A Language of Its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music

A Language of Its Own: Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music

by Ruth Katz


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The Western musical tradition has produced not only music, but also countless writings about music that remain in continuous—and enormously influential—dialogue with their subject. With sweeping scope and philosophical depth, A Language of Its Own traces the past millennium of this ongoing exchange.

Ruth Katz argues that the indispensible relationship between intellectual production and musical creation gave rise to the Western conception of music. This evolving and sometimes conflicted process, in turn, shaped the art form itself. As ideas entered music from the contexts in which it existed, its internal language developed in tandem with shifts in intellectual and social history. Katz explores how this infrastructure allowed music to explain itself from within, creating a self-referential and rational foundation that has begun to erode in recent years.

A magisterial exploration of a frequently overlooked intersection of Western art and philosophy, A Language of Its Own restores music to its rightful place in the history of ideas.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226425979
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/12/2013
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Ruth Katz is the Emanuel Alexandre Professor Emerita of Musicology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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A Language of Its Own

Sense and Meaning in the Making of Western Art Music

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42596-2

Chapter One

The Making of Musical Building Blocks


There are two basic axioms that require reaffirmation before launching a discussion of the musical building blocks that evolved in the West. The first pertains to the simple fact that music is manmade. The second pertains to a less evident verity, namely, that music is not a language spontaneously appreciated by every listener, irrespective of cultural background or hard-earned understanding. The two axioms, moreover, are related to each other. Given that music is man-made and that cultures differ from one another, musical traditions are bound to differ from one another. Consequently, what may seem natural—that is, familiar and readily understood in one culture—may sound strange and unintelligible in another. Unless a special effort is made to discern the sonic and ideational elements that a particular culture has chosen for its musical organizations and their uses, an outsider will fail to relate to their import—to what is indicated, implied, or signified by the music. In short, being privy to the basic communicative/expressive aspects of a musical tradition, however obtained, is a prerequisite for its appreciation.

It should be stated explicitly, though it has already been intimated, that musical traditions differ not only in their organization of sounds and their import but also in the raw materials that they employ. These are not selected from a ready-made stock, as it were, but are likewise created. By harboring both possibilities, as well as additional constraints, such rudimentary creations already reflect cultural preferences, which will manifest themselves fully in the music once developed. Such creations, however, may undergo changes in the course of the musical development, for the two are reciprocally related to each other.

In dealing with the great variety of musical systems and modes of expression one can proceed in a number of ways. One may proceed, for example, from specific musical traditions in order to establish regional traits, or the other way round. One may try to characterize the music of whole civilizations, from "primitive" to highly developed ones, in an attempt to unveil some kind of developmental scheme for the very phenomenon of music-making. Geography, civilization, culture, and, of course, the musical systems themselves may constitute what one wishes to illuminate.

Music the world over has some kind of organization that lends each tradition its distinctness, and different musical traditions may also reveal certain relationships among themselves. Yet it can be shown, for example, that European music, although it has inherited quite a number of features from the East, is fundamentally different from Eastern music. Eastern music, to be sure, comprises a great variety of systems and modes of expression, yet when contrasted with European music it reveals certain common features that set the two apart. More than they reveal apparent differences in the music, such features reveal conceptual differences in the attitude toward music and its understanding. For example, the Eastern conception of the identity of a given melody is markedly different from the European one, since it does not conceive of the melody as a series of fixed "immovable" notes, but rather as a characteristic musical gesture that can be performed in a number of ways. Different renditions of a melody, therefore, may be considered identical as long as the character of the specific gesture is maintained. The gestures, in turn, entail typified motives and the manner in which they are employed. These may vary a great deal from one country, or group of countries, to another, yet they all seem to share a technique of composition whereby every piece, vocal and instrumental, is interspersed with typified motives. Thus the different versions of a melody in these musical traditions do not change its substance—as a European might think—but are left to the discretion of the performer, who is well versed in the gestures and the manner in which they are used.

In fact, European music has come to be fundamentally different from the music of the rest of the world because of the growth of harmony and the development of staff notation. Yet neither harmony nor the invention of written music is peculiar to Europe. Part singing is found elsewhere in the world and the unsophisticated forms of polyphony have a great deal in common with the earliest European forms. Likewise, various kinds of notation have been invented throughout the Eastern civilizations, but they have never been used as prescriptive signs for singing and playing, nor could they, given their nature. What secures the European musician against taking "wrong steps" is staff notation, which developed only gradually. The more complicated the harmonic texture became, the more it had to rely on written music. Indeed, complicated musical textures are inconceivable without writing them down. It is the ever mounting desire to control the concurrence of different voices that precipitated the development of a special kind of notation—a notational system that leaves no room for ambiguity. It is this development that gave rise to the European conception of identity, and to the notion of an authoritative version of a musical composition. Naturally, this kind of "reasoning" harbors implications not only for the role of the composer versus that of the performer but also for the definition of what constitutes a musical work.


