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This article appeared in Volume 3 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Toward a Universal Musicology

by David Lidov

Music and Discourse: Towards a Semiology of Music. By Jean-Jacques Nattiez, 1990. Translated by Carolyn Abbate (Originally Musicologie générale et sémiologie, 1987 Paris: Christian Bourgois). Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press (ISBN 0-691-09136-6)

Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music. 4 vols. Edited by Ruth Katz and Carl Dahlhaus. Aesthetics in Music No. 5, vol. 1 (1988) (ISBN 0-918728-60-6). vol. Il (1990) (ISBN 0918728-68-1), vol. Ill and IV (in Press). New York: Pendragon.

Musical Aesthetics: A Historical Reader. 3 vols. Edited by Edward Lippman. Aesthetics in Music No.4. vol. l (1986) (ISBN 0-918728-41-X), vol. ll (1988) (ISBN 0-918728-90-8), vol. Ill (in Press). New York: Pendragon.

Music -- in one or another sense of the word -- is manifested in all times and cultures, but before the twentieth century educated Europeans and North Americans felt that their classical music was a uniquely serious art. We now know better; however, the institutional teaching and study of music, its theory and its history is still oriented by the repertoire of cultivated music in France, Germany and Italy from 1650 to 1920. As curricular topics, American music, Indian classical music, various folk music, for example remain fringe "options" or minor "distributional requirements" not yet integrated with or related to the "core". The paradigm is under increasing stress as our geographic and chronological horizons broaden. One hears much shop talk about getting out of this rut, but the theoretical frameworks have not been forthcoming.

One of the two most interesting aspects of Nattiez's new book is that it imposes to take semiotics as the framework which encompasses and directs a universal musicology. The other is that it proposes an explicit and coherent theory of semiotics.

The timeliness of Nattiez' program is vouchsafed by indications across musicology that the discipline is ready for significant revision. The very positive reception of his book maybe a kind of evidence of this in itself I have teamed his svelte essay with two massive anthologies in musical aesthetics to suggest other, perhaps more covert, signs of shifting ground.

Jean-Jacques Nattiez was probably the first musicologist to establish an uncompromising commitment to semiotics and must certainly be the semiotician best known to anglophone musical scholars. Twenty years ago he was a prominent enfant terrible whose terminology and ideas were unfamiliar and whose adherence to a European style of programmatic abstraction and controversial argument were disorienting to many North American colleagues. Today he holds the prestigious Dent Medal of the British Musicological Association, and the book under review here has won prizes in Italy and the United States. A legion of young musical scholars well versed in semiotic methodologies of many colors must recognize that their own control of sources owes a great debt to Nattiez' prodigious talent for bibliography and synthesis.

Music and Discourse is the first volume in a prospective trio. The second will focus on problems in musical analysis and the third will concentrate more intensively on problems of ethnomusicology. The present work intends to establish the theoretical paradigm of the whole. The English version is a pleasantly clear and fluent translation by Carolyn Abbate from the original in French which she has abridged by two chapters. The book is divided into a substantial introduction that lays out Nattiez's conception of semiotics, a section of three chapters demonstrating the pertinence of this semiotic to music itself, and four chapters showing its application to discourse about music. Discourse about music is for Nattiez, as it is also for ethnomusicologists generally, part of the "total musical fact," and the explication of relations between music and the discourses it engenders is among the chief internal developments of the theory.

Nattiez offers some unnecessary apologies regarding the dependence of this work on his earlier Fondements d'une sémiologie de la musique. The present work is quite fresh; however he has been loyal to the semiotic perspective of that earlier volume, which draws on the theory of Molino (e.g., 1975) and which is here developed with considerably more clarity and refinement. The perspective takes from Peirce the notion of characterizing the sign by the possibility of its continuous elaboration through a chain of interpretations. For Nattiez it is paramount to acknowledge that the interpretations attached to the sign in the process of production (Poiesis) may be entirely independent of the chain of interpretations evolved through the process of reception (esthesis). Linking the two is a trace which has an immanent configuration but no inherent signification. This scheme determines three distinct paths for analysis, which may construct either a poietics of the sign, an aesthetics of the sign or its neutral level. Any description of the neutral level is provisional and limited as it must set out from selected poetic or aesthetic percepts, but the tendency of the dialectic which seeks to establish the neutral level is to shed these skins in successive molts. In this view there is no a priori guarantee of a code; denotation is possible only as a special case where sender and receiver share a sub-constellation of interpretants. Thus, in general Nattiez regards the communicative capacity of signs as secondary and inessential.

