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

Timely Lessons from The Music Studio

by Dazid Lidov

The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies. By Jonathan C. Kramer,1988, New York: Schirm 493p. ISBN 0-02472590-5.

Musical scholarship has gleaned steady benefit from the sign consciousness which pervades twentieth century thought and philosophy. We may celebrate not only such contrasting writers as Wilson Coker (1972) J.J. Nattiez (1976) and Eero Tarasti (1979) who march in very different steps to our semiotic drummers, but a range of others without the insignia, many with much to offer the non-specialist reader, who are imaginative and conscientious in their analysis of sign theoretic issues.

But the campaign must not end yet. And it is no mere question of we, semiotisians, proselytising to heathen musicologists. There is work to do on both sides. Viewed from our end, the new book by the composer, Jonathan Kramer, The Time of Music, seems to falter frequently precisely because it lacks a semiotic grounding. Yet, on further inspection it is not clear we have the wherewithal to straighten out its most substantial semiotic issues. Perhaps his reach exceeds our grasp.

Time is confusing to think about; music, often equally so. In contemplating either we are soon pulled opposite ways, wanting to attribute the phenomenon to outer nature one moment and to our own minds the next. Of course you can induce the same confusion about any dimension of experience, but with time and music the effect is spontaneous, quick and nearly inevitable. Surely a study of music which stares at this dilemma as relentless as Kramer's does is perinent to semiotics.

Kramer has assembled a multifaceted review of the conceptual and technical problems associated with the idea of time in music. No one has done this before to the best of my knowledge. His concerns range from philosophic issues as airy as the meaning of time to technical investigations as hard knuckled as tabulations of proportionate lengths of sections, in tenths of a second, in Stravinsky's ballets. The stretch between is mediated by -- interalia -- discussions of meter, of the perceptual functions of duration, of the impact of technology on musical time structures and their reception, and on time forms derived from Fibonacci series. The chief originality of the book is in combining these topics.

Zuckerkandl (1956) Rowell (1981, 1983) and others have dealt with one or another or all these subtopics with more finesse and often with a more thorough understanding of their semiotic dimensions, but the aggregation of problems lends them new energy and urgency. I think musical theorizing and music teaching will benefit by the enthusiasm and determination with which Kramer has pursued his sense that the aggregate has unity.

So, too, should semiotic research. A thorough reading of Kramer's book requires literacy in musical notation, but even at the level of more casual browsing, it should be a challenging stimulus to all those semiotic scholars who are determined not to limit their purview to verbally structured manifestations of culture.

Kramer's method is to relate music to different genres of temporality: "directed linear time," "undirected linear time" "multiply-directed time," "gestural time," "moment time" and "vertical time". These temporalities are modes of experienced relations. The perception of different types of music induces these experiences of time, but they have analogs in other domains. He argues from anthropological evidence that the character of temporal experience is culturally determined, citing with special emphasis, Malinowski's studies. Kramer is strongly influenced by J.T.Fraser (1978) whom he mentions briefly at the beginning and discusses more elaborately at the book's conclusion.

The book as a whole is organized around two concerns. The first is to show the development of temporalities in music as a function of stylistic change, particularly in our century. The other is to bring the academic analytical practice of musicology to bear on the range of new problems which emerge when temporal perception and time images are placed in the foreground of critical attention. Kramer answers to this double agenda by segregating the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth of his twelve chapters (as well as a couple of subsections of others) as "Analytic Interludes." These are the chapters which supply his most thorough and exacting, note by note, analyses of exemplary repertoire: the first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 135, Schoenberg's Op. 19, No. 1 and Webern's Op. 29, I, Stravinski's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and more briefly, Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge. His intent is that readers who do not wish to get involved in these details or who can not should be able to omit these portions of the book.

The other chapters, which certainly do not lack briefer analytical examples, take up general themes which serve to unveil chronological lines of development of temporal imagery in music. The first three may be considered introductory ("Music and Time," "Linearity and Non-Linearity," "The impact of Technology" this last quote stunning.) The remaining chapters focus more narrowly on the topics of meter and rhythm, the rhetoric of beginnings and endings, discontinuity, duration and proportion, temporal perception and stasis.

The book concludes with two mathematical appendices on the Fibonacci series, extensive notes, a glossary of his own specialized terms, a bibliography of over six hundred courses in English, and an index.

The weakest and most faddish element in his arrangement is the overarching framework which opposes "linear" and "non-linear" time. His linearity and non-linearity are grab-bags in which notions of logical connection, continuity, partwhole relations, cerebral laterality, etc, are roughly jumbled together. Despite his own protests he falls Into a too familiar trap, reducing more diverse and sensitive observations to an unnecessary simplistic schema. The fallout includes a confused and unbalanced treatment of classical form, but the theatrics of his biggest ideas should not be allowed to obscure the value of their parts.

