Schlenker, Philippe: 2016,  Prolegomena to Music Semantics. Manuscript, Institut Jean-Nicod and New York University.


Abstract:   We argue that a formal semantics for music can be developed,  although it will be based on very different principles from linguistic semantics and will yield less precise inferences. Our framework has the following tenets: (i) Music cognition is continuous with normal auditory cognition. (ii) In both cases, the semantic content of an auditory percept can be identified with the set of inferences it licenses on its causal sources, analyzed in appropriately abstract ways (e.g. as 'voices' in some Western music).   (iii) What is special about music semantics is that it aggregates inferences based on normal auditory cognition with further inferences drawn on the basis of the behavior of voices in tonal pitch space (through more or less stable positions, for instance). (iv)  This makes it possible to define an inferential semantics but also a truth-conditional semantics for music. In particular, a voice undergoing a musical movement m is true of an object undergoing a series of events e just in case there is a certain structure-preserving map between m and e. (v)  Aspects of musical syntax (notably Lerdahl and Jackendoff's 'time-span reductions') are derivable on semantic grounds from an event mereology ('partology'), which also explains some cases in which tree structures are inadequate (overlap, ellipsis). (vi) Intentions and emotions may be attributed at  three levels (the source, the musical narrator, the musician), and we speculate on possible explanations of the special relation between music and emotions. Finally, (vii) we argue that two empirical methods may prove useful to study music semantics: in special cases, one may decompose a piece  into its component parts (e.g. rhythm, melody) to assess their individual semantic effects; in the general cases,  one may rewrite part of a piece (e.g. with changes of harmony) in order to obtain minimal pairs whose semantic effects can be contrastively assessed.