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Language, Music, and Mind.

Wittgenstein once observed that we lack the linguistic equipment to describe the aroma of coffee (to describe it to one who has never encountered it before, olfactorily). Such knowledge appears ineffable; and Diana Raffman attempts to illustrate how and why certain musical knowledge is similarly |ineffable'; she writes: |Having easily reported pitches, rhythms, and time signature of a heard piece ... a listener (perhaps even a highly expert one) finds himself at a loss: "I am feeling that E-natural in a certain and distinctive way, but I can't say just how"' (31). Raffman admits that there are degrees of effability; an expert would almost certainly be able to recover more of the content, technically, than the nonexpert; though it might easily be the case that if Gunther Schuller (say) and someone who had never heard either Western formal music or jazz, were placed together to listen to a piece for the first time, perhaps something highly complex played by Miles Davies, the novitiate may recover nuances - and even notational combinations - to which Schuller was |deaf'. Could one, however, report to the other exactly what he heard, and especially vis-a-vis his emotional response? The answer would seem to be |No', in the sense of one being able to comprehend exactly what the other had heard and felt. I may, in a |thin' sense, |have a sensory-perceptual mental representation of' a group of nuances in a particular piece of music, but no report can be made |to reproduce that knowledge in the mind-brain of another', without resorting to ostensive clarification (88).

The question also arises as to how we acquire knowledge that cannot be wholly reiterated. become highly skilled and authoritative listeners. The trained musician and musicologist, however, may find that under certain conditions they have no advantage over the conscientious untrained expert when they are called on to report what they have just heard. A child brought up in a culture where Western formal music and jazz were totally unknown could quickly, if suddenly transported to London, Paris or New York (say), understand with some acuity the sonatas of Beethoven, or be able to differentiate acoustically between Count Basie's orchestra and that of Woody Hermann; how well she could articulate in speech this difference, and whether or not a musically literate adult could improve on her account, is another matter.

One explanation offered by Raffman lies in an analogy drawn by Lerdahl and Jackendoff, between the linguistic |generative grammar' of Chomsky and the possibility of a similar musical |grammar'; concurring with these two theorists she cautions against too strict an analogy. According to Chomsky, human beings must possess |innate linguistic knowledge', otherwise the learning of a first language would be impossible. This, of course, tends towards idealism and metaphysics, and Raffman is seeking material explanations. But falling back on Fodor's mind-bending theories of |transducers' and |proximal stimulus configurations' is not, ultimately, particularly helpful. Such bodies of theory still imply that ways of seeing and hearing are universal and somehow |given'; they also eclipse the dialectical relationship between Subject and Object. In a similar vein, but more simply stated, Raffman draws on John Anderson: |In cognitivist corners, knowing the meaning of a word consists ... in having certain enduring representations in your head ... [K]nowing the meaning of a word involves representing it in a network of interconnected nodes' (70). Many theorists are highly suspicious of this type of linguistic enquiry, including myself, but transcribed broadly into a musical context, it seems more plausible: |[L]isteners slide their scalar templates up and down and perhaps also stretch and shrink them) to achieve the best possible fit with their representations of an incoming stimulus' (71). It goes without saying, of course, that music and language are not the same thing (though, as Raffman comments, millions of years ago in the primaeval forest, they may have been). And much musical knowledge is more fleetingly acquired than linguistic explanations of, say, how my typewriter works (vide p. 96 and passim Ch. 5).

There are two relevant fallacies still perpetuated within the Anglo-American analytic tradition: one is that language must be capable of iterating everything that is known or knowable; the other (connectedly) is that there is a direct fit between |signifier', |signified' and |referent'; after Derrida and Lacan, it should be quite clear that there is not. The whole of language is always (however slightly at times) metaphorical; it does not though |stand in for' things and events: it is referential, i.e., it refers to the world we |know'. And in a very important sense, the musical note, chord, nuance, etc. act as |signifiers', but here the process of signification is far more arbitrary than in lexical communication.

It is rather puzzling that today philosophers of Raffman's calibre - discussing extremely important matters with far-reaching implications - still wilfully refuse to take on board at least some of the concepts developed in |Continental' philosophy, particularly as its focus is largely on language and art, and for decades has been forging a new epistemology. And there is an epistemological problem at the centre of Raffman's work, as she is designating what might be termed emotional awareness', as knowledge - which it is, but it is not the knowledge I have of screwdrivers and tins of peaches; and her categories of knowledge are not convincingly separated.

Despite the fact that I feel that Raffman would have done well to have drawn on Adomo and Lacan, as much as on the authorities she does quote, this book is interestingly provocative, well organized and scholarly.
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Author:Wade, Geoffrey
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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