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Well, exactly. That's what I meant when I said that it was very confusing to me, as a young grad student in an outside field, to have a course that assigned Peirce and Lacan side by side with a straight face, evidently taking them equally seriously.

There may or may not be some legitimate field of inquiry going under the name of semiotics. In grad school a number of years ago, however, I took a (graduate-level) Introduction to Semiotics that was a pretty remarkable hodgepodge of bullshit, along with just enough non-bullshit to make a complete outsider like myself (not at all fluent in the obscurantist discourse of "cultural studies," "critical theory," and the like) feel like maybe the problem was me and not the material. (Later reflection gave me a lot more confidence that the problem was, in fact, the material.)

Among the reading was Freud, Lacan, Derrida, J. L. Austin, Marcel Mauss, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, and Peirce. (There was other stuff too that I don't recall right now.) Interestingly, of those I would say that only Lacan and Derrida were outright charlatans (which is not to endorse any of the others in particular, just to say that they were all doing something at least potentially more valuable than pulling stuff out of their asses). But the writings of the non-charlatans were presented so confusingly and tendentiously that it never remotely cohered into any sense that semiotics was a field with any integrity of its own or anything useful to contribute. That is to say, none of those thinkers would have described himself as a "semiotician," so it was very much a post hoc attempt to put a framework around a bunch of very diverse writing that in many cases was pretty foreign to its original intent.

This is all n=1, of course, but on that basis I tend to think that semiotics as a standalone field is probably more or less as you say it is.

I like how you call it "a set of heuristic practices that work well in a lot of situations, justified by complete bullshit." Because my first instinct when writing this comment was to include a remark to the effect that even if theoretical semiotics is mostly or entirely crap, there is some valuable work that calls itself some variety of applied semiotics. For example, there are some people who do musical semiotics, and—since it's not at all obvious what music signifies and how it does so, either in the general or specific cases—I have found some of that work enlightening. But on further thought, you're absolutely right in your characterization of it. Musical semiotics can be full of insight, but its adoption of the theoretical apparatus of (e.g.) Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco is no part of its value—that, instead, is an attempt to bring "theoretical" rigor to a fundamentally nonrigorous enterprise. So much the worse for any "application" of semiotics if it relies on the cesspool of semiotic theory to back up its assertions.

Phil, you've probably seen this already, but a bunch of proposals for alternative notation systems are collected here. Some of them are basically exactly what you would prefer to be reading. It would be really cool if someone wrote a Lilypond package that could output in some of these systems. (Maybe someone has, I don't know.)

Very true. Staff notation essentially says "Here are the pitches and rhythms, now it's your job to figure out how to make them happen on your instrument." As you point out, a very real alternative to staff notation exists in tablature, which (in general) is any notation system that instead says "Here's what you need to do physically on your instrument. Follow these instructions and the notes will automatically be the right ones—you don't need to worry about what they 'are'."

Tablatures are surprisingly old, apparently going back 700 years or so in various forms. Of course, their drawbacks as general musical notation are clear enough. Namely, if you want to understand what's going on in the music or play music on a different instrument, tablature is really only a kind of lookup table for actual notes, and often a very cumbersome one.

I didn't have anything really radical in mind. I think it's pretty clear that there's a long-term trend toward high-level music-making relying on notation to a decreasing extent. I have a number of friends who are professional composers, and some of them use notation to write for instruments, while others use electronics and largely don't use notation at all. (The latter group, who compose for video games, movies, etc., are the ones who actually make money at it, so I'm by no means just talking about avant-garde electronic music.) A lot of commercial composers who would have been using paper and pencil 30 years ago are using Logic or Digital Performer today.

The other factor, of course, is that notated genres of music ("classical" music and its descendants, and some others) are increasingly marginal in Western culture. This trend is often way overblown, but is clearly visible at the timescale of decades or longer.

What I certainly don't mean to suggest is that individuals who use notation in our musical lives, like you or me, will stop using it. It'll be a cohort replacement effect, and no doubt a very gradual one. Nor do I think that music notation will entirely go away at some foreseeable point in the future. But reading and using it will slowly become a more specialized skill. My impression, though I don't have a reference for this and could be completely wrong, that the ability of American adults (not pro musicians) to read music notation with some fluency has hugely declined over the last half-century.

