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Semantics in Instrumental Music?
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 26, 2007 10:21 am    Post subject: Semantics in Instrumental Music?
Subject description: What does this mean?
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This is possibly lighting a match inside a powder magazine.

This question comes up because I started digging into some computational linguistics texts from way back when for an assortment of reasons, and noting strong similarities between *syntactic* processing of written language and instrumental music structures -- such as parsing / combining lower level input information into higher order structures -- for example determining meter, keys, chords, motives, etc. for music; noun phrases and subjects and objects and sentence / paragraph / story structure for written language -- I am wondering whether there is a way to formalize *semantics* for word-less music, and if any work has been done along these lines, the way it has for written language.

Some trivial examples. Two sentences in English with slightly different surface syntax:

Dale handed Linda the dulcimer.

Dale handed the dulcimer to Linda.

These both parse into Subject = Dale, Direct Object = dulcimer, Indirect Object = Linda, essentially giving the same underlying *syntactic* structure. Programmers love syntax.

What are the *semantics*. What does it mean? There are structural ways to represent semantics -- annotated parse trees for programming languages, semantic nets or frames for cognitive modeling -- and it seems to me that, unlike syntactic structures, these all have to refer to something **outside the processing system**. For example, after processing the above underlying sentence structure, maybe my computer can generate a little animation where an picture of Dale hands a picture of a dulcimer to a picture of Linda. Isn't THAT what the sentence means?

(Just remembered that near the end of Hesse's *Steppenwolf*, Harry Haller is convicted for, "Killing the reflection of a girl with the reflection of a knife.")

What if I just showed you the animation and asked you what THAT means? Maybe you'd say it means, "Dale handed the dulcimer to Linda." Or maybe you'd say, "It doesn't MEAN anything. It's just an animation of Dale handing a dulcimer to Linda."

How about if you walked into the room as Dale was in the act of handing a dulcimer to Linda, after which Dale turned to you and said, "What does this mean?" Starting to be a bit like a Zen koan. The closer to being immediate experience as opposed to a reference to "something else," the less meaning in the notion of "semantics." "Semantics" loses its meaning!

So, to borrow the animation metaphor, we could say that the audio performance of the musical syntax is its meaning. OK as far as it goes, but that seems a little thin.

Maybe a piece of music stirs some emotion in a listener, but I'd hesitate to say that a set of listeners would share interpretation of a given performance of a piece of music the way they'd share reaonably close interpretation of, "Dale handed the dulcimer to Linda." I've heard plenty of people say, "I don't get it" about a piece of music -- just happened this weekend in fact -- and I sometimes wonder what it is they should get.

Maybe that's why a lot of people like lyrics. Lyrics seem to feed the meaning-hungry parts of the brain.

A related questions might be why certain passages really catch my attention -- raise my hairs, so to speak. And also whether such passages catch the attention of some critical percentage of listeners, or whether attention catching, hair raising music comes from personal taste + conditioning to appreciate certain things. Hair raising passages would seem to have something to do with meaning.

Good poetry also raises this question, of course, perhaps more directly, since it uses words with layered or multiple or ambiguous meanings.

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Antimon



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PostPosted: Mon Nov 26, 2007 11:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

In this context I think it's interesting to bring up differences between dialects and languages. You can usually learn to understand various dialects of your own tongue. It's a bit more difficult to learn to speak them, but often possible. Learning a different language takes a greater effort (generally - some languages are close enough to be understood across barriers, and some dialects may have weird pronunciation and syntax differences).

Popular music works a bit like this - there are different dialects in my western surrounding, folk, pop, heavy metal, synth etc. I understand most of them, some I don't like. I can recognize some variants of eastern music (Indian, arabic), but I have a hard time understanding them. A lot of classical and scholarly electro-acoustic music is also outside my understanding.

Then we get to some of what's happening in this forum, where it seems like it's mainly about pushing the boundaries. Admittedly a lot of it is over my head most of the time, but I usually find it interesting, knowing that it's often about experimentation rather that a common work in a culture that isn't mine. I compare this to speaking gibberish, with varying amounts of fragments from established frameworks, but unlike language this gibberish works.

I feel that the focus when using language (even in most poetry) is that it is a tool for communication, translating a concrete message in the brain to words, sending it to other brains that decode it and make a more or less accurate copy of the message in their own brains.

In music the focus is more on the actual sounds, the waveforms and the weird, hard-to-say-what-it-means synapse triggering that happens in the brain. People with perfect pitch and rhythm sense will be able to translate a message to other equally brilliant composers (as in my language example above), but for others the sound generators and the sound take on a life of its own, and what happens in the brain can be radically different between neighbors. And the craft, rather than having a great knowledge about the boundaries and rules and forming a precise message, consists of finding paths to ever new openings that might spawn great music that no one has heard before.

Hope this was somewhat in line with what you wanted to discuss. Very Happy

/Stefan

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 26, 2007 11:36 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Gibberish might sound negative in I way that I don't mean. I mean that there is much more space in music for making up your own rules. In a text, a single wrong word will often corrupt in a bad way - it's much easier to lose the reader's confidence for the whole thing. Maybe this just reflects my own disrespect for music... feel free to bash this reasoning if you like.

