Meditations on Meyer's Hobby Horses:
Levels of Motivation in Musical Signs


Michael Spitzer

University of Durham

One of the quirks of the history of music theory is that developments in our understanding of sound perception frequently ride on the back of prior discoveries in the realm of vision. The ear borrows from the eye. A historical sketch, working backwards, would begin with the influence of David Marr's work on connectionist models of visual perception upon music theorists such as Jamshed Bharucha and Robert O. Gjerdingen. Moving to the mid-century, the impact of Gestalt psychology can be traced not only to the theories of Leonard Meyer, but also to Lehrdal and Jackendoff's generative model oftonal structure. Earlier still, it is a fact that Helmholtz's epoch-making On the Sensations of Tone was consequent upon his research on the physiology of the eye. The priority of vision over sight is even evident at the dawn of music psychology, in the pedagogical theories of A.B. Marx. Marx's compositional treatise, Die Lehre von der Musikalische Komposition (1837) applies lessons learnt from an earlier tradition of drawing manuals. The Swiss pedagogue Johann Pestalozzi's A B C der Anschauung (1803) instructed children in how to see more clearly by teaching them to draw prime geometric forms, such as squares, lines and arcs. By internalizing visual schemata, children learnt to perceive an order in the world. A student in Marx's school would internalise analogous musical schemata, namely the Satz, Gang, and Periode.
With Pestalozzi and Marx's theories of perceptual schemata, the circle of influence takes us back to the twentieth century, and two seminal books from the 1950's. Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion of 1959 revolutionized studies in the history of art by demonstrating that pictorial representation relied as much on manipulation of stereotypical patterns and frameworks as on a supposedly "veridical" mimesis of reality. Leonard B. Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956) cast an exactly parallel influence on the analysis of musical style. Meyer argued that musical meaning is emergent from the arousal, inhibition and confirmation of expectations created by stylistic patterns. Just as Gombrich's study marked the first mainstream assimilation of the psychology of visual perception into iconography (Gombrich cites scientists such as J.J. Gibson), Meyer's work formed the first comprehensive engagement between music analysis and the perceptual principles of the Gestalt school. Emotion and Meaning in Music signalled the start of a long and illustrious project, of which the rigorous Explaining Music (1973) and the monumental Style and Music (1989) have so far proved to be the pinnacles. Despite their shared concerns, the analogy between Gombrich and Meyer is not synchronous. Art and Illusion turned out to be Gombrich's magnum opus, and the critic has failed to build a serious theoretical method upon the work's many apercus. By contrast, Meyer's best work lay in the future. Explaining Music, together with a handful of major articles such as "Grammatical Simplicity and Relational Richness" (1975), and "Exploiting Limits" (1980), revealed a much greater gift for systematic theorising. It is my contention, however, that the affinity between the two thinkers has become closer over the years; that Meyer's theory, which originally focused on issues of meaning, has now turned its spotlight onto issues of representation.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 3 : Page 1 / 7


© 1997 by AS/SA

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21.12.1997