Hearing God in Music: A Christian Critique of Semiological Analysis of Music

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Having covered some basic concepts and terminology, we are now ready to apply the ideas to music.  If we are to use semiotics to defend the notion of hearing God in music, we must define the way in which music acts as a system of signs.  Indeed, several authors have proposed semiotic systems for the analysis of music.  Sadly, though, all seem inadequate for the task at hand: providing a theoretical foundation for saying that a musical piece or experience makes reference to God.  The most promising of the group is Jean-Jacques Nattiez. I’ve already expressed my guarded concerns about Nattiez’s denial of communication and the reconstruction of meaning.  But this is not to deny the value in Nattiez’s view, which places several parts of the musical process in their relative places.  In his book Music and Discourse, Nattiez describes what he calls a tripartite view of musical discourse: music exists at three levels.  Through a poietic process (the first level), a composer produces an artifact, a piece of music.  This artifact, then, has a structure of its own which exists at the second level: what he calls the neutral level.  At the third, esthesic level, a receiver-a listener, that is, or a performer or analyst-performs receptive acts on the artifact.  Among the aspects Nattiez does not address in this tri-level view are the ultimate identity of the meaning of a piece and the roles of nature and God in the process.

Philip Tagg, in almost diametrical opposition to Nattiez, stresses communicated intentions and audience reception at the expense of thoroughness in the analysis of the artifact.18 More importantly, his system recognizes only (human) culture and artifact, not God.

Kofi Agawu’s book Playing with Signs, offers a semiotic approach that combines Leonard Ratner’s topical analysis with a formalism influenced by the theories of Heinrich Schenker.19 He offers interesting, rich analyses; but for our purposes, the sources of the topical references are all too human, too conventional, while the significance of structural lines and syntactical paradigms is simply accepted, their possibly transcendent origins unexplored.

Eero Tarasti’s book A Theory of Musical Semiotics presents a methodology for analyzing what he refers to as modalities in music: being, doing, wanting, knowing how to, believing, etc.20 Tarasti, however, does not show interest in identifying either objects or the events to which these modalities relate.  What does a desiring phrase want?  What does a knowledgeable phrase know how to do?  He never says.  The empty formality of signification calls to mind Derrida’s infinite deferral of meaning and endless play of signification without truth; thus Tarasti offers little to the present endeavor.

Robert Hatten’s work describes semiotics as a happy mean between mathematical approaches to music and metaphysical approaches.21 The mathematical approaches, he says, deal with natural objects and human mental states.  But what things constitute the proper object of the metaphysical analysis?  Hatten does not say.  By omission, he implies that such approaches are objectless and that a world transcending natural objects and human minds does not exist.  The Christian, to recognize the proper place of Creation, needs a metaphysical grounding that acknowledges natural objects and human mental states to be the product of a divine mental state.

While each of these approaches taken as a whole fails to serve our present needs, we certainly may draw helpful elements from them.  Placed on a Peircean foundation, these ideas can indeed help explain how it is that people find music signifying God.  I recommend a discerning use of semiotic theories and propose a model, drawn primarily from the taxonomies of Peirce and Nattiez, for semiological analysis of music as a way of viewing any given musical moment (a piece, a style, a structure) according to its “true place in the universal system.”  As it happens, Peirce’s three modes of signification – index, icon, and symbol – line up rather neatly with Nattiez’s three levels of musical discourse: poietic, neutral, and esthetic.

First, in analysis of what Nattiez calls the poietic level, the Christian is able to consider intentions in a way that respects the personhood of the composer (whereas structuralist thinking tends to declare authors and composers irrelevant, their intentions irretrievable) and to consider cultural influence in a way that acknowledges tension in the value of culture (whereas Derrida and others tend to see culture in terms of dominant ideologies that bully their way into language).  It is at this poietic level that Peirce’s symbolic mode predominates, as man, the image of God, creates works that refer to the extramusical world in culturally determined ways.  Recognizing, for instance, the pertinence of the intentions of Handel and, more importantly, his librettist makes for a richer and more ennobling experience of Messiah.  When harmonies enter only on the last word of the line “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” it is because a person named Handel wanted to say something about the light.  The connection between harmony and light is not natural or based on analogy; it is purely symbolic, arbitrary, cultural.  But knowing that a person drew the connection intentionally, the connection works for us.  Similarly, where Old Testament prophecies pervade an oratorio about Jesus Christ, it is because a person named Charles Jennens wanted to make an argument that the fulfillment of those prophecies in the life of Jesus simultaneously justifies the miraculous nature of the prophecies and proves that Jesus was and is the predicted Messiah.  In addition to restoring the musical work to its proper relation with its makers, viewing the composer and librettist as persons places the creative process and the human nature of the makers in proper relation to God: a composer or librettist only creates a work of art because he is created to follow God’s heart in this regard, to be what Tolkien calls a “sub-creator.”22