Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Body, Forces, and Paths: Metaphor and Embodiment in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Conceptualization of Tonal Space

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Body, Forces, and Paths: Metaphor and Embodiment in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Conceptualization of Tonal Space

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

[1.1] The most influential account of the nature of musical meaning is probably to be found in Eduard Hanslick's Vom Musikalisch-Schönen of 1854. In this famous essay, the music critic argues that the meaning of music lies in its form rather than in its affective aspects. He criticizes the romantic aesthetics that take emotion to be an authority in matters of art and suggests that the unique beauty of music should be investigated using the methods of the natural sciences. In his words, he aims "to get alongside the thing itself, seeking whatever among our thousandfold flickering impressions and feelings may be enduring and objective."(1) That being said, he goes on to assert that in music the stable and objective factors are the "tonal moving forms" that are present in musical composition independent of the listener or observer who perceives them. To be sure, Hanslick does not deny the ability of music to arouse feelings but this ability, in his opinion, has no relation to artistic value. Music is pure form and therefore one should evaluate its significance in terms of its technical means.

[1.2] To a great extent, Hanslick's assumption regarding the objective nature of the musical structure defines the interests of music theorists up to the present day.(2) In recent years, however, an alternative view of the nature of formalistic preoccupation with music has emerged. The studies of the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson in the field of cognitive linguistics were conducive in this development. In a series of publications, both joint and independent,(3) they propose a theory of meaning that bestows a central role on metaphorical thinking and the body.(4) This theory undermines the objectivist notion of musical meaning as something that is inherent in the music itself and suggests a new framework for the analytical discussion of music, as well as a refreshing perspective on traditional theoretical models.

[1.3] This essay focuses on Johnson's theory of embodied meaning and its application to eighteenth-century harmonic theory. First, I will discuss the role of metaphor in Roger Scruton's aesthetics of music and the work of Lakoff and Johnson on metaphor, which supports some of Scruton's conclusions. Later, I will present the theory of embodied meaning and explore the ramifications of physical embodiment on musical thinking through a close inspection of Jean-Philippe Rameau's conceptualization of tonal harmony. This examination will emphasize the interplay between metaphors of various sources in Rameau's musical discourse.

2. Metaphor and Music as an Intentional Object

[2.1] In his article "Understanding Music," the neo-Kantian philosopher Roger Scruton claims that the understanding of music as music necessarily involves metaphorical thinking, a claim that is based on an assumption regarding experience and its verbal representation.(5) Scruton says that the descriptive language of listeners discloses the concepts and categories they apply while listening to music. Accordingly, he distinguishes between two forms of understanding reflected in the difference between the description of material (or acoustic) characteristics of sound and musical description: scientific understanding, and a type of understanding that he calls, following the phenomenologists, "intentional understanding."(6) Scientific understanding approaches the world as a material object and seeks to explain it in terms of causal connections; intentional understanding, on the other hand, considers the world as it appears to our direct awareness (in Husserl's idiom, Lebenswelt) and brings to light only those connections and relations that are already implied in one way or another by our concepts. "Because all our perception is informed by concepts," says Scruton, "and those concepts in their turn determine our understanding and practical reasoning, a critic or philosopher can bring system to an appearance, by drawing out the implications of the concepts through which it is described. …

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