the And this week – and despite its negativity,  it got me thinking about the ways in which our world views impact the ways in which we interpret meaning in music. Being simplistic about it – if one looks at the world through a Marxist lens, the chances are you will be suspicious of (what you perceive to be) authority (such as universities or academics), not to mention the ‘truth’ that institutionalised narratives impose. Likewise, if you regard music to be ‘absolute’ (when its beauty is itself), semiological (where it has the potential to refer to meanings outside of the music itself) or spiritual (where it has some relation to the divine) – your world view will play a big part in helping you decide what the music ‘MEANS’.

For me, as outlined in Gadamer’s ‘Truth and Method’ – real objectivity is impossible. We can’t help but ‘know’! However – we have to try!!

So – my question is: Where do the meanings of music lie – and how do we overcome the prejudices of our ‘methods’ to produce ‘truth’? I don’t have any definite answers to this – but am interested in ideas/responses.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Frank Zappa, Musicology, philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Truth and Method: How Can We Be More Objective When Analysing Music

  1. datisit says:

    Like you suggest, I think the meanings of music are, as in all things, our own. You can only really discuss what music means in regard to whom, right? What it means to the composer, others and yourself. I tend to hold a composer’s context as the ‘true’ meaning, find interest in others’ meanings and then revel in my own personal meaning. Are you saying we have to try to find a true, objective meaning?

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  2. carza says:

    Thanks for the comment. I am saying we should arguably get as close to objective as possible. However, it does depend on what ‘hat’ you have on. Sometimes it is interesting to discover what the authors’ intentions are – sometimes it good to focus on our personal interpretation – as long as we are aware which one we are working with.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Paul, just read your post, I think music is a kind of audio-metaphor, in that words cannot express what music does, so we will constantly fail to agree on what it does express, because it expresses many things. In other words, the the semiology, or Marxist theories that you might try to project onto them to discover a truth will never be enough because we are dealing with the inadequate character of words, as T S wrote in Burnt Norton: ‘Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden’. In my opinion, metaphor should only be used when words cannot articulate properly, (Dylan uses surprisingly few metaphors in his lyrics, in spite of people thinking he is ‘poetic’ the verses to Tangled up in Blue are all descriptive imagery, until it gets to the hook ‘Tangled in Blue’ where the song’s essence is defined allegorically. But most people use metaphor as an embellishment or rhetorical trick, an attempt to impress with a purple phrase (haze), this relates and contaminates the way people regard myth (and the allegories that music suggests) as something that is false, but this is a complete misunderstanding of the function of myth/metaphor – because in its purest form, myth is a fiction that tells a truth. In other words, a metaphor is used to express that what is believed, but cannot be explained or understood. Alan Watts describes is as a scientist who uses a balloon covered in dots, then blows it up to illustrate the expanding universe. In other words, he is not saying the universe is a balloon, it’s just that words ‘strain crack and sometimes break’ and if the scientist were to try and explain it any other way, nobody would understand what he was saying because there are no words to explain this extraordinary theory. (Where do the meanings of music lie – and how do we overcome the prejudices of our ‘methods’ to produce truth?) So, just like life (meaning is not inherent, we give meaning to it) We give the music meaning – because there is none without interpretation. The meaning is projected from our own psyche and experienced back as a narrative that returns to us as individuals, in individual ways. I know a lot of people experience music simply as mathematical formula – and sometimes they’re right, it is just ear candy. But sometimes music can reach us in ways that words cannot, can affect us and articulate a great meaning and enlightenment that lifts the spirit. This is the nature of metaphor and an illustration of the inadequacies of man – r

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  4. datisit says:

    Doesn’t the acknowledgment of there being an author’s intention, and personal interpretation prevent an objectivity? And if real objectivity doesn’t exist, can there be degrees of objectivity such that you could ‘get close to it’?

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  5. carza says:

    That’s the way I think – try and get as close as possible. Texts such as ‘Death of the Author’ (http://artsites.ucsc.edu/faculty/Gustafson/FILM%20162.W10/readings/barthes.death.pdf) are interesting reads regarding understanding the impact of author intention.

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  6. carza says:

    Really well said – i agree with all of that. Oddly enough I am writing a book chapter at the moment that discusses exactly what you are saying – how words can not express what music means – often constructing their own meanings.

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  7. I think music is a kind of audio-metaphor, in that words cannot express what music does, so we will constantly fail to agree on what it does express, because it expresses so many things. In other words, the semiology, or Marxist theories that you may try to project onto music to discover a truth, will never be enough, because we are dealing with the inadequate character of words that TS Eliot described in Burnt Norton: ‘Words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden’. I believe that metaphor should only be used when words cannot express or articulate properly. But most people use metaphor as an embellishment or rhetorical trick. Dylan uses surprisingly little metaphor in his song lyrics, even though he is though of as ‘poetic’. Tangled up in Blue is a master class in a lyric narrative of descriptive imagery that crystalizes in the hook line Tangled up in Blue at the end of each verse. The overuse of metaphor, or purple phrase (haze) reinforces peoples’ opinion that myth is a childish notion, something untrue.
    And as such, most regard myth (and the correlating allegories that music suggests) as something that is false or disposable, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of metaphor/myth. Because in its purest form, myth is a fiction that tells a truth. In other words, a metaphor is used to express that what is believed but cannot be explained. Alan Watts uses the allegory of a scientist who takes a balloon covered in dots, then blows it up to illustrate the expanding universe. He is not saying the universe is a balloon, it’s just that words ‘strain crack and sometimes break’ and if he were to try and explain it any other way nobody would understand what he was saying because there are no words –
    (Where do the meanings of music lie – and how do we overcome the prejudices of our ‘methods’ to produce truth?) So, just like in life, where we give the meaning to life, we give the meaning to music – the meaning is not inherent in either. Instead, it is projected from our own psyche and experienced back as a personal narrative that returns to us as individuals and in individual ways. I know a lot of people experience music simply as mathematical formula – and sometimes they’re right, it is just ear candy. But they are also sometimes wrong, because sometimes music can reach us in ways that words cannot. Music speaks to the heart and to the memory. This is the nature of metaphor and an illustration of the inadequacies of man –

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  8. datisit says:

    Dancing about architecture?

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  9. carza says:

    I used this quote in my Zappa book – ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ Elvis Costello.

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