The shift from an oral musical tradition to a written one, from devices that aid memory to visual devices that "conserve" the music—thereby enabling certain musical complexities that are inconceivable without them—is far from simple. Though promoted by specific musical developments that called for some kind of visual aid, such a shift necessarily rests on a process that ipso facto discloses a growing awareness of what was previously taken for granted. It was a drawn-out process, since it entailed the gradual emergence of agreed-upon means and ways that guide—and even enable—the observation itself. Tools, methods, and predispositions, as we have learned from science, affect the conception of the objects observed. Although such conceptions may or may not affect the classification of objects, they invariably affect the developments of those objects that are, to start with, man-made. However complicated it might seem, this is precisely what happened in the historical development of music in the West.

The significance of such a development may be fully grasped when compared to the emergence of letter script. Considering its relative simplicity and economic aspects, the advent of letter script in the second half of the thirteenth century BC was undoubtedly a momentous event. Yet, its overwhelming aspect surely resides in the miracle of revealing the power of letters by unveiling their "reality," that is, their sound. Letter script must have become part of myth not only because it conveyed the sense of words but also because it rendered their sounds. To the extent that their sound was realized, the words, of course, preceded the script. Yet it is fair to claim that the magic of inscription, like the wonders of Pythagorean numbers, affected our thinking by providing a basis for further formulations and inferences. By analogy, the notational system developed in the West is another miraculous script related to sound, which, like the alphabet, included and affected musical thought. Moreover, as it evolved in the centuries bridging the early Middle Ages and the Renaissance, musical notation incorporated a basic understanding of Western music. Via selection, circumscription, and the opening up of possibilities, it took part in the making of a world of sounds with its own meaning and coherence.

Like letter script, the notation that concerns us here, if it is to fulfill a similar function, must leave no room for ambiguity. Yet the development of notation was primarily prompted by musical needs as they emerged, those that required immediate solutions. Indeed, it is only in retrospect that one can clearly discern how writing and the reduction of ambiguity went hand in hand in the historical development of notation in the West. In the prehistory of written music in the West, music had no independent existence (it was certainly unaware of itself). Thus, the earliest musical writing—which arose as expediency—contained only a fraction of what was sung. Only gradually was the notation able to convey more and more of what was actually sung, thereby revealing the ever growing independence of music from extramusical elements. It pays to retrace some of the highlights of this development in order to fully grasp its significance.

Gregorian Chant Revisited

As is well known, the early writing of music in the West is connected with the tradition of Gregorian chant. For many years it was believed that the Gregorian chant that developed in different parts of Europe had a common origin in the East—in the church of Jerusalem and its environs and possibly in even earlier Jewish practice—having diffused geographically along with the liturgy. Many a scholar has searched after the oldest sources, repertoires, or traditions that might have preserved or could have been related to the original chant melodies. Philological methods and paleographical acumen were invested in comparisons among early manuscripts in the attempt to retrieve whatever was possible of the "authentic" versions. The effort was accompanied by detailed suggestions concerning the historical development and diffusion of this tradition, not least because it constituted an important base for the subsequent development of music in the West. If this pursuit had remained unchallenged, one would have had to conclude, according to Leo Treitler, that the neumes "have always been systematic, that their origin is to be traced to antiquity, that their task was to always record the pitches of the plainchant, that chant melodies were conceived as sequences of individual pitches, and that they had always been written down."

The argument was not without its loopholes, however, leaving some questions unanswered and plenty of room for doubt. How could the Ambrosian melodies, for example, be pronounced the oldest source still preserving an older common practice—the Latin chant before St. Gregory—in the absence of Ambrosian sources from before the twelfth century? Likewise, how seriously should we consider a comparison between the Gregorian, Ambrosian, and Byzantine melodies in the attempt to detect a common origin if the earliest available Western melodies are those notated in the tenth century and the deciphered Byzantine material is based on sources no earlier than the end of the twelfth century? How central, if at all, was the role of Gregory the Great and his Schola Cantorum in the organization and codification of the chant, given that the chant predates music writing? How should one understand the paleographical differences already present among the scanty early examples of neumatic notation? What was their common origin? Even more important, what was the true function of the neumes, given their erratic appearances in some manuscripts and their pervasive appearances throughout others?