If there are some object lessons for semiotics in the tough problems of this book (e.g. what sort of sign is a temporality?) there are also some object lessons for musicologists about the costs of neglecting semiotic basics. Let's start with the latter. If you have ever been asked for a clear example of what isn't semiotics, these will be handy:

Kramer's claim that the study of time requires suspending the law of contradiction is unnecessary. He invokes paradox where he fails to differentiate levels of representation. His first chapter asks "Does music exist in time or does time exist in music?" Perhaps this gambit provokes flexibility in his readers' imaginal response to the new music which is a central concern of the book. As an intellectual problem, it is obstructive. Paintings take space on the wall and have another (sometimes much larger) space inside them, but there is no paradox there, the two spaces simply exist at different levels of representation. If we transpose the same distinction to sound, we can unravel the model which motivates the whole book but which he nowhere puts clearly.

1) The aggregate of phenomena in the universe call for many different ways of representing time experiences, each correlated with genres of relations that occur naturally.
2) Music represents particular modes of time experience by highlighting relations in perception pertinent to those types of time experiences.
3) Time represented this way in music is a constituent of music's content or signification (in the sense that a space can be a constituent of a painting) but may be analogous to time-experiences external to the music. In other words, the time of the signifier is not the signified time!

Similarly unnecessary problems confound Kramer's treatment of meter. He invents, as a Deus ex machina, an arbitrary distinction between meter and accent which mixes together misappropriated notational habit and a bit of Gestalt psychology and which ignores the evidence of other cultures. The air clears considerably if we merely note that meter and rhythm are represented by sound in quite different ways. Either Komar (1971) in music theory (whom Kramer cites) or Halle and Keyser (1971) in poetics could provide the repair. Uninterpreted rhythm is fully embodied in the sound. Meter is a scheme of interpretation, an abstract pattern related to the sound surface by rules. A number of bugbears go to rest once we ask, as ethnomusicologists do, where those abstract patterns are concretely represented. We must not examine them exclusively in the mind, in interpreted music but also in written scores, in local theories, in pedagogies, in hand signals for Indian talas and in such ancillary practices as conducting and setting the beat --"a 1 ! -- a 2! -- a 1 2 3 4!" The only way to sort out meter from rhythm is to ground the phenomena in their specific signs.

But the point here is not to send Professor Kramer back to a school for semiotics: Which school would it be? The point is that there is still lots of work to do in basic semiotic theory before we are in any position to take him to task - or to take up his task. Note that the temporalities he proposes arise from some kind of interpretations of structures. To deal with this phenomenon we need a theory which fully integrates the insights of structuralism with the pragmaticist conception of developing knowledge. How are general ideas of space and time best accounted for within a unified semiotic perspective? Where and when does an idea of time arise which is distinct from our ideas about the things that take time?

How should a unified semiotic theory consider features of sign structures (e.g., absolute durational proportions) which influence their meaning or interpretation if these seem to be neither conscious nor biologically normal? Kramer's work forces us to confront questions of this sort. Our canonical texts will not be sufficient to answer them. We will have to reach out, as he does, to other sources in philosophy and psychology. Let me note one, very pertinent, that he missed. Whitehead's Concept of Nature (1919) which proposed multiple space-time manifolds and quite a clear idea about the difference between space time and the stuff in it. But there must be many veins to mine. Despite the evidence of impatience one sees, we are in no position yet to give up on rigorous, systematic theory construction. The import-export offices of semiotics should be looking for fundamental principles as well as for applications if it wants a positive balance sheet.


Coker, W. (1972) Music and Meaning: a Theorectical Intorduction to Musical Aesthetics. New York: Free Press.

Fraser, J.T.(1978) Time as Conflict (Basel: Birkhauser Verlag)

Halle, M. and-Keyser, S.J. (1971) English Stress: its Form, its Growth and its Role in Verse. New York: Harper and Row.

Komar, A.(1971) Theory of Suspensions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nattiez, J.-J. (1976) Fondements d'une semiologie de la musique. Paris: Union generale d'editions.

-- (1989) Proust as Musisian. D. Puffett, trans., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rowell, L. (1981) "The Creation of Audible Time." In J. Fraser, N. Lawrence and D. Parks, eds., The Study of Time, 4 New York: Springer Verlag

-- (1983) Thinking About Music. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press

Tarasti,E.(1979) Myth and Music: A Semiotic Approach to the Aesthetiss of Myth in Music. The Hague: Mouton.

Whitehead, A.N. (1919) The Concept of Nature. London: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckerkandl, (1956) Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World, W.R. Trask, trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

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