Music and communication
on musicology as a behavioural science

by Jos Kunst (1978)

This is an electronic version of an article published in Interface, Vol. 7 (1978) pp. 189-204. Journal of New Music Research, the continuation of Interface, is available online at

Abstract. A behavioural variant of musicology is postulated, located among the behavioural sciences, and shown to provide an important epistemological foundation not only for historical musicology, but specifically also for sociomusicology. A general model of the musical communication situation is presented, using notably David Lewis' theory of convention and the analysis of music listening contained in the present author's 1978. Appended is a comment on Otto E. Laske's 1977, which gives rise to some discussions on psychomusicological matters.

0.0 Introduction

A previous article, published in Interface V: 1 (1976) pp 3-68, under the title Making Sense in Music I: the Use of Mathematical Logic, was a first draft of part of my doctoral dissertation, now completed and to appear in book form in the fall of 1978, under the title Making Sense in Music: an Enquiry into the Formal Pragmatics of Art (Ghent 1978 (Communication & Cognition)). The present essay bears no such relation to the book; instead, going beyond it, we offer some further developments, interesting ones it is hoped, of the groundwork laid down in it. These developments mainly concern (as the present subtitle suggests) problems of locating present musicological methods within the frameworks provided by the philosophy of science, and of assigning its proper place to the new approach advocated by us.


In the eyes of some, most musicology is just applied history, and has been, even as such, remained entirely shielded off from the foundational troubles that have beset the history departments proper. (This fact might go some way toward explaining why so many musicologists subscribe to, or condone, so-called "authentic" performances without any apparent qualms as to what this "authenticity" might possibly consist of.) Giving an account of the exact scope and nature of these discussions clearly goes beyond what we can do in this article; our main concern is in showing how, rather trivially, historical musicology presupposes, or ought to presuppose, some version of musicological knowledge which, underlying it, is strictly independent from it. Put simply and succinctly, the problem is the following.

In understanding historical events and actions, we cannot but draw upon our current notions of (possible) events and (possible) people generally. Now if we ask ourselves how we come by these notions, one obvious answer will be that we get them through our experience. Thus, to restrict ourselves for the moment to our knowledge of people, I may perhaps be said to reasonably well know the people I am in relation with if they live up reasonably well to my expectations of them. If this is true, and if moreover (as I think we do), in "trying out" on each other ideas and behaviours, we are continually testing the knowledge we have of each other, the acquiring of this knowledge might perhaps be plausibly modeled along falsificationist lines.

So far so good. Now for history. Clearly, no such corroboratory testing is possible for our understanding of historical figures. We just assume that our knowledge of people is reasonably sound, and apply it to them and their circumstances. Just as we do with narrative genres in literature, we understand (produce) the narrative of what "has really happened" by freely drawing on our knowledge of people and the world (cf., for the case of literature, Mooij (1972), and also our 1978, 4.4.).

What goes for history, goes for the history of music. Let music be a special kind of human behaviour. Then our understanding of historical musics (and therefore also of the coded recipes for producing them that are scores) essentially depends on our general understanding of music, as we have acquired it in our own lifetime.

Now obviously, and quite apart from the intrinsic value of the enterprise, historical musicology would greatly profit from a scientific analysis of what this "understanding of music" consists of, not only where problems of interpreting historical facts are concerned, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from a heuristical viewpoint: in the fact-finding process itself.


Such a situation is not wholly without precedent. It is clear that political and economic history have enormously profited from the rise of non-historical economics and sociology. Equally clearly, the sociology of music plays a seminal role in inspiring the concept of a social history of music. It will thus be readily seen that within musicology one aspect of the approach we have (broadly) termed "behavioural" has already achieved some status, viz., the sociological one.

Here, however, arise problems of a methodological nature. First, there is the holism vs individualism controversy. (Those wanting to read up on the issue are referred to Brodbeck (1968) and Ryan (1973); these also contain useful bibliographies.) For obvious reasons, I am not qualified to distil from the debate any decisive and detailed conclusion; but so much, I think, is now clear that we may safely affirm that (1) crude holism is out (however, within the relatively isolated confines of musicology, a theory like Blaukopf's "sociology of tone-systems" is still taken seriously), and (2) some "de-naïvized" form of methodological individualism might well, in some cases, attain a state of inter-translatability with properly "de-naïvized" theories of a more holistic provenance (cf., e.g., Goldmann (1970), esp. pp. 94-121: Le sujet de la création culturelle).

