Maeve Louise Heaney, “An Approach To Musical Semiotics”

‘[T]he fundamental dunamic provoked by music is that of movement.”  Maeve Louise Heaney, Music as Theology: What Music Has To Say About The Word, p.123

The video above is of a concert I attended recently.  I’m front row, center, right in front of the lead singer’s monitor (the concert photographer is a pain in the butt at the beginning of the show, let me tell you).  At a death metal show, it is nearly impossible to listen to the music without moving.  It isn’t dance, obviously, that death metal pushes one’s body toward.  It is rather, that rhythmic pulsing of the head and hands – “headbanging” and “the devil’s horns” – that celebrate the sheer power and occasionally devilish nature of the music.  With the possible exception of dance music, no music brings the listener and performer together in a unison desire to move than heavy metal.

In this chapter on semiotics, it is Haeney’s inclusion of movement that is one of the main categories with which she brings us round from a consideration of music as such to music as a signifier, particularly of theological meaning.  Along with defining music as a particular sound through which performer and audience share in meaning, rather than when speech acts occur, and meaning moves from the speaker to the hearer, the whole chapter is the defense of a set of categories of music that will be useful later on in her discussions of a theological epistemology of music.  Along with the embodied nature of music, there is the “presence” that music creates.

Music fills and penetrates the space it inhabits.  You cannot “put it in the corner of a room”: it is much more all-present and invasive than that.(p.125)

The other major difference between music and speech acts is that speech acts are singular events.  Music, on the other hand, is inherently relational.

Music exists in harmonic relations.  The musical tone itself is a harmony of different pitches, called “resonance-frequencies.  Music, therefore, is fundamentally harmonic: . . .

Even a melody without accompaniment in Western music is written in a particular musical key and is related to its corresponding harmonic tone.  It “exists” in harmony. . . .

[T]he harmonic integration provoked by music . . . is not only on the level of notes within a key, but also in tone color.  Tone color, according to Copland, is about the available instruments and the “color” of their sound: strings have a different tone color than brass instruments, and even within the same group, the difference between a violin and a viola has to do with tone color with meaning, at least according to the perception of the composer: . . . (pp.126-127)

This set of categories – the inherently relational nature of music itself, the way it is not only embodied, but creates embodiment as it is shared, and its physical presence – will all become important as we move from the matter of semiotics to theological epistemology.  It is here that we begin to unravel the mystery of my original frustration.  Without this set of categories, any theological hermeneutics will find in that remainder that exists between the sign and what is signified whatever it might want to find.  Or nothing at all.

Furthermore, it more than defines but explains the musical experience for those who have attended a concert, whether a rock concert, a jazz show, a dance, or even a symphony.  These categories all help us understand what and how something is communicated – or better, shared – between the musicians and the audience.  We are more than passive receptors of some information; we are active, embodied, present participants in an event, a musical event that can shape, and reshape, our lives.  As she writes at the end of the chapter:

In music we have seen how the accent and emphasis on the present, the here and now, is important and is reinforced by the typically embodied nature of musical semiotics.  In a book on contemporary music, the differentiation between and understanding of oral and written takes on special importance . . .  [T]he symbolism specific to music comes into play in the moment that music is played and listened to.  It is in that moment in which the specific “power” or capacity of music to affect change transform the atmosphere or reality within which it is heard becomes actual.(p.134)

Moving forward, these categories for grasping the difference between speech acts and music, for a singular movement to a shared participation in an event that embodies us here and now will be not only important.  They should remind us of theological categories, which when we encounter later, will keep us grounded both in the musical event and the theological understanding of the Christ event.