/Stefan

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 12, 2007 9:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Antimon wrote:
Gibberish might sound negative in I way that I don't mean. I mean that there is much more space in music for making up your own rules. In a text, a single wrong word will often corrupt in a bad way - it's much easier to lose the reader's confidence for the whole thing. Maybe this just reflects my own disrespect for music... feel free to bash this reasoning if you like.

/Stefan

"Gibberish" makes perfect sense to me in this context, if "gibberish" means "language existing at the edge of meaning something." I would still maintain that good poetry and lyrics are also like this -- there may be an apparent surface meaning, but there is often deeper or ambiguous or unvoiced meaning that is implied.

I've thought about this topic a few times since posting. One was when listening to a Jean-Luc Ponty collection from the late 1970's and early 1980's, where the synthesizer sound in one recording just recalled a wealth of "feeling memories" for a period of my life in the early 1980's, not nostalgia, but just how I felt at that time. This was part of what that piece "meant" to me as I listened to it -- a reminder of my past. Obviously, this has little or nothing to do with what Ponty intended when he composed the piece, except to the degree that the piece is associated for any listener with a specific time when those synthesizer sounds were commonly heard.

My second thought has been over composing lyrics to a banjo tune that I recently wrote. I came up with the melody and chord changes very rapidly, moreso than usual, and I intended them as a vehicle for lyrics. I usually write only instrumental music, and I am seldom satisfied with my lyrics. What I found in going through numerous iterations of the lyric writing process, is that this music has a very specific "feel" that calls for a compatible "feel" in the lyrics. If I sit at the computer and write lyrics without having the music playing, they may fit the meter of the composition, but when I subsequently sing them while playing the banjo, they have the wrong "feel." I am gradually converging on a set of lyrics that have the "feel" of the melody and harmony.

The question for semantics here is, "Where does that feel come from?" If the melody and harmony are compatible with some sets of lyrics and not others, then it seems that the melody and harmony "mean" something, and if the lyrics do not "mean" the same thing, then they do not fit.

The best I can figure out so far is that for semantics to "mean" anything, then the statement -- be it prose, poetry, music, or painting -- has to refer to something outside itself. Reference is what it means. For instrumental music that has a lot of space, its meaning is likewise very open and subject to interpretation by the performer or listener.

For purposes of computer composition or improvisation, you could probably classify an instrumental piece according to mood, amplitude dynamics, and other surface features, and infer that a piece "means" something "dark" or "light" or "sad" or "happy" or "violent" or whatever, but such potential analysis seems a little threadbare and not very useful.

It seems that the best way to "mean" something is to have pointers at various levels to other activities going on in the world, for example schools of composition. To the degree that a piece of music refers to something else, it "means" that other thing; otherwise it is open to personal interpretation.

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 12, 2007 10:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Written or spoken language is an artificial tool for facilitating communication. It is usually not a goal in itself to just produce some language, it is rather used to convey some external meaning. Music seems to have a more inherent meaning, it is enough that it simply exists. In the general case, of course. As you say, there is abstract poetry and stuff.

I feel that music touches some deeper parts of our minds and bodies. It is not only used as some social communicative thing, it can be used introspectively as well. Singing to yourself makes more sense than talking to yourself. Therefore the tools to describe language may not be suffice to describe music as well.

/Stefan

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 13, 2007 4:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I think that in music like Jazz and Classical you find a musical parallel to your statement, 'Dale handed Linda the dulcimer', 'Dale handed the dulcimer to Linda', all the time in the form of a theme. The theme is a phrase that gets restated sometimes with varying rhythms, instrumentation, or changes in the notes.

They are saying the same thing but restating it in a slightly different way that whiles it says the same thing, it can put a different perception on it.

Sax player Michael Brecker did a song called "Original Rays". It was based on the fact that there are a number of pizza joints in NYC that all call themselves the Original Rays Pizza. They are all different but sort of the same. He uses a simple 4 bar melodic line and restates it a bit different every time around. He juxtaposes notes, changes up rhythms, in ways to say the same thing but differently. There are some of the lines that stand out to me more than others. Something about the combination of notes, timbre and rhythm, connect with me in a special way.

Miles took lots of lame pop tunes of the 30's 40's and 50's and made them great works of art by just restating them. In the same way an actor can make Shakespear sound majestic and touching and I make it sound dull when I read it.
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 13, 2007 6:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

We could also say "The dulcimer got handed to Linda by Dave" or even "this sentence can't be parsed successfully by AI systems".

I suspect you are running head-first into Gödel as well as the story about the tree that's falling in a deserted wood. I don't think it's all that meaningful to talk about "the semantics of music" (even if I just got home from a series of Livecoding performances where I briefly jammed) more meaningful to me would be "the semantics of the music-listener-system". There is no need for music (by itself) to have it's own internally consistent and complete logic, in fact I think a theoretical "music" that would have this might be positively boring as it may not leave a role for the listener and in this could deprive him of his enjoyment.