Now in order not to lose those of our readers who are, as yet, unfamiliar with the term (after all, the idea involved in it is going to play a crucial role in what follows), it seems wise to give some attention to what exactly "individualism" in the expression "methodological individualism" stands for. It does not refer to any view of man and society stressing the sovereignty, self-determination and uniqueness of the individual, or even the importance of unique individuals. It is rather the opposite which applies here. By a process of abstraction, an "ideal type" is constructed, of which, in the words of J.W.N. Watkins (cf. Ryan (1973) p. 84)

"(...) the ideality (...) lies: (i) in the simplification of the initial situation and in its isolation from disturbing factors; (ii) in the abstract and formal, and yet explicit and precise character of the actors' schemes of preferences and states of information; and (iii) in the actors' rational behaviour in the light of (ii). It is not claimed that a principle of social behaviour demonstrated by an individualistic ideal type will often have an exact empirical counterpart (...)".

Thus, as Alan Ryan puts it in his Introduction (p. 7),

"the extent to which social scientists try to recapture the situation as it appears to the agent, though essential, is often minimal. The entrepreneur of classical economic theory is defined by his intention to maximize profit, and we try to abstract from everything else in the real situation of the entrepreneur just the effects of this intention. We do not care whether he approaches the competitive struggle with the zest of a Rockefeller or the humility of Uriah Heep."

In this way, the theoretical construct of the "rational agent", functioning as a minimal model of man, and engaged in idealized but precise social situations, provides the key concept in what Watkins calls an "explanation in principle" (cf p. 93 ssqq) of the social facts under study. (Even in the case of G.H. von Wright's "practical syllogism" (see his (1971) pp. 96 ssqq), which is argued to be, in a certain sense, a matter of purely logical relationships, I think that through the difference between "A intends" and the more behavioural "A sets himself to" rationality postulates are, more or less surreptitiously, working their way back into the picture. But I also think that there is no harm in them, as von Wright, I take it (see his "verification procedures" (pp. 110 ssqq)), would agree.)

The reason why we are discussing these methodological questions is that we want to make the claim that the theory of music propounded in our doctoral dissertation mentioned in 0.0. provides us with just such a minimal, but sufficient construct of what a musical communication situation is. If the claim can be successfully sustained, this is an important result, also for the sociology of music. (I think its success depends essentially on the success of the definition of music set forth in chapter 4, sections 2 and 3. These are therefore especially recommended to the critical attention of interested sociomusicologists.) We will, in the main part of this essay, give an intuitive and rough account of how we want to model the musical communication situation. A both more ample and more rigorous presentation is to be found in the book.

1.0 Musicians and listeners

A first caveat. In giving this first inventory of elements deemed essential to the musical communication situation we will be relying on our intuitive (prescientific) knowledge of music. And it is mainly in deciding which cases are more central, and which others more marginal to our idea of music making that these intuitions will have to be invoked. As a general policy, we will tend to disregard the marginal cases, and concentrate on the central. Marginal cases may more profitably be tackled later, from the (then established) vantage point provided by the central ones. This last task, however, is beyond the scope of this article: for the moment, it is best to invite our readers to review and ponder for themselves the centrality rulings we will be actually advocating. We will make as few of these as we possibly can; each of them, however, we will want to think through to its consequences, obtaining, I take it, a number of philosophically interesting results in the process.

Now, then, for some armchair theorizing.


Let the people we call musicians be characterized by specific forms of audible behaviour. Let this audibility be construed liberally, so as to include what might be termed "indirect" audibility: the writing down of certain notes by a composer, and even his conceiving of them, become audible when they are played.


Let these musicians thereby mean to create and/or maintain a situation in which their behaviour is understood in a special manner (viz., as a specific music) by listeners they know about and want to be part of the situation to be created and/or maintained.

What about the myth of the creative artist uninterested in any possible audience? – I think it is not clear what exactly can be meant. Does he cast himself in the audience's role? Does he despair of ever getting an adequate one? (Note that in these cases there are projected audiences.) However this may be, we will be helped out by a centrality ruling: in an central cases of music making there is a projected audience, even if only the one constitued by the people belonging to the same culture and therefore in principle capable of understanding it.

R1 The musician tries to adapt his behaviour to some audience's possible understanding.


