Maeve Louise Heaney, “Towards a Hermeneutical Understanding Of Music”

 Rather than jump in to aesthetics, however, Heaney offers first a chapter on hermeneutics without discussing hermeneutics or its role in understanding music.  Instead, she starts talking about semiotics, rehearsing the distinction between “semiotics” and “semiosis”. – Me, “Stuck In The Muddle”, April 7, 2014


Any attempt to grasp the meaning or discern and evaluate music’s role in the transmission of Christian faith will only lead to dissension if it does not take into account these three areas: the birthplace, context and intention behind its composition, the piece of music as it is passed on, and the ever-changing variety of listeners or interpreters, who “receive” and reinterpret it. – Maeve Louise Heaney, Music as Theology: What Music Says About The World, pp.77-78

[C]ommunication is only one possible result of symbolic functioning.  Both producer and receiver are involved in a complex form of symbolic interaction which is more than the one-sided transmission of a message which counts on a common code. – p.85

First off, I apologize for misspelling “Introduction” in the title of the previous post.  If you want your money back . . . oh, wait.  That’s right.  These are free.  So cope.

In my original review of Haeney’s work, a snippet of which occurs above, it was this chapter in particular that created frustration.  One would guess from the title the discussion would center around hermeneutics, what it is, how it functions in theological discourse, and what role it would have in understanding music as a medium for theological meaning.  On page 74, she writes:

The importance of hermeneutics for theology has received extensive attention in recent years, as the plurality of approaches to the various areas of theological research increases, and the very foundations of how we interpret have been brought into question.

She then quotes theologian Werner Jeanrond’s Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance:

[A] proper hermeneutical training may well be an appropriate starting-point for any journey towards a more adequate understanding of God, the human self and the mystery of our being in this world.

She then goes on to decry that “there are many areas of theological thought that remain relatively untouched by the insights it has to offer.  Music as understood in and by theology is one of them. . . . This is why we seek to introduce this hermeneutical tool for musical analysis in a book in which theology is seeking to understand music.”  She again quotes Jeanrond on p.75:

[H]ermeneutics has proven to be not an optional tool for sophisticated theologians, but a vital necessity for any theologian who understands his or her task as a critical service to the church, the world and to the pursuit of truth.

All of which is well and good.  Except she never once says what hermeneutics is.  She immediately moves to Nattiez’s semiotics of music, bringing it without much explanation or apology under the broader rubric of “hermeneutics” as part of how we human beings come to understand our world.  Yet, hermeneutics and semiotics, at least as I understand them, are completely different things, governed by distinct methods, goals, even vocabularies.  There can be a variety of hermeneutics of music: for Hans-Georg Gadamer, the most rewarding hermeneutics of art is one of “play”, although one could use a political hermeneutic,a theological hermeneutic, and so on. As Haeney’s entire book asks the question of the possibility of theological content – substantive theological meaning, even testimony to understanding revelation – within music, it might well have been far more fruitful to dedicate the chapter to a defense of a particular theological hermeneutic for music.  While her Introduction does center her as a Roman Catholic, although not exclusively so, perhaps she felt no more need be said on the matter.  Yet Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis I are both Roman Catholic, and I cannot imagine they have too many theological points of contact other than nods in the direction of general doctrinal assertions.  It would have been far better had Haeney clarified the specific theological questions she would be asking of music.  Matters of usefulness in the liturgy, in private study and group participation, even crossing the barrier to secular music and how a theological hermeneutic might bear fruit; these, rather than a discussion of semiotics, specifically the semiotics of Nattiez, would have been in keeping both with the title of the chapter as well as the needs for unfolding her work at this point.

So now I can understand my frustration eight months ago.  A chapter entitled “Toward a Hermeneutical Understanding of Music” should include something about hermeneutics; it should include the theological a priori that Haeney is bringing to the interrogation of music.  Hermeneutics is not primarily about method so much as it is about interrogating texts using specific criteria to bring out meaning and, even philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer admits, truth (albeit for Gadamer, the word truth is itself a matter of dispute even if the goal of the hermeneutical task).  Method is secondary to the stance of the person reading the text or, in this case listening to a piece of music.

Which brings up another point at which Haeney isn’t very clear.  She explains that Nattiez gives priority to the notated musical text over the sounds produced by that text through the mediation of musicians.  While Haeney notes that much contemporary music is not notated – and notes that Nattiez understands this to be the case – she quotes Nattiez as insisting that even “non-composed” pieces be notated as clearly as possible, giving the interpreter a text from which to begin the interpretive and semiotic task.

In Rock: The Primary Text, British musicologist Allan F. Moore argues the primary text for contemporary music isn’t a notated score, but the individual songs produced, precisely because of the absence of a written score.  He believes this to be both a more honest and a more fruitful analytical method than insisting on transcription, which invariably leaves unclear as much as it makes clear.  At this point, at least a nod in the direction of this trend in contemporary musicology might also have been important.  Giving preference to the notated score at a point in history when these are of less and less importance, particularly when it comes to popular music; and in a study in which the question of theological meaning in popular music will be important creates barriers to interpretation and understanding – the whole point of the hermeneutical task – that, in the end, limit what those giving such preference would consider valuable and, of much more importance, meaningful.

So, I guess I get it now.  A close reading, however, has at least given me the chance to make clear my criticisms of her at this point.  I suppose I owed her that much.