Last week I produced a video essay/playlist on the Electric Didact YouTube channel (um, you should def subscribe) about musical hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is variously defined as the art of interpretation, the theory of reading, the study of handling texts. It is all these things (and more), and is concerned broadly with how one reads texts and finds meaning there.
This is (arguably) easy to say when it comes to books or verbal texts, but what about music? Well, lots of music has words. But what about music with no words? Does music by itself have meaning that one can “read” as one reads a sentence, paragraph or chapter of a novel?
Yes. And no. But definitely yes.
In this video, I discuss a few different writers’ takes on the meaning of musical texts and settle on a thesis closely tied to one offered by Roger W.H. Savage in his book Hermeneutics and Music Criticism, who argues that music (re)describes the affective contours of human experience, in particular the experience of being dependent in our finiteness upon an inscrutable passing of time.
That’s all very nice, but how do you get there from here?
Watch the full video essay below to find out.
Walk the Moon, “Avalanche,” Talking Is Hard, 2014, RCA Records
Siglind Bruhn, “Introduction,” American Journal of Semiotics, 1996
Robert S Hatten, “Grounding Interpretation: A Semiotic Framework for Musical Hermeneutics,” American Journal of Semiotics, 1996
Anonymous, “The Four Seasons Sonnets,” 1725?, WikiSource (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Four_Seasons_Sonnets)
Antonio Vivaldi, III. Allegro, Concerto No. 3 in F major, Op. 8, RV 293, Autumn (L’autunno), performed by Arctic Philharmonic (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xELRqnLaN4)
Robert W.H. Savage, “Mimesis and the Hermeneutics of Music,” Hermeneutics and Music Criticism, 2010, Routledge
Imogen Heap, “The Listening Chair,” Sparks, 2014 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj9kXORLoG0)
Steve Reich, Piano Phase, 1967, performed by Tinnitus Piano Duo (Tine Allegaert and Lukas Huisman) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0345c6zNfM)