Now this behaviour is sufficiently recognizable to permit the existence and practical use in the language of a special word for it (viz., "music"). Let us therefore say that listeners recognize music as such. Let us, moreover, rule that in all central cases

R2 listeners try to adapt their cognitive behaviour to the music they hear:

they "place" it in a musical perspective, and they try to place it correctly, that is, the way it is meant to be by the musician(s). Only then will they feel they understand it at all, because understanding music is understanding someone's intentional behaviour, and implies understanding the intentionality involved in it. (We do not prejudge on the role of the verbal system; moreover, we must note that some reasonable degree of partial understanding win have to do for our, or anyone's, purposes.)


We have now two centrality rulings. Taken together, they amount to a picture of coordinated behaviour. It will therefore be interesting to inquire whether David Lewis's analysis of convention as a solution to coordination problems applies to music. And, indeed, few readers will be surprised to hear that musical behaviour depends on conventions. Let us now see what exactly, according to Lewis, this might mean.

2.0 Conventions

The analysis of the notion of convention provided by David Lewis (1969 and 1975) is a game-theoretical one. It describes a convention as the solution to a coordination problem. A coordination problem is a "game" in which the interests of the "players" are not pitted against each other (which would amount to the normal, competitive, "zero-sum" type game), but in which no "player" can win without all (or almost all) of the others winning as well. Such a situation demands a "solution" (i.e. is a non-trivial game situation) if there is more than one possible course of action leading up to the result desired by all, and if, moreover, for it to be attained, (almost) all must choose the same course. This rendering of the Lewis account is very rough. Readers interested in more precise formulations are referred to Lewis (1969); we, on our part, will try to make the idea, and especially some aspects relevant to our purposes, intuitively clear by giving some examples.


Rowers in a boat are, within limits, indifferent as to the exact rhythm of their rowing, provided the same rhythm will be followed by all. This example is interesting not only because the population concerned may be very small and the convention itself very short-lived, but also, and chiefly, because agreement is reached, in most cases, without essential use of verbal language (cf Lewis (1969) pp. 63/4 and 86/7). Mutually observing each other, and letting oneself be observed, seems to be enough. In practice, humans prove quite capable of solving such problems almost instantaneously. Once the solution is reached, it is rigidly imposed on each rower: well-established conventions do not admit of "free choice" any more, and this is the more so as the number of people involved increases.


A second example, in order to demonstrate in a somewhat more detaiied manner how agreement may be sought and reached. Suppose two parachutists, dropped into enemy territory, have lost visual contact in the process, and want, first of all, to re-establish contact. How do they go about it? They consider the landscape, try to reconstruct each other's thoughts, and know that both are doing just that. Both want to move toward a meeting-point satisfying the following requirements: (a) it is clearly visible to both; (b) it is a suitable meeting-point in the given circumstances; (c) it is judged by the other to satisfy requirements (a) and (b); (d) it is judged by the other to satisfy requirement (c); (e) it is judged by the other to satify requirement (d); ... etc. – and, in consequence, the other will effectively be making his way toward it. In this manner an (obviously finite) double chain of mutual expectations is formed, and these may be taken to determine the subsequent actions of our two parachutists.

This example can be used by us also to illustrate the central thesis of Bernard Rollin (1976), according to which there is a continuous gamut of behaviours, with the purely conventional at one end and the purely natural at the other, and not two effectively separable categories. In order to do that, we will look into some possible motivations for solutions to the given problem.

Suppose we have in the landscape a church spire, a cross-roads, and a hill, and all three are possible candidates for the meeting-point status. Suppose further that our parachutists, by successfully reasoning along the lines detailed above, meet at the church spire, and in this way have effectively solved their coordination problem. Now when the next time they are again dropped into the same landscape, they will probably, without much thinking, be heading for the church spire. This time the situation is simplified by the presence of a successful precedent: one of the three possibilities is clearly singled out by it. In this way a fixed solution is established: a convention is under way. And even if, later on, the spire is one day found to be totally destroyed, and has thus ceased to be a possible candidate to those dropped for the first time in its vicinity, it is, nevertheless, very plausible that our original parachutists, on the sole strength of the precedents, will go to the place where once there was a conspicuous church spire. In this way a convention may outlive some "natural" motivation, and at later times there need be no element in the situation, present or even reconstructible, which may have motivated the (supposed) first, and unprecedented, solution to the coordination problem.


