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Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture

Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture

by Leonard B. Meyer

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Meyer makes a valuable statement on aesthetics, criteria for assessing great works of music, compositional practices and theories of the present day, and predictions of the future of Western culture. His postlude, written for the book's twenty-fifth anniversary, looks back at his thoughts on the direction of music in 1967.


Meyer makes a valuable statement on aesthetics, criteria for assessing great works of music, compositional practices and theories of the present day, and predictions of the future of Western culture. His postlude, written for the book's twenty-fifth anniversary, looks back at his thoughts on the direction of music in 1967.

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**** Reprint of the Chicago edition of 1967--which is endorsed by BCL3--with a new 32-page "postlude." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Music the Arts and Ideas

Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture

By Leonard B. Meyer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-52144-2


Meaning in Music and Information Theory

I have dealt elsewhere at some length with the central importance of the arousal and subsequent inhibition of expectant tendencies in the shaping of musical experience. In that analysis of musical experience many concepts were developed and suggestions made for which I subsequently found striking parallels—indeed equivalents—in information theory Among these were the importance of uncertainty in musical communication, the probabilistic nature of musical style, and the operation in musical experience of what I have since learned to be the Markoff process. In particular, it would seem that the psycho—stylistic conditions which give rise to musical meaning, whether affective or intellectual, are the same as those which communicate information. It is this hypothesis which I propose to explore here.

The hypothesis is of particular interest because, if it can be substantiated, then the seemingly disparate and discrete worlds of physical phenomena, bio-social behavior, and humanistic creation can, at least from this point of view, he brought together and subsumed under a single fundamental principle—the law of entropy. And thus Eddington's famous suggestion that "there are the strongest grounds for placing entropy alongside beauty and melody" will have received concrete exemplification.

Let us begin with a general definition of meaning. As Morris R. Cohen puts it:

... anything acquires meaning if it is connected with, or indicates, or refers to, something beyond itself, so that its full nature points to and is revealed in that connection.

Meaning in this sense resides in what both Cohen and George Herbert Mead have called the "triadic relationship" between a stimulus, the thing to which it refers, and the individual for whom the stimulus has meaning. While meaning is thus a mental fact, it is not arbitrarily subjective. The relationship between the stimulus and the thing to which it refers is a real relationship existing in the objective world, whether physical or social. For "... what anything means is in no wise created by our apprehension, but is presupposed by the latter."

Under this general definition two types of meaning must be distinguished. (1) A stimulus may be meaningful because it indicates or refers to something which is different from itself in kind—as when a word refers to or denotes an object or concept which is not itself a word. This type of meaning we shall call "designative meaning." (2) A stimulus or process may acquire meaning because it indicates or refers to something which is like itself in kind—as when the rumble of distant thunder on a sultry day and the piling up of storm clouds (antecedent natural events) indicate the coming of a rain storm (a consequent natural event). This type of meaning we shall call "embodied meaning."

Music gives rise to both types of meaning. Music may be meaningful because it refers to things outside itself, evoking associations and connotations relative to the world of ideas, sentiments, and physical objects. Such designative meanings are often less precise and specific than those arising in linguistic communication. This does not, however, make them less forceful or significant. Or music may be meaningful in the sense that within the context of a particular musical style one tone or group of tones indicates—leads the practiced listener to expect—that another tone or group of tones will be forthcoming at some more or less specified point in the musical continuum.

Although these two types of meaning are logically separable, there is in practice an intimate interaction between them. The "character" (designative meaning) of a piece of music will, when well-defined, influence our expectations about subsequent musical events (embodied meaning), just as our estimate of the character of an individual will influence our expectations about his behavior in a given set of circumstances. Conversely, the way in which expectations are satisfied, delayed, or blocked plays an important part in the characterization of the designative meaning of a passage, in the same way that we make inferences about an individual's character on the basis of his behavior in a particular cultural situation.

Since in past analyses of musical meaning considerable confusion has resulted from a failure to specify which aspect of meaning is being considered, let us state at the outset that this study is concerned with those meanings which arise within the context of the work itself—that is, with embodied meaning. And except where the term "designative meaning" is explicitly used, the word "meaning" is to be understood as referring to embodied meaning.