The new dimension of the theory in comparison with his Fondements is its emphasis on the 'symbolic' as a distinct ontological plane. Nattiez adopts a lineage from Cassirer in sketching his notion of the symbolic and sees his own insistence on the symbolic as establishing a kind of opposition to semiotics as generally practiced. I have some difficulty in following him here. Perhaps the opposition only exists between his own work and structuralism. I would have thought Pierce's "thirdness," Mukarovsky's "social object", even Sussell's distinction between "being" and "existing" to be as deeply implicated in the ontology of the symbol as anything of Nattiez or Cassirer.

As required to reveal his comprehension schemea, Nattiez examines probles which pertain to music universally (e.g., What is music? What is noise?) as well as very specialized issues from the western academic tradition (such as the biases of harmonic theories.) His discussion of Schaeffer's theories & the sound object (Schaeffer 1966) and the polemics they engendered regarding boundaries of musical sound with noise should be particularly useful to his English language audience as the debates in question have had less notice on this question on this side of the Atlantic than they might merit.

I think it is unfortunate that Nattiez's discussion of discourse about music culminates in a comparison of well known analyses of the "Tristan Chord". The topic has become shopworn to the point of self parody. Nevertheless, the reader who does not close the book in impatience will find that there is new material here, for Nattiez is, inter alia, a distinguished and original Wagner scholar (Nattiez, 1990) and the theories he reviews do provide grist for his semiotic method. Here, as seems to me generally the case, the most original and provocative aspects of his work are his analyses of received musicological theories in terms of their affiliation with what he identifies as their aesthetic or poietic sources. He demonstrates pesuasively in many instances that polemic divisions of criticism reflect a shift of orientation from the bias of informed compositional theory to the bias of the more naive audience.

Nattiez' central thesis is that the tripartition of the musical fact into the poietic, aesthesic and neutral planes can serve as a universal musicological framework. It is certainly gratifying to see historical and ethnological musical data reviewed from a unified point of view as he does, but at least unlike the other two volumes appeal I think we may question whether his perspective permits a sufficiently intense engagement with critical musical issues. Nattiez' insistence that the perceiver does not "receive" the music's message but must rather "reconstruct" it is a valuable corrective, but in abandoning the question of communication, he may have traded away the whole store. The justification for downgrading communication as a musical function rests first on evidence of stylistic instability which may be peculiarly exaggerated in a Western and modern perspective and secondly on an awareness of cultural diversity which might bear a different import if followed through more fully. It seems patent that the desire to understand music as communication is culturally widespread and that the distinction between understanding music and misunderstanding it is highly valued in most musical cultures. (I can't find any clear exception outside of the culture of the university.) These are fundamental and passionate musical facts to which Nattiez' scheme is disappointingly unresponsive. The product of his methodological stance is, in the end, primarily a total relativism often evocative of Mukarovsky's aesthetics.

The relation of semiotics to aesthetics pivots around the difficult problem of understanding how and to what degree works or styles of art can be understood as autonomous signs. Nattiez is insistent that semiotics might include but can not replace aesthetics, but the ethnological and historical expansion of musical horizons which begs for a revision of our musicological framework is equally unsettling for the discipline of musical aesthetics.

Though not oriented towards semiotics, the series of important major treatises and collections Pendragon Press is publishing as Aesthetics and Music is of clear pertinence to musical semiotics. Numbers 4 and 5, respectively, are the anthologies Musical Aesthetics: A Historical Reader, edited by Edward Lippman and Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music edited and introduced by Ruth Katz and Carl Dahlhaus. To me, both of these magnificent collections seem to portend the end of an era.