Our first two examples were of extremely small-scale limiting cases of convention. By way of third and last example I will choose the largest-scale one I can think of, both for the number of agents involved and for its long-livedness. I refer to the convention I will call "C-traditionality": i.e. traditionality with respect to cultural heritage C. (As alternative solutions to the original coordination problem may not count here simply deviating behaviours with respect to C, but traditionality with respect to other (possible) cultural heritages C', C", etc.) As mentioned in the rowers' example, such a convention, once established, is rigidly imposed to those coming to take part in it (e.g., children). (Culture does not spring spontaneously from our bosoms.) And just as in the case of the disappeared church spire all original "natural" motivation is often irretrievably lost. The mere presence of the tradition is a sufficient reason for continuing it: it has at least the merit of providing a way of coordinating behaviours and ensuring communication. Thus, e.g., through its sub-convention governing the cultural community's verbal language (cf. Lewis (1969 p. 80 ssqq) for an account of the relations holding between a convention and its sub-convention (s)), which, as it will have to describe observable behaviour [*], is called by Lewis (notably in his 1975) the convention of truthfulness-and-trust-in-language-L. Here also, alternative "originally possible solutions" to the coordination problem involved are not Iying-and/or-distrusting-in-L, but truthfulness-and-trust in other (possible) languages L', L", etc. (Our C-traditionality concept arose as a generalization of Lewis's idea. See our (1978), 4.2.3.)

3.0 Non-verbal concepts

I have taken the liberty of burdening the reader with the rather complicated-sounding Lewis formulation of the convention governing verbal languages such as English, because it suggests (a) a possible "rational reconstruction" of the genesis of verbal language, and (b) a possible model of how individual speakers of English have learned their language. What I want to show is the richness, the power and the precision of the non-verbal concepts humans actually use.


First of all: a concept, for us, is any recognitional capacity. Next: a verbal concept is one that, in being activated, is accompanied by (overt or covert) verbal activity matching it; a non-verbal concept is one of which this is not the case. What is thus characterized by our expressions "verbal" and "non-verbal" are not the concepts themselves, but their (normal) use. I think that a case might be made out for the verbalizability of any concept, or even of all concepts; but, on the other hand, I also think that there are very many of them that now, e.g., to all users of English, are non-verbal, and that will remain so for the rest of their lives (and those of their descendants as well).


Now back to our examples of conventions. As we saw in 2.1, in the rowers' case non-verbal communication provides the means of solving their coordination problem. Those faced with our second coordination problem (2.2) lack even all direct contact with their partner, and have to find in the landscape before them, and in the background knowledge available to them, the elements of the solution they seek. But it is our third example, and then, in particular, the verbal language part of it, which is the strongest and most instructive of the three. For one thing is certain: I cannot have used English in order to learn English. (Or also: no genesis of verbal language can have come about on the basis of verbal language.) In order to get to know what "truthfulness-and-trust-in-English" behaviour exactly consists in, I have been obliged to form hypotheses, and test them, and these could not possibly have been formulated in English (cf. also Fodor, 1975). The richness, power and precision of the first verbal language learned are necessarily less than or equal to the richness, power and precision of the non-verbal concepts then available to me.

I know by experience that people, when asked, tend to say that they do not use non-verbal concepts in their everyday thinking. I think that this must be explained by their instigating a verbally directed search for concepts not accompanied by verbal activity. Such a search is obviously apt to be fruitless. But let each reader, wherever he may be, now quickly determine for himself the shortest route to the nearest railway station; and let him verify next whether the verbal activity accompanying his search has not been very much poorer than the conceptual structures mobilized by it.

And then there are, obviously, all and sundry gestures, motor activities, bodily attitudes governed by a cultural tradition, and which we internalize, as a rule, without much verbal activity accompanying them; and last, but, in our case, not least, our knowledge of music (which, after all, is itself also part of our culturally governed motor activities!): we all know, surely, how inadequate and poor is the verbal apparatus we use in talking about it, especially in relation to what we really do know about it. We know what an oboe's low register sounds like; just try to say how it sounds.

4.0 Perception

Before turning to the perception of music, let us first go through some groundwork on perception in a more general sense. First of all it is highly interesting to see how a terminology which, traditionally, only applies to (verbal and formal) languages, admits of a generalization to encompass all percepts, and how from this new vantage point the sentences of (verbal and formal) languages can be retrieved and described as (classes of) (possible) percepts. The idea has been worked out somewhat more thoroughly in the dissertation (preface and ch. 4), therefore we give here a rough account:


That such a generalization can be carried through with some measure of success is due to a fundamental characteristic sentences and percepts have in common: both are information bearers. And about each and every potential information bearer each of the following three questions is relevant: (1) is it one? (2) if so, what is the information contained in it? and (3) if we have that information, what difference does it make?