Style constitutes the universe of discourse within which musical meanings arise. There are many musical styles. They vary from culture to culture, from epoch to epoch within the same culture, and even within the same epoch and culture. This plurality of musical styles results because styles exist not as unchanging physical processes in the world of nature, but as psychological processes ingrained as habits in the perceptions, dispositions, and responses of those who have learned through practice and experience to understand a particular style. What remains constant from style to style are not scales, modes, harmonies, or manners of performance, but the psychology of human mental processes—the ways in which the mind, operating within the context of culturally established norms, selects and organizes the stimuli that are presented to it. For instance, the human mind, striving for stability and completeness, "expects" structural gaps to be filled in. But what constitutes a structural gap will vary from style to style. Thus a melodic skip of a third which is a structural gap in the diatonic-chromatic tonal system of the West would not be a gap in a pentatonic tonal system in which such a skip is given as normative.

Once a musical style has become part of the habit responses of composers, performers, and practiced listeners it may be regarded as a complex system of probabilities. That musical styles are internalized probability systems is demonstrated by the rules of musical grammar and syntax found in textbooks on harmony, counterpoint, and theory in general. The rules given in such books are almost invariably stated in terms of probability. For example, we are told that in the tonal harmonic system of Western music the tonic chord is most often followed by the dominant, frequently by the subdominant, sometimes by the submediant, and so forth. Or we are informed in texts on counterpoint that, after a large melodic skip, the melody usually moves in the opposite direction, filling in the tones passed over. Ethnologists dealing with primitive or folk music have often implicitly acknowledged the probabilistic nature of tonal systems in their notation of scales as well as in their discussions of tonal progression. Indeed, some have compiled elaborate statistics of the frequency with which a given tone, interval, or progression occurs in the music of the culture under consideration. The problems involved in such statistical analyses of music are discussed toward the close of this chapter.

Out of such internalized probability systems arise the expectations—the tendencies—upon which musical meaning is built. But probability is not the same as expectation. Or, to put the matter in another way, we must distinguish between active and latent expectation—between the fact of probability and the awareness that an individual has of alternative probabilities.

In a sense our whole mental existence is built around our expectations about the normal (probable) continuity of events. We "expect" to get up Monday morning, to eat breakfast, to see that the children get to school, to go to the office, and so forth. But we are as a rule unconscious of such expectations. They are latent expectations, the norms of behavior which are taken for granted once they have become fixed habit patterns. Such expectations become active, either as affective experience or conscious cognition, only when our normal patterns of behavior are disturbed in some way. If, for'instance, we oversleep or breakfast is delayed, then we become aware of our expectant habits. We are aware of the necessity of getting to the office, of making choices and decisions.

In short, the probability relationships embodied in a particular musical style together with the various modes of mental behavior involved in the perception and understanding of the materials of the style constitute the norms of the style. Latent expectation is a product of these probability relationships. And expectation becomes active only when these norms are disturbed. In other words, such latent expectations are necessary conditions for the communication of musical information, while the disturbances of these norms are the sufficient condition for musical communication.

Let us now return to an explicit consideration of meaning. Meaning arises when an individual becomes aware, either affectively or intellectually, of the implications of a stimulus in a particular context. As long as behavior is habitual and "unthinking" the stimuli presented to the mind are neither meaningful nor meaningless. They cannot be said to be meaningless, because this implies an active negation of meaning. Rather our experience of such stimuli stands in the same relationship to the meaningful- meaningless axis as the concept of "amoral" stands in relation to the moral-immoral axis. That is, such stimuli are neutral with respect to meaning. For example, as we drive along a highway countless stimuli (on-coming cars, pedestrians, buildings, billboards, etc.) are "seen," but as long as our habit responses "take care" of these stimuli we do not really observe them. They are not meaningful. They do not indicate or require any action on our part. Only when our habits are disturbed do these stimuli become meaningful—e.g., if an on—coming car swerves into the middle of the road and a judgment of speed and distance must be made, or if a detour sign requires a decision as to the future route, or if a particularly striking landscape calls attention to itself.

Similarly in music, a tonal process which moves in the expected and probable way without deviation may he said to be neutral with regard to meaning. Musical meaning, then, arises when our expectant habit responses are delayed or blocked—when the normal course of stylistic-mental events is disturbed by some form of deviation.

Three varieties of deviation may be distinguished. (1) The normal, or probable, consequent event may be delayed. Such a delay may be purely temporal or it may also involve reaching the consequent through a less direct tonal route, provided that the deviation is understandable as a means to the end in view. (2) The antecedent situation may be ambiguous. That is, several equally probable consequents may be envisaged. When this takes place, our automatic habit responses are inadequate, for they are attuned only to a clear decision about probabilities. And (3) there may be neither delay nor ambiguity, but the consequent event may be unexpected—improbable in the particular context.

