Theodor W. Adorno, “Music, Language, and Composition”

Functional analyses of musical structure cannot be detached from , analyses of its social function: the function of the tones in relation to each other cannot be explained adequately as part of a closed system without reference to the structures of the sociocultural system of which the musical system is a part, and to the biological system to which all music makers belong. – John Anthony Randall Blacking, How Musical Is Man?, pp.30-31, in Heaney, Music as Theology: What Music Says About The Wordp.60

Music can provide virtually nothing in the way of propositions or assertions.  Peter Kivy comments: ‘even the simplest narration seems to require a propositional content beyond that of music to convey.  Music cannot say that Jack and Jill went up the hill.  It cannot say Mary had a little lamb, and the failure must lie in the inability of music to express the appropriate propositional content even of such limiting cases of narration.’  Attempt to account for musical meaning in terms of representation, in the manner of, say, a representational painting, are no less problematic.  Music’s capacities in this respect are extremely limited, and the pleasure derived from musical experience does not seem to arise to any large extent from its representative powers. – Jeremy Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time, pp.11-12

In comparison to signifying language, music is a language of a completely different type.  Therein lies music’s theological aspect. What music says is a proposition at once distinct and concelaed.  Its idea is the form of the name of God.  It is demythologized prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings. – Theodor W. Adorno, “Music, Language, and Composition”, in Leppert, ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, p. 114

Out of the box, Leppert presents us with an essay addressing one of the most vexing matters in musicology, ethnomusicology, and I would argue philosophical aesthetics.  What, exactly, is music?  The very first sentence of the essay is: “Music is similar to language.”  The third sentence, however, is: “But music is not language.”  What, exactly, is Adorno doing?

Simply put, for such a short yet complex, subtle, and occasionally aggravating essay, Adorno is arguing that we always remember that similarity-in-difference as what makes music music.  It is not discursive, yet it has structures – Adorno refers to sentences and punctuation as examples – that mirror language.  Like language, music is sound organized around internal principles; single notes, like single words, are meaningless in and of themselves, having meaning only when related to other notes.  Unlike discursive language, however, meaning is not added to words with use; indeed, Adorno insists on the contingency of the meaning of any given note or set of notes once it is sounded.  These meanings cannot be repeated (except perhaps as excerpted by other, later, composers either as reference or, worse, sarcastic derision).  Musical meaning disappears the moment we hear it, whereas with language, meaning piles upon meaning as words pile up.  The whole in both is the sum of the parts, to be sure; it is the surprise and caesuras, musical and historical, however, that play as much a part in music, particularly what Adorno calls “the new music” (Schoenberg, Webern, and the 12-tone and serialist composers of the mid-20th century), that make it distinct from language, which relies upon the very built-up history that discursive language entails.

For an example, Adorno offers the Verklarte Nacht, an early piece that prominently features a major 9th chord.  Like the infamous tritone, there is not only dissonance to the 9th; there is also a sense of necessary forward motion toward a resolution, a resolution that, throughout the piece, Schoenberg resolutely refuses to offer.  It is not only this surprising use of dissonance that shocks the listener; it is how it moves the piece forward, always with the expectation of a completion that does not come.  In this sense, says Adorno, “the new music” took in all that came before it – he cites Beethoven and Wagner in particular as musical discussion partners for Schoenberg – makes it a part of the compositional process, then thwarts traditional expectations within the context of the listeners traditional understanding of the syntax of musical form.  This is a case where “the new music” took form, which had for so long in Western music dictated the harmonic structure to the point where it seemed “natural” and wrestled it back to its actual state as something wholly artificial.  Form no longer follows function but is a product of the function of the whole; in the case of the atonal compositions it is a statement against the “natural” feeling of tonal compositions that mirrors late capitalist “natural law” arguments for an unjust society.  When confronted by the reality that, as Adorno himself says, “it could be otherwise”, we not only start to question the music we have heard.  We also question all those other things we have been taught are “natural” but are actually artefacts, products of human action, including the organization of society.

For Adorno, however, by mid-century, the serialists had so absorbed the mathematical nature of compositional style that what had once been a shock had now receded to something “natural” again.  Even the emerging electronic compositions, cited in this essay very briefly, betray the basis of composition precisely by making what is most artificial sound as if it is the most natural thing in the world.  For Adorno, music is most like language when we are confronted by the differences between what and how music communicates and what and how language communicates.  The shock of “the new music” lay precisely in its lack of affinity with nature.

It is possible, he says toward the end, for music and language at least to move toward one another.  If and when composers come to understand the artificiality of music – indeed, Adorno argues that the attempt to make music “natural” end up with the most artificial compositions possible – and its structural requirements to create meaning that disappears once heard, then we shall return music to its status as “art”, and move both music and language toward one another again: human creations that both attempt to demonstrate the falseness and contingency not only of themselves, but by reference to the history from which they spring and the social and political conditions in which they exist.

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