Interpreting Music

Interpreting Music

Interpreting Music

Interpreting Music


Interpreting Music is a comprehensive essay on understanding musical meaning and performing music meaningfully--"interpreting music" in both senses of the term. Synthesizing and advancing two decades of highly influential work, Lawrence Kramer fundamentally rethinks the concepts of work, score, performance, performativity, interpretation, and meaning--even the very concept of music--while breaking down conventional wisdom and received ideas. Kramer argues that music, far from being closed to interpretation, is ideally open to it, and that musical interpretation is the paradigm of interpretation in general. The book illustrates the many dimensions of interpreting music through a series of case studies drawn from the classical repertoire, but its methods and principles carry over to other repertoires just as they carry beyond music by working through music to wider philosophical and cultural questions.


This is a book about musical hermeneutics. A generation ago, no one would have wanted to write it. Music by nature seemed to rule it out. Music did not seem to mean the way other things do if it seemed to mean at all. This book tries to show why and how that situation has changed—changed dramatically. Each chapter examines a different concept or practice associated with the deceptively simple phrase interpreting music. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. What do we do when we interpret music? What do we learn by doing it? What is at stake? Why should we care?

To begin answering, we need to reconsider hermeneutics generally. For this book about what hermeneutics can do for music is also about what music can do for hermeneutics, which needs some redoing. So this first chapter takes interpreting music as a means to reexamine the activity of interpreting any- and everything, and to sketch the implicit worldview involved.

Music first. In everyday parlance, music is interpreted by being performed. The performer’s actions both reproduce the music and produce an understanding of it. But this understanding is mute, bodily, sometimes visceral and sometimes gestural; it is communicated to the listener as a mutual understanding might be by a nod, a gaze, or a facial expression. Musical hermeneutics adds an option. It seeks to show how music works in the world by interpreting both music and musical performances in language. To interpret music verbally is to give it a legible place in the conduct of life.

Then any- and everything. In everyday parlance interpretation refers to the expression of a viewpoint based on a fixed predisposition—either a personal inclination or a system of belief. The first case produces a statement of opinion . . .

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