Text and Music Revisited
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
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.
text, music, lyrics, communication
National CategorySocial Sciences
IdentifiersURN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-15570OAI: oai:DiVA.org:liu-15570DiVA: 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.http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/vol14/issue3/. by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. http://www.sagepub.com/2008-11-192008-11-192009-05-14Bibliographically approved