Though it produced works of lasting importance, the main paradigm of Gregorian studies has been seriously challenged. According to Kenneth Levy, it was the inability to establish an association between Gregory and the neumed plainchant that gave rise to the notion of an unwritten transmission—"between the melodies' conception and their writingdown"—which set aside "oral-improvisational issues." Gregorian versions were analyzed, he says, "for their modal behavior and melodic structure, pondering the origin of neumes, and debating the nature of rhythmic and microtonal nuances." The manner of early plainchant transmission surfaced nonetheless, and has been reexamined in the light of "mechanisms" that emerge from the study of oral traditions in which processes of learning and recall are carefully scrutinized. This perspective hoped to throw light not only on chant transmission but also on chant "creation." However, if processes of learning and recall are now expected to be considered important cornerstones in a theory of chant transmission, with all of the implications they might entail, should not one challenge the "universality" of the chant? If it is limited to specific cultures and purposes, we should be asking which traditions of oral transmission harbor the greatest promise, given the repertoire and the documents at hand. What, if at all, is the distinction between poetry and music conceived and transmitted orally and poetry and music belonging to a written tradition? What, if at all, is the distinction between an oral and literate mentality? Are there, then, oral compositions that may be considered like written compositions though they have not been committed to writing?

One can readily see how questions of this sort initiated a chain reaction whereby many of the interrelated claims concerning plainchant were affected. What is most interesting, of course, is that the musical materials themselves were now subjected to a new look and were redescribed. To be sure, the formulaic construction that appears at every level of the chant, from the small motive through phrases to the entire piece, had not passed unnoticed even before. Now, however, through analogies with formulaic procedures in other oral traditions, the interpretation concerning their function has undergone a total revision and with it the status of the chants as intact compositions. As a result, it was suggested that the division of the text into units defined by sense was the basic principle underlying the composition of Gregorian chant, and that melodic phrases corresponded to units of text. Moreover, melodies that were hitherto viewed as different melodies, each possessing its own individuality, were no longer considered as such, but rather as "documentations" or exemplifications of a performance practice entailing certain ready-made formulae. Regarding the formulae themselves, it has been argued that general constraints produced general uniformities, resulting in standard passages that were employed in structurally similar contexts. Thus, starting with the text, suggested Treitler, the singer's task was to exploit the resources of melodic functions (for example, initial and cadential formulae, recitation tones, the intonational relationship between the recitation tone and the finalis) in "rendering his understanding of the proper declamation and elocution of the text." The melodic constraints, in turn, should be viewed as a formulaic system in which standard formulae corresponded to standard passages. Certain formulae, so the argument proceeds, apparently have become "stereotyped through practice under the control of a formulaic system." This, it is claimed, both resulted from and was instrumental for "a tradition of oral performance-composition."

Levy, on the other hand, rejects the "oral performance-composition" theory. To begin with, he rejects the theory that neumes were signs that were used as "text-punctuations," since the shapes of the punctuation-neumes differ from region to region, so that "local correspondences can scarcely reflect a common origin." The whole notion of linking the overall phenomenon of neume origin to the usage of text and language, he claims, has found little support in scientific studies. It derived, argues Levy, from the Byzantine theory of origins, and from "the ekphonetic notations used in Byzantium between the ninth and fifteenth centuries to regulate the delivery of scriptural lections and ceremonial texts." Levy also reminds us that "the improvisatory flights of Gregorian plainchant" took place in the medium of music, and those of the epic bards in the "medium of words," and that what Milman Parry and Albert Lord dealt with were the verbal texts. For plainchant, says Levy, the texts "come verbatim from Scripture (or sometimes Patristic literature), and are not results of improvisatory elaboration." Moreover, the improvisations that produced the bardic texts, Levy tells us, also differ in character from those of the "plainchant melos." Whereas "epic continuities are built up in a succession of short repeated formations ... freer melismatic improvisational elaborations, of the sort that may have contributed to the shaping of florid Gregorian chants, have no counterpart in epic at all." To reinforce his arguments, he employs Bruno Nettl's findings (which are based on his own ethnomusicological studies of improvisation and traditional types of transmission) that revealed "improvisatory practice" to be located between "unpremeditated decisions" and "fixed, memorized melos." Though the neumes clearly "rendered the fixing of melodic shapes a practicality," some of the chants, argues Levy, must have gone, nonetheless, "from the freely improvisatory toward more calculated methods of melodic production" during the chant's oral stage. Levy agrees that it is futile to look for a "single written original from which all Latin neumes organically descended"; he suggests instead three branches that coexisted during a period of some centuries. The oldest branch, accordingly, is not written at all, "it is memory: a melodic tradition of the Gregorian proper that was 'concretized' in professional memories at the time written processes began. This remembered reified melodic tradition went on to nourish two written branches during the early centuries of neumatic transmission."