Let us consider our senses as information-gathering systems (cf Gibson, 1966 and Hintikka, 1975). Much of our verbal talk about auditory perception becomes then explainable. As a rule, we talk about sounds by reference to their causes. In a sense, what we hear are not sounds, but processes: actions and events causing them. If we say nevertheless: "I hear a sound" we generally mean that we hear a process of which we have too incomplete a description to be able to call it by its name. Often, we will go and investigate it.


Sounds, "ordinary" sounds, are thus seen to be, in a simple and obvious manner, meaningful to those who perceive them. Our general auditory competence consists in the disposing of a conceptual system which enables us to use our ears effectively in our transactions with our environment. It may be important to note that both with respect to the sounds themselves (the arrays of airwaves) and with respect to their causes, we make do, as a rule, with conceptualizations that are not richer/stronger/more complete than we think pragmatically useful. Sounds we are not interested in we do not go and investigate.

5.0 Musical concepts

Let us, for the sake of parsimony, begin by taking due account of the fact that "musical" hearing, whatever else it may be, is also just hearing. Then we must for a moment pay special attention to a subset of the set of audible processes, viz., that of audible actions/activities. Humans may be said to constitute elements of our environment which (except in pathological cases) we are highly interested in. As a consequence, the conceptual structures I use in coping with their audible behaviour are quite rich, and apt to belie naïve preconceptions about the limited range of things one can perceive with one's ears. An example: if I hear someone using a hammer I may hear not just whether and how his hammer hits the nail but also whether and how he gets tired: what his bone-and-muscle machinery feels like from the inside, or also whether and how he gets annoyed or angry: an audible history of emotional states, but, as yet, no part of any music.


Music always is an audible activity. Not only on the simplest level, where I hear a player working away on his instrument, but also in more complex situations, with diffuse activities by many players, or even in purely electronic music, where I may be tempted to describe what I hear as "events in a landscape", I will never take this "landscape" to be a natural phenomenon instead of a man-made object, and the "events" in it to be natural ones instcad of constitutive elements of the action which is the piece. (Obviously, humans may play at being something like a landscape. But if I am simply and whole-heartedly taken in, I cannot be said to hear what I hear as music.) Also, sonic environments which are man-made, but only by-products of other activities, do not count as music either: what I hear must be meant by people to be heard as music (cf also our centrality rulings, in section 1).


If, then, music is an audible activity, how can it be further described?... Whenever I hear something as music, I recognize it, however roughly and tentatively, as a specific music – music just is the set of all possible specific musics. Therefore I may be said to hear the musician (let this term admit of a certain degree of abstraction, and also stand for, e.g., the composer of electronic music, a group of musicians forming an ensemble, or the collective entity composer-players, etc.) conform his behaviour to a certain combination of precedents selected in the field-of-precedents that our common music is; I, on my part, (that is, if I choose to go along with it) adapt my way of listening to the way I think he intended his music to be listened to, and I do this by selecting the combination of precedents I think appropriate. He and I are thus seen to solve a coordination problem by conforming to precedent, and the solutions we use are conventions in the Lewisian sense. (Many of them are even used unthinkingly and "unvoluntarily".) In other words: whenever I hear something as music, I succeed in coming up with a musical perspective in which to place it: a "musical past" which, at least for part of what I hear, provides me with precedents the music is conforming to, and thus enables me to understand the music within a conventional framework. These precedents may be relatively old and well-estab}ished: then the music is, at least in part, what is sometimes called "very" conventional; they may also be, so to speak, in nascent state, and it is even the case that within our culture, concerned with individual pieces as it is, each piece must be characterized by aspects guaranteeing its uniqueness: precedents it sets itself; its later stages, in as far as these aspects are concerned, will be conforming to its own earlier stages instead of to earlier musics.


