Event Title

Music: What It Means to Us, and Why a Pragmatic Approach for Music Educators

Presenter Information

James Imhoff, Boston University

Start Date

1-6-2011 3:00 PM

End Date

1-6-2011 3:30 PM

Description

We hear popular clichés about music telling a story or painting a picture; but musical meaning is a complex topic. Formalist philosophers argue that music has no semantic content; what do music teachers say? A recent survey conducted by the authors shows conflict between teachers and philosophers: one school of thought holds that music is a purely sensory or aesthetic phenomenon without meaning, others argue that music has emotional content, but not meaning in any sense that can be designated with words. Teachers, however, as evidenced by the survey, lean towards the more colloquial and informal notions. This conflict lies in narrow conceptions of both music and meaning. Musical meaning is often treated as a semantic or lexical concept, but empirical linguistics offers an alternative: pragmatic meaning, based on context and human interaction. Further, these arguments typically focus on “pure music,” as if lyrics, dance, and ritual are not part of the music. We argue that pure music is an unrealistic, positivist construct, whereas musicking, a human interaction, always happens in a pragmatically meaningful context. Finally, recent cognitive literature treats meaning as an embodied phenomenon: meaning is not seen or heard: it is felt.

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Jun 1st, 3:00 PM Jun 1st, 3:30 PM

Music: What It Means to Us, and Why a Pragmatic Approach for Music Educators

We hear popular clichés about music telling a story or painting a picture; but musical meaning is a complex topic. Formalist philosophers argue that music has no semantic content; what do music teachers say? A recent survey conducted by the authors shows conflict between teachers and philosophers: one school of thought holds that music is a purely sensory or aesthetic phenomenon without meaning, others argue that music has emotional content, but not meaning in any sense that can be designated with words. Teachers, however, as evidenced by the survey, lean towards the more colloquial and informal notions. This conflict lies in narrow conceptions of both music and meaning. Musical meaning is often treated as a semantic or lexical concept, but empirical linguistics offers an alternative: pragmatic meaning, based on context and human interaction. Further, these arguments typically focus on “pure music,” as if lyrics, dance, and ritual are not part of the music. We argue that pure music is an unrealistic, positivist construct, whereas musicking, a human interaction, always happens in a pragmatically meaningful context. Finally, recent cognitive literature treats meaning as an embodied phenomenon: meaning is not seen or heard: it is felt.