Meaning in music and language: Three key differences: Comment on "Towards a neural basis of processing musical semantics" by Stefan Koelsch.


Koelsch [4] takes a broad view of semantics (unlike, e.g., [3]), and presents a variety of evidence suggesting that, like language, instrumental music can communicate not only emotional or affective meaning, but also iconic, indexical, and symbolic meaning. He concludes that the study of musical semantics and its relation to linguistic semantics can advance our understanding of the neural representation of semantics in general. Koelsch’s paper demonstrates that evidence from neuroscience can inform old debates about musical semantics, and we agree with his point that linguistic and musical meaning may have more in common than has been generally appreciated. However, it is also important to recognize salient differences between linguistic and musical meaning. We point to three key features of linguistic semantics that are distinct from musical semantics: specificity, compositionality, and communication. As discussed by Koelsch [4], a growing body of evidence suggests that music, like language, can activate aspects of extramusical meaning, as revealed by elevated N400 responses to semantic incongruity. However, the meaning evoked by music is far less specific than meaning evoked by language. Units of language denote specific semantic concepts, whereas units of music can (but do not always) pick out semantic concepts at a much coarser grain [1]. Furthermore, music does not obviously activate extramusical meaning any more than various other types of non-linguistic stimuli do, such as environmental sounds or pictures (see [5] for a review). A second important difference is that, unlike musical semantics, linguistic semantics is compositional. That is, words combine in lawful ways to give rise to more complex meanings. For example, a sentence like “Some elephants were playing tennis at the faculty club” expresses not only the meanings of individual lexical items, but also the (presumably novel) propositional meaning of the sentence as a whole. Units of instrumental music, in contrast, cannot combine in this way to convey propositions (Koelsch [4] notes that music does not appear to express propositional meaning). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, linguistic, but not musical, semantics exists for communicative reasons. In ordinary, day-to-day language, speakers produce linguistic utterances primarily to express meaning in a way that can be veridically recovered by their listeners. In contrast, it is an open question if composers or performers even hope to communicate a specific meaning through music. Indeed, because of the relatively unspecific and non-compositional

DOI: 10.1016/j.plrev.2011.05.003

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@article{Slevc2011MeaningIM, title={Meaning in music and language: Three key differences: Comment on "Towards a neural basis of processing musical semantics" by Stefan Koelsch.}, author={L. Robert Slevc and Aniruddh Patel}, journal={Physics of life reviews}, year={2011}, volume={8 2}, pages={110-1; discussion 125-8} }