Let us for a moment concentrate on these "younger" precedents. They have a certain heuristical value which I want to exploit in detailing one of the ways in which our general (i.e. not specifically musical) auditory competence forms an essential ingredient of our music listening (they are exactly the same ways as those in which our general verbal competence forms an essential ingredient of our understanding of poetry, it is argued at some length in our dissertation.) Very many (and also aesthetically very important) auditory concepts mobilized in understanding music are not specifically musical. The repeated appearance of "new musics" in Western culture has, time and again, introduced into the musical field auditory concepts that had never before been musically used, and that therefore could not possibly have been "musical concepts" for any previous user of music. Let me give some examples.

6.0 Learning processes

Readers who have so far followed me are perhaps tempted to say: surely, this sort of theorizing, for as far as it goes, is parsimonious. But something interesting and essential is left unexplained, viz., what makes people sometimes passionate about music. Ordinary auditory competence – nothing particularly thrilling about that. And what do we do with it? We conventionalize it. Isn't this a problem?


In the first place, ordinary hearing is a thrilling experience if the world, to me, is a thrilling thing. Therefore we must ask ourselves whether the chunks-of-the-world we call music are thrilling things. Many people do find them so. But how can this be explained? What is happening there?


Let us say that we understand an event if we succeed in seeing it as law-like. It has then been one of an "obedient" kind, it could have been foreseen, it is not disruptive, it fits into the world I know. Thus I understand the sound caused by some event by reference to causal law; thus I understand the sound made by the annoyed hammerer above (5.0.) by reference to the (psychological) laws linking up annoyance with certain overt behaviours. Thus also the audible behaviour of the musician is understandable to me if I hear him conform to a precedent known to him and his audience: the law-likeness is then based on conventional law.

But that is precisely what I mean, my reader of 6.0 will say; maybe somewhat less law-like, and more disruptive, events would prove somewhat more thrilling as well. That may be so; but on the other hand it is also quite impossible to keep concentrating on events that defy any attempt at understanding. Somewhere between the Scylla of understandability-without-any-complication on the one hand, and the Charybdis of complete impenetrability to human understanding on the other our model of music will, I take it, have to be constructed.


Let us look at the following problem. How do we understand infringements against conventions? Two different categories of conventions are then seen to emerge; we will call them "rigid" and "non-rigid" conventions, respectively.

Rigid conventions are conventions infringements against which are understood on the basis of "natural" (i.e. non-conventional) law-likeness. Some non-conventional behavioural or psychological law is then invoked; e.g., some rational agent considered the convention to be obsolete, or otherwise pernicious, and, by ostensibly breaking away from it, wants to instigate public discussions on the matter; or, alternatively, the culprit is anti-social, otherwise pathological, or just plain dumb.

Non-rigid conventions (and these are of special interest to us here) are conventions infringements against which (together with the following of them up to the moment of the infringement!) can be reconstructed, and therefore understood after all, as conventional, but according to a different convention, of which the corresponding behaviour, until the moment it came into open conflict with the first convention, has effectively been present all the time, albeit hidden, so to speak, "within" or "behind" the behaviour corresponding to the first. The whole then takes on the character of a "hoax-on-conventions".

If we succeed in understanding an infringement against a non-rigid convention, we find ourselves suddenly landed in a situation of "nascent" understanding, of shifting perspectives, of what we might call a "convention switch". We are confronted with a genuine insight-based concept learning situation. At the same time there is a deconditioning element, an "unlearning" element: the precedent we counted on for our understanding of the situation has suddenly failed us.

These "unlearning-learning processes" form the main subject of our 1978. They are illustrated by examples, given formal precision by mathematical means, and argued to be actually co-extensive with our concept of art itself. They are essentially pragmatical processes: they have to do with the effect of music and things like it. They are at a safe distance of both Scylla and Charybdis mentioned in 6.2. As an easy-to-grasp paradigm in music may serve the way a hearer understands a modulation. But it is important to stress their ubiquitousness in all and any music (cf. section 4.2 of the dissertation).

7.0 Communication

If the above claims hold water, music is used in our culture as a genuine means of communication. Communication is successfully achieved whenever musician and listener succeed in coordinating their behaviours, i.e. in relating what they play/hear to the same precedents. Characteristic of art, then, is the constant endangering of this communication, and (if and in as far as all goes well) the preserving of it throughout all these dangers. This aspect of our theory is specifically useful in providing an explanation of the emotional effects of music – if coupled with contemporary psychological theorizing on emotion (cf., e.g., Mandler, 1975). Art, in this perspective, always is something like a training in cognitive coping with cognitively "dangerous" situations, in re-structuring one's concepts in quick and effficient ways. Art-like situations (such as parents pulling faces and making strange noises in front of their infant children) are therefore of crucial importance for the growth of intelligence and, through it, for survival itself.