The first two modes of deviation are very similar in their basic psychological effect. For whenever there is a delay in the antecedent-consequent relationship (as in 1), the mind becomes aware of the possibility of alternative modes of continuation. It weighs, though perhaps unconsciously, the probabilities of the situation in the light of past events, the present context, and the possible influence of the delay on the future course of events. For even though one mode of continuation may seem much more probable than any of the others, it is still only probable, not certain. Thus both varieties of deviation (1 and 2) arouse active expectation because of the necessity of envisaging alternative consequents—of estimating the probabilities of an uncertain situation.

Sometimes such uncertainty is slight and evanescent, as when a chromatic tone is introduced within a standard cadential progression or when the portamento of a violinist delays the arrival of a substantive (expected) tone ever so little. At other times uncertainty may reach heroic proportions, as it does just before the E minor theme in the development section of the first movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony (mm. 248–80). Here the destruction of the rhythmic organization, the weakening of melodic motion, and the arrival at a harmonic impass create a musical situation bordering on chaos. And the tremendous impact of the new theme, when it arrives, is clearly a product of the uncertainty of the antecedent situation.

Our definition of meaning can thus he revised to read as follows: Musical meaning arises when an antecedent situation, requiring an estimate of the probable modes of pattern continuation, produces uncertainty about the temporal-tonal nature of the expected consequent.

Here we see our first clear relationship between embodied meaning and information. Information is measured by the randomness of the choices possible in a given situation. If a situation is highly organized and the possible consequents in the pattern process have a high degree of probability, then information (or entropy) is low. If, however, the situation is characterized by a high degree of shuffledness so that the consequents are more or less equi-probable, then information is said to be high.

Both meaning and information are thus related through probability to uncertainty. For the lower the probability of a particular consequent in any message, the greater the uncertainty (and information) involved in the antecedent-consequent relationship. "Information is ... a measure of one's freedom of choice in selecting a message. The greater this freedom of choice, and hence the greater the information, the greater is the uncertainty that the message actually is some particular one. Thus greater freedom of choice, greater uncertainty, greater information go hand in hand."

The third variety of deviation discussed above, however, does not involve the active expectation of alternative consequents. No uncertainty is aroused by the antecedent stimulus situation. Deviation occurs because the consequent was not the one expected, the probable one. (However, it conveys a maximum of information.) An understanding of the relationship of this mode of deviation to meaning and information necessitates a further analysis of the experience of meaning.

The meaning of an antecedent event depends upon its relationship to the consequent to which it refers. Since this relationship changes as the music unfolds, so does the meaning attributed to the antecedent event. Meaning, then, is not a static, invariant attribute of a stimulus, but an evolving discovery of attributes.

The development of embodied meaning may be differentiated into three stages.

1. Hypothetical meanings are those attributed to the antecedent tone or pattern of tones when the consequents are being expected. Unless deviation is present, hypothetical meanings will not arouse uncertainty or give rise to information. For, although any consequent is never more than a probability, as the probability of any particular consequent increases, the less probable alternatives are excluded from expectation. Thus, the more structured the situation, and hence the more dominant one mode of continuation over others, the less likely is the listener to envisage alternative consequents unless some deviation is present. This tendency of the dominant probability to exclude the less probable from consciousness is important because it explains why in a probabilistic world we are capable of surprise—that is, it accounts for the fact that the less probable becomes the unexpected.

Though the consequent which is actually forthcoming must be possible within the style, it mayor may not be one of those which was most probable. Or it may arrive only after a delay or deceptive diversion through alternative consequents. But whether our expectations are confirmed or not, a new stage of meaning is reached when the consequent becomes a concrete musical event.

2. Evident meanings are those which are attributed to the antecedent stimulus in retrospect, after the consequent has become a tonal-psychic event and when the actual relationship between the antecedent and consequent is apprehended.

Evident and hypothetical meanings do not, however, arise and function in isolation from one another. Evident meaning is modified by the hypothetical meanings previously attributed to the antecedent. That is, the consequent is not only that which actually follows, but it is that which follows as expected, arrives only after a deviation, resolves an ambiguity, or is unexpected.


Excerpted from Music the Arts and Ideas by Leonard B. Meyer. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Leonard B. Meyer is Benjamin Franklin Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Pennsylvania.

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