Saturday, 6 August 2011

Music, Learning and Semiosis

I discovered today that the eminent music theorist Leonard B. Meyer was present with Warren McCulloch, Tom Sebeok and Martin Gardner at the first lectures in semiotics given by Charles Morris in the 1930s at the University of Chicago. I've always been quite attracted to Meyer's 'expectation=emotion=meaning' theory because it was to me profoundly audible. But Harre is right to point out that Meyer seems to attribute the 'expectation' to the notes themselves, rather than the social and cultural conditions within which they are heard.

But what about semiotics? Meyer was deeply influenced by Peirce and Dewey. The wikipedia article on Meyer states that:
"Peirce had suggested that any regular response to an event developed alongside the understanding of that event's consequences, its 'meaning'". 
In this way, we might suggest that Meyer's expectation theory depends on a continual process of 'sign-making' as the music unfolds: "here are the signs... and now we follow them!" So, in this analysis from Beethoven's 'Les Adieux' sonata (taken from Nicholas Cook's "A guide to music analysis"), the falling pattern is established in the first three chords, to be replicated at other registers, with 'gaps' (staves 1 and 2) in the melody implying the need for resolution through a falling scale later in the music. This triadic pattern similarly is 'resolved' through continuation in the third stave down.
Lurking behind Meyer's assertion is an ontology of 'fundamental properties' in the perception of music. But fundamental properties behind notes may be one thing (and the criticism is valid), but fundamental properties behind the biological aspects of our response is another. I am inclined to argue that the expectation-resolution idea reveals something that relates our biology to the physical properties of sound and that may well be ontological. Behind the recognition of a pattern lies some mechanism of attachment to aspects of sensual experience which underlie the processes of maintaining our identity and viability. In a deep way, I think (in line with Bowlby) that is primeval.

In this way, when we talk of 'signs' we really talk of 'attachments'. The processes of sign-making (semiosis) are processes of managing attachments which in turn is a process of maintaining viability. The things to which attachments are formed are highly dependent on individual and cultural circumstances. But the process of forming them is universal.

As a rich description of the ways in which 'individual and cultural circumstances' inform the process of making attachments and making signs, Positioning theory is very valuable. What Meyer is interested in is what is going on in the storyline. Indeed, his theory is all about the construction of an 'anticipatory system' (see my blog post here: But attachment is only one dimension, relating the social and cultural 'position' to the individual's storyline. The individual also makes communications, making selections about utterances, which in turn also change the positioning.

When experiencing music through listening, I wonder if this aspect of agency, which clearly doesn't involve making direct communications, is nevertheless a matter of 'selection of attention'. Thus the 'game' that Kant and Gadamer talk about in aesthetic experience is played out.  From one moment to the next we choose those aspects of perception around which we make new signs (form new attachments).

Learning is so closely related to this process. On the one hand, learning might be characterised as 'semiosis' (Dewey clearly thought so), which in my language would be the 'making of attachments'. But that doesn't say anything about the social consequences of learning. Harre has the best definition as told to me by @sciencematters: "Learning is the change in positioning". That means that when I learn something, my communications change in response to a change in my storyline.

The really profound thing about this is that is debunks the attitude of teachers who complain about their "dumb students who'll never learn anything". Positioning is a two-way street, and it may often be the teachers who prevent it developing!

1 comment:

piano lessons edgewater park nj said...

Hi, that is very well said. Additionally, learning should also be collaborative, that is both teachers and students take part in lessons. And this is the same with music teaching.