I'm not sure where that perspective leaves the composer, I'm not sure either it's at all close to what you mean but even if I may not get the question completely it sure looks worthwhile to try and answer.

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 13, 2007 7:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I´m not sure where we are heading right now, but I think it is important to point out that music is not language. However, from a compositional point of view almost anything goes. I think it is quite possible to claim that it is possible to mutate say a mediated reference theory approach on music wile you are writing it. This does however not mean that we are talking language theory here. Music, at least how I see it, does not allow for an encoding - decoding sequence that allows the listener to see in detail exactly what the composer intends. If we forget pure language for a moment, which is pretty hard to do because music contains a lot of structure and "semantic objects", I´d rather suggest that music is an abstract experience that allows the listener to use language related systems for processing the data.
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 14, 2007 4:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Well, it appears that I won't be getting the "senior computational linguist" job. The phone interviewer concluded the screening with "We are really looking for some more junior."

if (senior == junior) then so much for semantics!

I did have an excuse to update myself a bit on the current state of computational linguistic processing for text -- my last grad course specifically in comp. ling. was > 20 years ago -- and beside the syntax-crunching part (which has clear parallels in musical structure processing), the semantics part is tied more closely to specific *words* and their *roots* (as opposed to their *part of speech* such as noun or verb that are the atoms of syntax processing) -- semantics == lexical associations to at least some degree -- and the increasingly most important approach appears to be *statistical parsing*, where collections of closely associated words have some statistical correlation with external events.

if (semantics == some statistical correlation with external events) then most music probably has undefined or partially defined semantics. From this perspective, a military marching tune or a national anthem means something, because it has some statistical correlation with external events.

elektro80 wrote:
I´d rather suggest that music is an abstract experience that allows the listener to use language related systems for processing the data.


Yeah, that makes sense. Maybe musical syntax came before language syntax in the brain, and the brain + culture bootstrapped associative semantics on top of an ability to store and process sound syntax.

One other thing I noticed again in thinking about this & also in trying to fit lyrics to a well formed new melody+harmony, is that the new melody+harmony has a clear 'feel' to it, like a physical sensation of motion, relating to the "Does music dance in your body" thread in 'Schmoozing' a while back. Physical resonance with the nervous-muscle system. I had this sensation while listening to "In C" while driving over the Allegheny Mountains a few months ago, of being a witch on a broomstick flying through the air like Harry Potter. There was an organized physical energy, almost a consciousness, which of course was my own, but not in its work-day mundane state. That melody+harmony has a physical momentum, and when the lyrics do not conform to the momentum, they do not fit.

A lot of Buddhist literature groups "thought" or "mind" as a sense with sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. From this perspective, lexical associations or broader semantic associations are just another realm of sensual activity. Music might be sound-as-a-sense that uses syntax as a vehicle, and language would then be thought-as-a-sense that uses syntax as a vehicle.

That would fit with all those Zen koan stories that use twisted semantics to get at what lies underneath semantics. Valid syntax, broken semantics. Probably what lies behind music, too: Pure, unadulterated mentation.

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 15, 2007 10:06 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I've been thinking about this a bit and remembered a song I did a couple of years back where I had hidden a message into the song via morse code.
To most it was just a rhythmic pattern that was playing in the background. To some, they might have picked up on it and gotten the exact message I was trying to convey in my music.
Morse code allows people to communicate exact phrases using just rhythm. Much of Chinese has very different meanings based on the pitch inflections used in the sound. I'm thinking a very precise "language" could be well described using a combination of pitch, timbre, rhythm and volume.

In a bigger picture I think that music can convey and describe feelings and emotions much better than words can. There are many songs where the composer was describing love, sorrow, anger, nausea ( I'm thinking Michael Bolton must be describing this because it is how I feel when I hear him) and I knew what he was saying and it even could bring me down or make mehappy as well.

So I think music is a language if language is about conveying a message.
It may not describe "go to the market and buy carrots" but it can better describe deeper feelings than words can.
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PostPosted: Fri Dec 21, 2007 7:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

In Volume 1 of the Musimathics books in the chapter on "Composition & Methodology" in a section of Fractals, there is a quote from Plato's *Laws*
Quote:

For when there are no words (accompanying music) it is very difficult to recognize the meaning of the harmony and rhythm, or to see that any worthy object is imitated by them.

I never was a big fan of Plato Rolling Eyes

The book makes the argument that the appearance of fractal dimensions in certain aspects of music imitates nature, and nature would be a "worthy object" to Plato. As far as I understand, what we perceive is *all* nature -- this is just another planet, which happens to be populated with creatures making music -- so I guess it's all worthy.

This discussionn now brings to mind Miles Davis' explanation of why he eschewed lyrics, roughly this.
Quote:

Lyrics are all the same: Oh baby, I love you so much, come here and give it to me.

Maybe THAT is what music means Exclamation

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 22, 2007 3:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I know that melodies have sentences too, musically speaking, but what the topic starter is bringing, is beyond me. Semantics differ in each language. My mother tongue is a difficult one for music, just as Italian and French are easier ones.
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