Understanding other music

This article is basically an attempt to rephrase previous articles on exegesis & meaning. I have little of significance to add here, except to inject those ideas into a different semantic context, and to "untangle" them from what was a fairly specific technical underpinning. That said, and for the latter reason, the earlier articles are both stronger & more specific statements. Here I approach the topic in a more casual way, starting basically from its ubiquity in ordinary discourse. It is common for people to believe that they either do or do not "understand" some piece of music; it is common for them to believe that they might never understand a particular piece or style; and, it is somewhat less common for them to believe that they will never truly understand any piece or style.

If we adopt common epistemic thought, we immediately posit that people do "understand" some things. Turning to specific utterances, if I say "The sky is blue," we commonly agree that the statement is both understood and true. Stepping back for a moment, for a non-English speaker, the statement might not be understood, but it would remain true. Switching back to music, many people would still say that a common musical phrase by e.g. Beethoven is understood, whereas few would say that it is true. So what does this juxtaposition indicate? If we work, we can construct a sense in which such a phrase, e.g. the first nine notes of Für Elise, is true. However, this probably takes us away from naïve epistemology. We could perhaps talk about it being "true" in the sense of being in tune (i.e. true to the theory), or true as an interpretation. Or maybe a true expression of some sort of sentiment, which effectively subsumes the notion that we understand it. Without a sense in which something is true, it can be difficult to construct a meaning for "understanding" — yet, that does not stop many people. At least the language example is more obvious, and naïvely, in the same way, we can speak directly of understanding a song through its lyrics. The case of absolute music is more interesting, however.

Returning to the theory notion, this sort of "trueness" is in common parlance, and even deemed meaningful by a certain class of musician. Moreover, it dovetails nicely with the opening distinction between piece & style. A style is, by its nature, designated (or constrained) in some way. It is not undifferentiated expression; rather, it is a label intended to be understood. In common parlance, it is understood, and so for the present purpose, we can dismiss people who believe that they will never understand a style as either too self-critical or simply too philosophically reflective. (The latter case is certainly possible, and indeed if we stop to scrutinize a style's prescriptions & boundaries, we can easily be left with some unresolvable questions. However, that would not be common epistemic thought.) When it comes to pieces, we can ask if a particular piece fits a particular style, and there might often be disagreement on this point. If we agree on this, even if we agree that we understand a particular piece, even if in some sense we agree what it means, we still might find such agreement difficult to articulate. As with naïve epistemology, in many ways, agreement tends to dissolve under a spotlight.

If we want that agreement to dissolve, we have some obvious recourses, maybe even to the point of full-on deconstruction. Here we are not so jaded as to want that, however. If it does not mean taking each of us into separate rooms and having us write out the details of our understanding to be compared line-by-line, then what does "understanding" mean? For one, the notion that a musical understanding can be readily transcribed into another medium is strained at best. More than that, the answer is about culture. Masterpieces have a meaning to our culture, and while not a meaning which can be circumscribed as easily as "The sky is blue," it is nonetheless a meaning which is readily accessible to common-parlance understanding. We might even say that particular pieces & composers are assessed and even deified to the extent that they are amenable to such a cultural framework of understanding. It is an "understanding" abstracted from an underlying meaning in reference, essentially the nature of art.

When it comes to early music, our ability to forge such a framework is immediately strained, because our existing framework was already based on a particular view of history. The public generally takes a retrospective view of pre-greatness, and the extent to which criteria of historical influence are inconsistent with each other is perpetuated by ignorance. Such underlying conflict is even more charged once one considers other cultures existing today. Unlike the past, these can speak up for themselves! How and to what extent can we understand them? This brings us to the "other" in the current title, or even The Other. In many ways, we are happy to base assessment of the past on more recent criteria, because we do not truly regard it as Other. It was us, but a while ago. Of course, "we" did not think the same, but facts such as this are complicated & confusing. When confronted with differing values — and music — of another culture, though, we are forced to consider otherness. We are forced to admit that we might not understand it; but note that, at least in common parlance, we do not reject the prospect of understanding it. We feel that we might understand it.

What makes us believe that we understand music at all? The answer is that it makes sense to us in some way, it "clicks." We perceive something of the way it is put together... we might accurately predict what the next note should be. The latter gives us a solid reason to believe that we understand something technical about the music. Once we do that, or maybe in some other order, we might also begin to assign some meaning to particular pieces and phrases. This is the real gulf, between meaning & context. Does one person's meaning have a relation to someone else's meaning? Within cultural contexts, it often can and does. After all, many people accept the meaning they are told. When different cultures collide, however, there can easily be multiple clearly defined meanings in direct conflict. Especially for something like music, where we can at least hope that people will not resort to violence over their disagreements, we can simply let the situation be. We can have our own rites.

In many ways, it is a grand success if music from another culture has any meaning at all for us. It could easily have none. However, we also want to feel as though we understand it, i.e. share meanings with its creators. At the gross level, we can establish some of these intercultural correspondences with language. When what others say to us about their understanding makes sense within the context of our own, we start to believe that we have bridged the gulf of meaning, at least in some ways. We can begin to share musical tastes & preferences, and we also feel more secure in our apprehension. To a large extent, this is exactly what we do within our own culture. Being immersed in those sounds & meanings from childhood makes it easier, but it is still a process of learning & communicating. Of course, people confronted with too much information or too much difference, might merely decide after a point that "everyone has his own tastes," and leave it at that. When it comes to the fine points of individual appreciation for individual pieces, there is certainly a core of inscrutability, but when it comes to entire cultures, there is a large & tangible complex of meaning to which we can aspire. It may not be easy, but if a drive to understand is there, there is usually an element of success.

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Todd M. McComb