Frank Pesci: “music does have meaning”

My buddy and all-around cool guy Frank Pesci in Boston meditates upon the following:

Leonard Meyer’s 1957 treatise, Emotion and Meaning in Music, sums up, at length, the understanding that tone, pitch, rhythm and harmony in and of themselves do not have “meaning” – as in, they inherently do not present, together or separately, a stimulus to which a behavioral or biological response can be assigned or by which a universal response can be predicted – and observes that “meaning” derived from music is an amalgamation of associations dependent upon the societal traditions, personal upbringing, and learned experience of the individual listener.

[…] But that being said, music does have meaning, based on our connotations that have changed surprisingly little in the last few hundred years. We still use the same tonalities and intervals, the same ordering of pitches, the same basic rhythmic structure, the same use of tension and release. These connotations and the emotional response to them have become – while not standardized or universal – at least common for 21st century Westerners.

I’ll let the rest of his thoughts speak for themselves. What I would like to say about this is that the attitude he describes inherently makes the assumption that the received tradition doesn’t, and can’t, matter.

To some extent, this is the opposite of iconoclasm — where iconoclasm says that there is no way, no how that divine things may be depicted (with wood and paint, for example), so any attempts to do so must be destroyed, this says that divine things may not only be depicted (in notes and rhythms in this case), but that no medium is privileged over another, so that any way you choose to depict divine things will be just as good as any other. So, just go with the flow of whatever the taste may be, because it’s just all about what people like anyway.

There is an alternate view, of course, which suggests that iconography is to be governed by Tradition, and that sung prayer as an aural form of iconography, is to be every bit as much governed by the παράδοσις as visual iconography. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for creative expression; it just means that those who are liturgical artisans are held to a different, and higher, standard.

Otherwise, I find it very difficult to see that somehow we’re not ultimately saying that it boils down to where the most entertaining place to be Sunday morning is.


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