Musical Ambiguity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The dictionary defines its subject matter, words, as distinct meaningful elements of writing or speech. This could imply that a single word—isolated from a linguistic or real-life setting—maintains a rigid meaning. However, all but the most technical dictionary terms show that, while a word may exist as a “distinct meaningful element,” precisely what that meaning is depends on how, when, and where the word is used. The further removed it is from a relationship with other words, the less confidently it possesses monosemy, or a single basic meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary abundantly demonstrates this point, providing 464 definitions for “set,” 396 for “run,” 368 for “take,” 343 for “stand,” and so on.

The presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word, known as lexical ambiguity or homonymy, is a natural and widespread aspect of language. Perhaps the most instructive (and amusing) examples are auto-antonyms: words that contain opposite meanings. “Custom,” for instance, means both standard and one-of-a-kind. “Cleaving” means both clinging and splitting apart. “Sanction” means both permit and punish. Related to these are words whose meanings have changed over time, like “awful,” which used to mean awe-inspiring, and “resentment,” which used to mean gratitude. Merriam-Webster recently authorized the colloquial (mis)use of “literally” by listing “figuratively” among its possible meanings (much to the chagrin of grammar-snobs).

All of this points to what linguist Alan Cruse calls the “contextual variability of word meaning.” Words in cooperation with their surroundings receive a particular meaning at a particular time. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in music.

A single note sounded in seclusion has virtually no signification. It can have an abundance of qualities—pitch, color, dynamic, vibrato (or lack thereof), etc.—but these are too neutral to impart a meaning. Whereas a multivalent term like “set” has intrinsic possibilities in the hundreds, the potential meaning of a single note is almost entirely extrinsic. It is a tabula rasa awaiting the impress of simultaneous pitches (harmony) and/or a succession of pitches (melody).

To some extent, this puts language and music in alignment. Both words and notes receive meaning from the rules of usage. In different types of sentences, words are used differently and carry different senses. In different types of musical phrases, notes are used differently and give different impressions. Both instances require a level of fluency to detect the intended syntactical meaning. Yet, while this tends to shape words into a clear and generally understood message, musical communication retains a certain vagueness. This is not just because music affects people in varying ways, even within a fluency group—something that can also occur with language. What is key is that music, unlike language, has no concrete or factual reference point. “Bank” takes on a direct meaning from its context; a musical note does not. True, music’s abstractness can be restrained by sonic and social contexts; but its implications remain variable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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