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Text and Music Revisited
Linköping University, Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture, Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden. Linköping University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
1997 (English)In: Theory, Culture and Society. Explorations in Critical Social Science, ISSN 0263-2764, Vol. 14, no 3, 109-123 p.Article in journal (Refereed) Published
Abstract [en]

Are words and music two separate symbolic modes, or rather variants of the same human symbolic practice? Are they parallel, opposing or over­lap­ping? What do they have in common and how does each of them exceed the other? Is music perhaps incomparably dif­fer­ent from words, or even their anti-verbal Other? Distinctions between text (in the verbal sense of units of words rather than in the wide sense of symbolic webs in general) and music are regularly made – but also prob­lem­atized – within music­al practices that create, regulate or use musical works, as well as within theoretical discourses on culture.

First, there has been a reductive verbocentrism in much cultural theory, which was for a long period dominated by linguistics and literary approaches, notably within the influential but problematic tradition line from structuralist semi­ot­ics to post­struc­turalism (including Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Jakobson, Barthes and Derri­da). There was a tendency to reduce all sym­bol­ic modes to one single core of semi­ot­ic codes, basically common to all mean­ing­ful hu­man sign systems. All human com­munication was seen in basic­al­ly ling­uistic terms as de­pendent on and ultimately derived from the verbal lang­uage system.

Instead of under­standing music (or images) as simply a less perfect type of text, contrary demands have repeatedly been raised, for example by dance scholars or musicologists, for accepting that each symbolic mode is genuinely and ir­re­ducibly different (e.g., by Blacking, 1973: 21). Em­phas­iz­ing the pecu­li­ar­i­ties of music makes it pos­sible to acknowledge the very limits of language: everything is not redu­cib­le to words, and cultural theory should be aware of the limitations of pre­vail­ing verbo­centric para­digms.

However, many who talk of music and words as two almost oppo­si­tion­al symbolic modes misrepresent each of them and underestimate their simi­lar­ities, in a procedure of ‘stereotypical dualism’ that make each sym­bolic mode appear as a rela­tive­ly closed whole fol­lowing its own rules, auto­nomously from (or in opposition to) the others. This leads to an ‘essen­tial­ism’ of sym­bol­ic modes, in spite of all efforts to argue that they are socially and his­tor­ic­al­ly con­structed. I will argue that the dif­fer­ence between text and music is not as radi­cal as is often be­lieved – both by literary theorists and by musicologists. At least, it cannot be reduced to a clear-cut dichotomy.

After a short historical survey of the conflictual discourses that have arti­cu­lated the dif­fer­ences between symbolic modes, I will here discuss a series of dicho­tomies that circle around the text/music-rela­tion­ship. These will be discussed in two steps: first the general polarizations of symbolic modes which are mainly based upon their dependance on sense modalities (visuality vs. aurality), and then the distinctions of symbolic aspects or levels connected to the concept of discursivity. I will argue that such distinctions have to be kept apart, in order to respect the complexities of the way text and music inter­relate, and that they are all intersubjective constructions rather than objective facts. In fact, text/music is no polar dichotomy at all.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
1997. Vol. 14, no 3, 109-123 p.
Keyword [en]
text, music, lyrics, communication
National Category
Social Sciences
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-15570OAI: diva2:126634
The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in: Theory, Culture and Society, (14), 3, 109-123, 1997.Johan Fornäs, Text and Music Revisited. by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. from: 2008-11-19 Created: 2008-11-19 Last updated: 2009-05-14Bibliographically approved

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