Excerpted from A Language of Its Own by RUTH KATZ Copyright © 2009 by 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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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Guiding Conception of Western Art Music

The Structuring of a Self-Referential World
Preliminary Clarifications
The Development of Western Notation and Its Significance
Gregorian Chant Revisited
The Rise of Notation as an Autonomous System
Concerning Notation: Concluding Remarks
Musical Frameworks as Referential Systems
The Greek Heritage: Music as an Organized Auditory Phenomenon
The Musical Heritage of the World That Gave Rise to Christianity
The Formal Organization of the Chant Repertoire
The Self-Chosen Confi nes of Art
Horizontal and Vertical Elements: A Generating and Controlling Force, Respectively
Cementing the Relationships among Successively
Composed Voices
“The Function of Closure”
From Imperfect to Perfect Consonance—Relating Voices and Sonorities by Interval Progressions
Bestowing a Semblance of “Oneness” on Particles
External Designs
The Development of Inner Cohesion
The Rise of Harmonic Tonality
The Move from Desired Coincidences among Voices to a “System of Chords”
The Systematization of Harmonic Tonality
Shifting Concerns—From Musical “Rules” to Music’s Communicative “Powers”
The Crafting of a “Shared Understanding”
Natural Languages: Some Relevant Points
The Power to Occasion an Atmosphere
Drama Aspiring toward the “Condition of Music”
The Legacy of the Humanists
Empirical Observation and Aesthetic Theory
Demystifying an Elusive Agenda
The Camerata: Custodian of a Paradigm
Leading Conceptual Turning Points
A Fundamental Change in the Conception of ArtSigns as Cognitive Tools
Moral Philosophy and Its “Affair” with ‘Beauty’
Modes of Communication and Cognitive Expansions
Social Interaction as a Regulating Force
The Sagacity of Sensate Discourse
Human Consciousness as a Creator of “Truths”
The Sign and the Signified in Western Music
The Referential Function of Learned Schemata: External versus Internal References
Perception Replacing Conception
The Return of an Enigma
Music’s Spiritual Peculiarity as Distinct from Its Mundane Technical Aspects
The Changed Status of the Artist
The Merger of the Arts
Tantalizing the Ear and Luring the Mind
The Reformulation of Musical Structure
From General “Language” to Particularized “Speech”
A General Theory concerning the Function of
Symbol Systems in the Arts
The Flaunting of Identities: Individual and Collective
Intimacy Made Public
The Particularization of Publics
Music as a Cultural Subsystem
The Blend between Past and Future in Romantic Thought
Internal References Challenged
The Variable Functions of Theory
The Retreat from the “Shared Understanding”
The Organic Nature of the Theoretical Presuppositions of Music in the West
The Romantic Era from a Bird’s-Eye View
The Relationship between the Composer and the Public Revisited
Aesthetic Autonomy—Art for Art’s Sake
‘Music’: From Closed System to Open Concept
Some Characteristics of the “Turn” of the Century
“Aristotelianism” in Musical Aesthetics
“Concerning the Musically Beautiful”
In Defense of Musicology as Envisioned
Diverging Trends in Fin-de-Siecle Music and Musical Analysis
Landmarks in a New “Tonal” Environment
Defying the “Soundness” of the Harmonic System
The Establishment of a Musical Canon
Atonal and Twelve-Tone Music
Developments That Affected Music’s External Semblance
Lending Saliency to the “Social Role of Art”
The Rise of a Heteronomous Aesthetic
The General Distrust of Categorical Systems
Alternate Perspectives on the Relation between
‘Conception’ and ‘Perception’
The Relationship between Form and Formal Function
The Pliability of the Nonrepresentational
The Function of “Inclusive Symbols”
The Appropriation of Meaning
Evaluating Music: How and in What Way?
Concluding Remarks


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