Philippe Schlenker (ENS) – Prolegomena to Music Semantics

IRCAM, June 9th, 2016

Speaker: Philippe Schlenker (Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris)

Philippe Schlenker is a Senior Researcher (DR1) at Institut Jean-Nicod (CNRS) and a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He was educated at École Normale Supérieure (Paris), and obtained a Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from EHESS (Paris). His research has been devoted to the semantics and pragmatics of spoken and signed languages, to philosophical logic and the philosophy of language, to primate communication, and more recently to some aspects of music cognition.

Title: Prolegomena to Music Semantics

We provide the outline of a (highly simplified) semantics for music. We take music cognition to be continuous with normal auditory cognition, and thus to deliver inferences about ‘virtual sources’ of the music (as in Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis). As a result, sound parameters that trigger inferences about sound sources in normal auditory cognition produce related ones in music – as is the case when decreasing loudness signals the end of a piece because the source is gradually losing energy, or moving away. But what is special about music is that it also triggers inferences on the basis of the movement of virtual sources in tonal pitch space, which has points of stability (e.g. a tonic chord), points of instability (e.g. dissonant chords), and relations of attractions among them (e.g. a dissonant chord tends to be resolved). In this way, gradual movement towards a point of tonal stability, as in a cadence, may also serve to signal the end of a piece, but on the basis of tonal information. The challenge is thus to develop a framework that aggregates inferences from normal auditory cognition and tonal inferences. We sketch a ‘bare bones’ version of such a framework, one that delivers a definition of ‘musical truth’.