The reader is now in a position to form for himself a rough idea of the way we propose to model the musical communication situation. At the ground level, so to speak, there is the Lewisian formal theory of convention. As a superstructure we have our own formal description of the change-over from one conventional perspective to another. Both theories have been only approximately presented here, and, notably, the formal apparatus is lacking in both cases. To fill in this gap, the reader is referred to the first half of Lewis (1969) and our (1978), respectively. Both Lewis's and our approaches are along the lines of methodological individualism described above (0.2), and ought therefore to be able to provide us with the sort of minimal model those theories can give. It may be important, in this context, to note that to the musical communication situations proper, and which have formed the subject of this essay, must be added all and any communication situations people may have on the subject of musical communication situations they have shared or may come to share. On this matter, see section 0.0 of our 1978.


Lastly: is there a sense (and if so, what is it?) in which musical communication may be said to be "about" something?

In the first place, a piece of music is argued by us (1978, section 4.4) to have the status not of a message, but of a puzzle: precisely the ubiquitous change-overs from one code (convention) to another (cf above, 6.3) oblige us to make this theoretical move. But this is no reason to say that it cannot be "about" anything. Indeed, if we take any utterance (be it message or puzzle) to be "about" all concepts it uses-and-changes in its intended audience (and this seems, to us at least, a very sensible thing to do; cf. our 1978, section 4.4.5 and footnote) it becomes quite clear that music can be "about" many things. If we assume that 1) all auditory concepts can become musical concepts, and 2) there are no clear limits to the set of concepts that can become auditory (i.e. activated by auditory activity), we see why it would be quite unwise to legislate beforehand what music can be "about" and what not.

The problem as to why we do not say that music is about anything is taken by us to be quite trivial: given the preponderance, in number and in importance, in music, of non-verbal concepts, our verbal system simply refuses to admit of sentences it is not equipped to formulate. But non-verbal concepts are theoretically best construed, I think, as related to, interdependent with, verbal ones; let us not assume them to belong to some special sphere of their own, for this would involve us in some nasty theoretical diffficulties, e.g., where language learning is concerned (cf above, 3.2).

8.0 Towards a cognitive musicology

In taking stock, at the present date, of musicological approaches akin to ours as it is outlined here, there is one recent book which deserves our special attention; all the more so as it, in its turn, gives extensive attention to the present state of the discipline. We are referring to O.E. Laske (1977), published on an on demand basis in University Microfilms International's special Sponsor Series.


The book is a rather large one (about 300 well-filled pages) and, a certain amount of overlapping and repetition from one chapter to another notwithstanding, a dense one. Its verbal formulations are not always easy or comfortable, but they always reward the deciphering effort one invests in them. This is largely due to the courageous and uncompromising way the author goes about the task of setting out his new musicological paradigm. His is a predominantly optimistic, future-oriented outlook which I, for one, find quite refreshing, compared to the often somewhat stale and tired air one breathes in the "Systematische Musikwissenschaft"; and, in reading him, one easily forgives him a certain lack of parsimony he sometimes shows in annexing theoretical elements from neighbouring sciences in order to build up the interdisciplinary approach he advocates. His proposals, I think, are always sound in principle, and he has a right to count on interested fellow musicologists (and others) to help him in paring down to manageable and useful size the instrumentation borrowed from disciplines such as theoretical and experimental cognitive psychology.


Two or three examples to illustrate this.


In one case, Laske has provably bitten off more than he can chew, and that is where he seems to take a logical system to be just a notational device and not a calculus in its own right. This leads to simple inconsistency in the case of Figs 3.5 and 3.6, of which the first specifies a non-equivalence between and a∧c, and the other logically implies their equivalence. In this and the next chapter (where, happily, he avoids such logical pitfalls) he makes extensive use of the Bivalence Function scheme first introduced in our 1976, and treated in depth in our 1978. He calls the schema's substitution instances semantic networks. I think it important to warn the reader that they are not the musical parallel of, e.g., Anderson (1975)'s semantic networks modeling linguistic semantic competence, which are part of semantic memory. They must rather, I conjecture, be located in episodic memory; the conceptual apparatus embodied by them will eventually, in some suitably condensed or altogether changed form, come available in semantic memory. (Episodic memory is (roughly) the memory that associates concepts to the contexts they actually were activated in in my personal experience: it embodies my biography; semantic memory relates them to concepts usefully activated at the same time. (cf. also Tulving, 1972 and Kintsch, 1974.) Both memories are long term; and I think that we will need specifically a model that will link up episodes of my biography (i.c. learning situations) with eventually available conceptual structures (concepts stored in "stand-by" position in semantic memory).)