All this is very much the framing argument of Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, with its much-criticized focus on what he calls the "literate [his needlessly inflammatory term for 'notated'] traditions" of music. Within that frame, he casts the present day as essentially an "end-of-history" moment.

Correct me where I'm wrong here! I'm not a specialist in these issues.

Let me add that, like you, I absolutely love music notation, borderline fetishize it, and say all this with more than a trace of a Luddite's sadness.

Good post and I'll chime in if you don't mind. I teach this stuff for a living and even highly skilled musicians struggle with it in various ways (myself emphatically included).

The main thing I want to say is that there's a reason why essentially all music education consists of many years of rote learning. Obviously, that rote learning works better if it's guided in appropriate directions, but I really don't know of any alternative to what you describe when you say "an orders-of-magnitude-less-efficient mechanism for memorizing note-to-note mappings for every note and every pair of keys." I hate to say it, but ... yep. [EDIT: eh, let me qualify that a bit. See point (A) below.]

Sight-transposition (i.e. sight-reading plus on-the-fly transposition) is a ninja-level skill. Some instrumentalists (usually those who play non-concert-pitch instruments) can do it reasonably well for at least some transposition intervals, and a few people like professional vocal accompanists and church organists need to be able to do it fluently as an expected part of their job. But outside of those folks, even professional musicians rarely have that facility.

Here's something that directly supports your point at (D). As you know, pitch intervals in tonal theory are given names that break arithmetic—a second plus a fourth is a fifth, even though 2+4≠5. A certain well-known music theorist often expresses the view that this blatantly illogical convention is almost entirely responsible for the popular perception that music theory is a really, really difficult subject. I think this exaggerates things, but he's got a point. However, most musicians know those interval names really well and have never thought much about how stupid they are, and so then high-level music theory becomes opaque to skilled musicians because we start by renaming intervals correctly (i.e. a second is diatonic interval 1, and you can add them like normal numbers).

In the case of the frustrating conventions of staff notation, there are historical reasons going back a millennium why we write pitches like that. Various reforms have been proposed, but path-dependency basically makes it impossible that any of them would ever be adopted. Far more likely (and well underway for decades now) is that musicians will stop using notation altogether.

Just to briefly answer your other questions with my personal views:

(A) Personally yes, I have all the note-to-note mappings memorized. I do this completely via thinking in scale degrees. I can name any scale degree in any key, so questions like the one you mentioned just revolve around thinking "B-flat is scale-degree 4 in F major. What's scale-degree 4 in C or A-flat?"

(B) Yes, I do think this is plausible, and underappreciated in the specific case of music, since most musicians don't think much about the ways in which notation isn't an optimized system.

(C) Maybe this is too glib, but ... social interaction? "Overthinking it" isn't a path to doing well in social settings. For that matter, natural language might be another. In many respects it's best learned by rote (along with some theory—just like music) but I've certainly had classmates in language courses who get too hung up on the illogic of grammar to progress well in basic skills like speaking and listening comprehension.

Yes, it should be clarified. The main ambiguity that I was reacting to is that "art" can mean specifically visual arts or it can mean "the arts," extending to performing and literary arts. As it is, I'm not sure if my profession (scholarship concerning music) is "art" or "other."

In fact (now addressing Yvain again), why is this category called "Profession" instead of "field"? It creates some odd overlap with the previous category of "Work status" which produces a little bit of confusion per my original suggestion and fubarobfusco's reply.

On "Profession," the field label "Art" is vague. Better would be "Arts and humanities."

I used to hear something similar in debates over gay marriage:

Gay person: "I only want to have the same right as a straight person: the right to marry the person I love."

Gay marriage opponent: "No no, you already have the same right as a straight person: the right to marry a person of the opposite sex. If you also want the right to marry a person of the same sex, you're asking for extra rights, special privileges just because you're gay. And that simply wouldn't be fair."

Edit: bramflakes beat me to it.

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