Lippman's collection is a work in three volumes of over 400 pages. The anthology is historically organized overall and divided to reflect the polemics of specific historical and (European) national movements. It is a reader situated consciously in the tradition of aesthetics as a distinctive subdiscipline of Western philosophy. Lippman's exposition of the unity, continuity and openness of this "continuous and systematic area of investigation" (p. ix) in his brief but very valuable Introduction is masterful as are many of his short introductions to groups of readings. In the last volume, musical semiotics is briefly and narrowly represented by Ruwet's pivotal essay on hierarchical segmentation in music. Lippman's introduction to Ruwet, generous but also a bit defensive, might suggest that the specific aesthetic tradition is under pressure. In fact, his general introduction anticipates that pressure. There he had written:

So long as art is fed to the properties of the cosmos, to mathematics and science, to the problem of knowledge, to religious and moral values, and to medical influences, its specifically aesthetic comprehension could advance only slowly. These older traditions were strangely tenacious, however, doubtless for the reason that their connection with art was the manifestation of an essential underlying interrelationship, indeed it is the autonomy of aesthetics, and the concomitant autonomy of art which it clearly mirrors, that appear as historical accidents... We are now turning back to these larger historical contexts (p. xi)

In so far as the interpretation of art requires a frameowrk that exceeds the reach of aesthetics as the widest possible inquiry that can still show integration and coherence, but even in this acknowledgedly Eurocentric collection, he almost confesses the need for a new unity broader than the one he can provide.

The late Carl Dahlhaus (1928-1990) was arguably the most important musicologist of his generation. Through his precision and persistence in restoring ideas to their historical contexts he brought to the criticism of music a technique reminiscent of the "negative dialectics of the Frankfurt school and succeeded thereby in introducing those problems of value judgement which relativism like Nattiez' had seemed to render inaccessible.

The Katz-Dahlhaus collection is a four volume work, the individual volumes running from 400 to 800 pages. Only the first two have been released; the others are scheduled for next year. The tack of this set is quite opposite to Lippman's. Eschewing aesthetics as a speciality, the editors attempt to reach out as broadly as possible into formal philosophy and criticism for the widest examples of "the kinds of issues raised and some of the answers given in the course of systematic philosophizing about music" (p.xv.) They are prepared to risk chaos but certainly not to yield to it without a fight. The collection is organized around an ad hoc system of dichotomies ("Substance and Import", "Essence and Distinctness" "Affect and Expression," "Reason and Experience," "Sensory Cognition and Unconscious Referentials," "Linguistic Metaphor and Symbolic Language," "Conception and Perception" and "Reflection and Protection.") Each of these titles heads sections combining readings which may range from classical to modern in source. Despite the obvious virtuosity of the accompanying rationales and stimulating introductions, I fear these groupings will offer little support to the novice and no real coherence for the initiate. However the harvest from the editors' hunting and gathering is frequently stunning. For example, in the wcfion on "Linguistic Language and Symbolic Language" we find the Medieval theory of Gido d'Arezzo sharing lodging with Ludwig Wittgenstien, Susan Langer and Nelson Goodman (as well as six others.) And once again we see how any expansion of the boundaries of aesthetics carries us directly into semiotics. Though not programmatically constrained, Katz and Dahlhaus are no more adventurous than Lippman with respect to non-Western sources. Even with this limitation, we have no method to deal with such a wealth of pertinent material as they display. Nattiez, at the very least, prepares us to face the enormity of the challenge that lies in this diversity. Yet, it may be that the universal musicology is necessarily a chimera: Perhaps the diversity of musics and their discourses is such that there will always be very little to say about all of it in comparison with how much there is to say about any of it. I mention this possibility not to conclude with an air of enigmatic wisdom but to point out the semiotic consequence of cultural explorations in a media that simply may lack such deep guiding constraints as those that may be genetically determined for language. Nattiez would not, I wager, reject this thesis out of hand.

(A reviewer is obliged to note that Pendragon, in these two obligatory purchases for comprehensive collections, is selling perhaps 200 pages twice, where both anthologies have chosen the same materials, even in the same translations. (Katz and Dahlhaus, but not Lippman are meticulous in identifying the sources of public domain materials.) The obligation having been met, it would be foolish to denigrate these fine projects on those grounds.)


Molino, J. 1975, "Fait musical et sémiologie de la musique." Musique en Jeu, 17:37-82.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques,1990, Wagner Androgyne, Paris: Christian Bourgois.

Schaeffer, Pierre, 1966, Traité des objets musicaux. Paris: Seuil.

David Lidov is Professor of Music at York University (Faculty of Fine Arts) and a Section editor for SRB. He is author of numerous articles on the semiotics of music including the article "Music" in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics (1986).

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