The reader must not misunderstand the tenor of these discussions. Laske's Music, Memory and Thought is an important book, often brilliant and always stimulating. It ought to be compulsory reading for all musicologists presently working in the field of systematic musicology. As an "examen de conscience" of the discipline it is absolutely capital, and, moreover, it presents the reader with a wealth of fruitful ideas which the future will prove, I take it, to have been substantially right.


Anderson, J.R. (1976). Language, Memory and Thought. New York etc. (LEA, Wiley)

Blaukopf, K. (1972). Musiksoziologie. Niederteufen. (Arthur Niggli)

Brodbeck, M. (ed.) (1968). Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. New York (Macmillan)

Fodor, J.A. (1975). The Language of Thought. New York (Crowell)

Gibson, J.J. (1966). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston (Houghton Mifflin)

Goldmann, L. (1970). Marxisme et Sciences Humaines. Paris (NRF)

Hintikka, J. (1969). Models for Modalities. Dordrecht/Boston (Reidel)

Hintikka, J. (1975). The Intentions of Intentionality and Other New Models for Modalities. Dordrecht/Boston (Reidel)

Kintsch, W. (1974). The Representation of Meaning in Memory. Hillsdale, N.J. (Lawrence Erlbaum)

Kunst, J. (1976). Making Sense in Music I: the Use of Mathematical Logic, in: Interface V: 1 pp. 3-68.

Kunst, J. (1978). Making Sense in Music: an Enquiry into the Formal Pragmatics of Art. Ghent (Communication & Cognition)

Laske, O.E. (1977). Music, Memory and Thought . Ann Arbor, Mich., (University Microfilms)

Lewis, D.K. (1969). Convention. Cambridge, Mass. (Harvard U. P.)

Lewis, D.K. (1975). Languages and Language, in: K. Gunderson (ed) Language, Mind and Knowledge. Minneapolis (Univ. of Minnesota Press)

Mandler, G. (1975). Mind and Emotion. New York, etc. (Wiley)

Mooij, J.J.A. (1972). On Literature and the Reader's Beliefs, in: Dichter und Leser, pp. 143-150.

Rollin, B. E. (1976) Natural and Conventional Meaning. The Hague (Mouton)

Ryan, A. (ed.) (1973). The Philosophy of Social Explanation. Oxford (O.U.P.)

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and Semantic Memory, in: Tulving & Donaldson (eds.) Organization of Memory. New York (Academic Press).

* Because, with respect to a number of opinions some of Lewis's critics have imputed to him, we do not always feel that they should be endorsed by him, but, on the other hand, are not clear whether he does so or not, we will here state some positions of our own which are particularly relevant to our purposes.

  1. Truthfulness-and-trust-in-L is conceived by us as (albeit indirectly) observable behaviour. We always communicate with people in a context; they are always observable to us in a way which relates them to the world. Truthfulness and trust in others are both, in a general way, verifiable to us. (In front of children learning the language, adults even take special care to draw attention to this fact.)
  2. Conventions represent coordination problems solved, and not being solved. Their solutions (i.e. the ensuing conventions) may be rigidly imposed on newcomers in the situation without therefore being any the less conventions. Children, in being educated and learning good manners, are forced to conform to a convention, and not to any other thing.
  3. Tyler Burge's example of the population that believes its own language to be the only possible one is taken by us to be an instance of convention. For we know its language to be the solution to a coordination problem having more than one solution, we know that their language has been formed by, among other things, certain random events people had to react to, which could have turned out to be otherwise, thereby inducing the people to shape a (slightly) different language. Precisely in as far as we admit that a language could have been different, we take it to be conventional.
  4. The borderlines between voluntary (conscious) and unvoluntary (unconscious) behaviour being as vague as they are, and considering the fact that behaviour one learns easily and well and practices often, may eventually, and even soon, come to need no more assistance from consciousness-as-a-trouble-shooter, we refuse the thesis that conventional behaviour cannot be but voluntary (cf Lewis (1969), p. 180).