Musical uniqueness as a function of the text


Raymond Monelle

University of Edinburgh

Music semiotics, like all other sciences, is essentially a study of the general and universal. Yet musicians are resistant to the idea of generalized meaning; surely each piece of music, to be worth anything at all, must have characteristics which are unique. Naturally, every work of music is unique, like every other phenomenon; this is merely to broach the everlasting philosophical division of the general and the particular. Indeed, music analysts, like biologists or chemists, spend much of their time in describing the universal features of musical works, the ways in which they resemble other works and demonstrate general principles. In spite of this, critics of music and the arts repeatedly reaffirm the particularity of the artwork. Thus Francis Bacon envisaged the composer making the most excellent melody, not by generalization and analysis, but by a "kind of felicity". Benedetto Croce placed the faculty of imagination alongside that of reason, proposing that the latter was concerned with the general and thus with the true, the former with the individual and the beautiful. Somehow, artistic creation has seemed to philosophers a matter of the particular rather than the universal, and consequently the unique character of artworks and styles has been seen as a mark of excellence.
This stress survives in the theories of recent authorities. A proponent of contemporary textual theory, Michael Riffaterre, confirms that "the text is always one of a kind, unique. And it seems to me that this uniqueness is the simplest definition of literariness that we can find... This uniqueness is what we call style" (Riffaterre: 1983, 2; his emphasis). However, the identification of uniqueness as "literariness" is rather different from finding the artwork itself unique. Of course, every artwork is unique in the ordinary sense; uniqueness is a property of contingency, and every contingent phenomenon must in some way be unique. Literary analysis, like music analysis, is largely concerned with fixities, generalities, universal signs and codes. This is obvious in the case of a medium made up of words, but music, too, is composed of general and pre-existent material, of syntactic commonplaces -- progressions, cadences, scalic and triadic formulae - and most music approaches its meaning through topical references.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 4 : Page 1 / 17


© 1997 by AS/SA

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21.12.1997