AbstractThis paper initiates a theory of musical semantics based on the notions of cross-domain mapping from cognitive linguistics and ground from the philosophy of language. The central claim is that listeners construct musical meaning on the basis of neither free associations nor fixed clues inherent to the musical structure. Rather, the process is grounded in a hierarchical system of six contextual constraints. On level one, the first glimpse of meaning emerges from direct physiological reactions, as when a segment of music is described as “tense.” On level two, image-schematic structure begins to be constructed, e. g., a “hopping” staccato. Level three is connotational, ascribing emotional qualities to the music, while on level four, the meaning becomes conceptual, relating the music to rich imagery, e. g., “a medieval battle.” On level five, conceptual meaning interacts with an elaborated cultural context, motivating rich descriptions at the intersection of two or more conceptual domains, e. g., when the “battle” is replaced by “gods coming down from Olympus.” Level six hosts associations grounded in personal experience. To support the proposal, a representative set of verbal descriptions from a recent experimental study on musical meaning is analyzed, showing both the emergence of new conceptual content and the hierarchical nature of grounding. In doing so, the contribution attempts to formally capture the old paradox of musical semantics: that music is full of meaning, yet that this meaning is highly underspecified, manifested in a potential rather than definite form.
Cognitive Semiotics – de Gruyter
Published: Mar 26, 2018
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