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Zsolt Bátori: The Ineffability of Musical Content: Is Verbalization in Principle Impossible?
Music and Philosophy: 2nd Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group in collaboration with the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the American Musicological Society, King’s College London, UK, July 21, 2012.

ABSTRACT. In my talk I first consider some of the major candidates for accounting for musical content in order to clarify what aspects of the musical experience might be called ineffable. I briefly discuss the possibility of understanding musical content in terms of linguistic or pictorial meaning, and I argue that neither of these understandings would be sufficient. I also examine what aspects of these different types of contents might be considered ineffable, and what is specific to what is usually meant by musical ineffability. I suggest that only some aspects of musical ineffability are adequately analogous to the former two, while other aspects must be explicated without any reference to other types of contents.

On the one hand, linguistic meaning consists of semantic units (words) that are the building blocks of more complex meanings (sentences, stories, etc.). The combination of single meaning units into complex meanings is achieved by using linguistic syntax. Musical structures might be considered analogous to linguistic structures in terms of syntactical structure, but without semantic content; therefore the ineffability of musical content is not analogous to the possible types of ineffability in language.

On the other hand, the complex content of pictorial representations is not organized in syntactic structures, that is, complex pictorial meaning is not similar to linguistic meaning. The ineffability of pictorial content, however, might be considered similar in some respects to musical ineffability, for the perceptual content is not propositional in either case. Although musical content is not semantic in nature, while pictorial representations may be explicated in terms of their pictorial meaning, nevertheless the ineffability in both cases is strongly connected to the lack of linguistic types of meaning units.

On the basis of these considerations I distinguish two possible claims about the ineffability of musical content. First, one may argue that it is in principle impossible to express all aspects of musical content by linguistic means. Second, it is also possible to argue that such an attempt for verbalization is not theoretically impossible, only not practical. In the last part of my talk I defend the latter position, arguing that all musical (or pictorial) properties might be expressed in language, but the differences in the processing of linguistic and perceptual contents and structures prevents us from forming practically useful linguistic descriptions for all musical (or pictorial) properties we are able to perceive.


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