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Form, Meaning and Intentionality: The Case of Metaphor in Music

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Metaphors and Analogies in Sciences and Humanities

Part of the book series: Synthese Library ((SYLI,volume 453))

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Abstract

It is an interesting question whether the problem of “words and worlds” really applies to musical phenomena. After all, according to many, music is best experienced if not talked about; likewise, it often seems to operate just fine in its own ontological environment, without the need to “refer” to anything extrinsic. This at least has been the position of countless “formalist” approaches in music aesthetics, semiotics, and more recently cognitive science. In response to such occasional objections, the present contribution aims to discuss precisely the problem of intentionality: can music be “about” anything in the extramusical realm and can the notion of metaphor help shed light on such a music-to-the-world connection?

The present paper uses the cognitive-linguistic theories of conceptual metaphor and conceptual blending and the author’s proposal for a “multilevel-grounded semantics” to suggest that the form/content dichotomy in music is in fact a matter of degree. To support this, the paper provides an overview of musical descriptions resulting from historical texts, instances of criticism, or experimental studies, showing how they are metaphorical on a variety of levels, from apparently very simplistic “low tones moving upward” located in didactic Czerny etudes to highly descriptive “birds singing” as in Vivaldi’s Spring.

To illustrate the complexities of the phenomenon, the text provides a detailed analysis of the possible reception of a well-known programmatic musical piece – Introduction and Royal March of the Lion from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. With an aim to suggest that the use of metaphor at the same time constrains the broad array of musical interpretations and allows for vast creativity in the music reception process, the model proposes six hierarchically interrelated levels of meaning generation that motivate musical metaphor, spanning perceptual constraints, cross-modal interactions, affective responses, construction of elementary conceptual imagery, culturally rich narrative elaborations, and finally optional personal associations.

This work was supported by a grant from the Faculty of Philosophy – University of Niš, Serbia (internal project no. 360/1-16-1-01) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Alas, this “arousal” is also metaphorical. One just cannot explain anything without them...

  2. 2.

    According to some, and more controversially, even pre-linguistic music perception may be considered metaphorical, as the “metaphor [...] defines the intentional object of musical experience” (Scruton, 1999: 92, italics mine).

  3. 3.

    Circular pitch representation is not a novelty in music cognition. One may recall Shepard’s (1982) helix model of pitch.

  4. 4.

    Or should it have? Musical onomatopoeias are in fact regularly missed by listeners, trained or untrained, in experimental settings as well. This is so because music employs tones which sometimes mimic natural sounds, but it is semantically not about those sounds. The same applies to language: phonology is instrumental as the first step towards reaching a meaning, but meaning cannot be reduced to it. Musical signification theorists often strangely overlook this important distinction (Antović, 2016).

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Correspondence to Mihailo Antović .

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Antović, M. (2022). Form, Meaning and Intentionality: The Case of Metaphor in Music. In: Wuppuluri, S., Grayling, A.C. (eds) Metaphors and Analogies in Sciences and Humanities. Synthese Library, vol 453. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-90688-7_26

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