Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.
This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.
Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”
The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.
The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.
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