10 August 2009

Does the Song Want to be Sung?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:39 pm

In our extended discussion on the previous post about memes, kvond and I focused quite a bit of attention on whether a song is an object unto itself and, if so, what sort of object it might be. Now I’m thinking about memic dissemination. It’s been proposed that memes, like genes, propagate themselves as a means of survival and domination of the memetic environment. Memes that successfully occupy people’s brains reproduce and thrive; those that don’t, don’t. In singing the song I am presumably cooperating with the song’s agenda for spreading itself virally through brains.

Certainly the song is a cause of my listening to it and singing it, inasmuch as I would never sing or play a particular song I’ve never heard. Repetition aids learning, so the more often the song is played in my hearing, the more firmly it gets inscribed in my memory and the better I can reproduce it in performance.  And the song may have affordances that attract my attention to itself: it appeals to my tastes, or it appeals to the tastes of others I hang with or admire.

But does the song want me to listen and sing? At first blush the premise seems ridiculous. Gravity is a cause of my not flying up off the ground, and gravity it attracts me to the earth, but it’s not personal, not intentional. Like gravity, a song is inanimate; it’s an abstract pattern of frequencies and intervals and rhythms: how can it want anything? I don’t believe it can. But maybe the song can serve as a conduit for conveying a human desire for me to listen to the song.

Suppose I want you to click onto one of my old posts. I could type an explicit request: please visit such-and-such a post. Or I could try enticing you by pointing out the post’s affordances: there’s something really extraordinary written in that old post that’s right up your alley. While the former tactic is more direct than the latter, they’re both indirect. I’m not forcing you to go see that old post, like gravity forces me down to the earth. Instead I’m using language as a mediator to convey my desire. And it’s not even an immediate mediation, as would be the case if we were talking face to face or over the telephone. There may be a gap of hours or days or even longer between the time I express my desire textually and the time you receive it. My message looks like a stand-alone textual “object,” but maybe it’s better to regard it as a delayed communique, conveying not just information but my desire.

A song could work the same way. The composer imbues a song with personal expressions of beauty and affect and maybe even truth, which he wants to convey through the song to the listener. For the communication to complete its circuit, the listener has to hear the song. And so the composer imbues the song with musical affordances for attracting the listener’s attention. Even if there’s a long delay in transmission, even if someone other than the composer performs the song, even if the performance is transmitted to the listener by electronic recording, even if there’s a delay of decades between composition and listening, the song still carries within itself the original communicative intent of the composer, including his desire that the song be heard. The song isn’t just an autonomous object; it’s an extension of the composer’s agency and intentionaliy. The song wants to be heard because it carries within itself the composer’s’ desire.

I recognize that this view is sort of old-fashioned. Next thing you know I’ll be proposing a hermeneutic of song that focuses not just on the song itself but on compositional intent. What is the composer saying? Among other things he’s saying this: listen to my song.



  1. I like that you focused on song specifically in this larger topic of memes, philosophy always seems more ripe when it has certain specific phenomena to consider. And there’s much to consider, why are certain songs “catchy,” how do we get these ohrwurms, (ear worms) as they are called in German. Why does some really sticky song get stuck in one’s head at a certain time, out of the blue? Songs seem to be mood enhancers, so that we gravitate towards melody to feel better both individually and as groups, we consume song because music expands our being, or at least carries us somewhere radically different than where we were before we pushed play. With music we self-medicate and become less alien to each other, groups of people in dance find a way to gracefully organize into something more than a lone entity, whether it’s Swan Lake, the mosh pit of the Macarena.

    Just as we have centers in our brains entrained for language development, we must also have parts that make sense of music, and in many ways humans are like songbirds. So I guess what I’m saying is that you can’t go too far with this discussion without taking into consideration the value of music in human biological history, our evolution as social beings and the functioning of the self. That’s not to say that there’s aren’t also times that call for a hermeneutic of song.

    Comment by Amarilla — 11 August 2009 @ 5:22 am

  2. Grammatically, one wants to separate out the “body” (the object), as a noun, and the “soul” (the action, the intention) as a verb. Do you think that this grammatical tendency is ontological? Do you separate out the “song” from its “songingness”? The song, from “what it wants”?

    Generally, I think it a mistake to parse the one from the other, the object from its want or desire. It is a mistake that has lead to innumerable and long lasting philosophical (and perhaps psychological) problems.

    Comment by kvond — 11 August 2009 @ 8:17 am

  3. “taking into consideration the value of music in human biological history, our evolution as social beings and the functioning of the self.”

    Interesting thought, Amarilla. Steven Pinker contends that, evolutionarily speaking, music is an enigma, offering no survival advantage. That observation is essential to Dawkins’ and Dennett’s case for memes: the memes are pursuing their own survival, not the survival of their hosts. But Pinker does tie music to human biology, not as a survivalist essential but as “auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.” Those faculties are language, “auditory scene analysis” (high-end hifi guys talk about a system’s “sound staging,” where the sound seems to be emanating from a 3-D space populated by different instruments occupying different places in the room), emotional calls (what you highlighted, A.), habitat selection (like movie soundtracks, which sonically convey the sense of the framed scene’s s danger or uncertainty or sexuality), motor control (the rhythm section), and what Pinker calls “something else” — the emergent quality of the whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

    Comment by john doyle — 11 August 2009 @ 8:39 am

  4. “Generally, I think it a mistake to parse the one from the other”

    I tend to agree, kvond. The body/soul split you’re proposing distinguishes between what something IS and what it DOES. This bifurcation, notably, is exactly what Harman does in his object-oriented dualism, where objects interact with each other all the time but where the essence of an object never enters into these interactions. In the preceding post I was contending that a song IS a stable pattern of interrelated tones and rhythms and intervals, an object that occupies space-time in a distinct way as an abstract object. But one could just as legitimately say that the song actively empatterns the world: the song differentiates time-space; it DOES.

    A song-object doesn’t perform itself, but it does afford listening-to and playing and singing and emoting and moving rhythmically and picturing soundscapes in one’s head and so on — actions performed not by the song but by the human singer/player/listener. The memeticists and the object-oriented guys and the immanentists all seem to agree that the song is acting on the human in these ways. The song is a cause of its being sung; implicitly and sometimes explicitly this causality is intentional or close to it: the song wants to be sung. I’m sceptical about assigning that degree of agency to the song, as if it’s actively luring and animating the singer. But if verbness or soul permeates the Substance of the world, then there’s no reason not to say that Substance’s intrinsic intentionality is flowing through the song, just as it flows through the singer. Again, I’m not persuaded, but I’m working it through a bit more.

    Comment by john doyle — 11 August 2009 @ 9:20 am

  5. John: “A song-object doesn’t perform itself, but it does afford listening-to and playing and singing and emoting and moving rhythmically and picturing soundscapes in one’s head and so on — actions performed not by the song but by the human singer/player/listener.”

    Kvond: There are times that is pays to say “The dancer is moving to the music” and there are times when it seems more right to say, “The music is moving the dancer”. I can see no categorical, indeed ontological reason why one should always have priority over the other.

    Comment by kvond — 11 August 2009 @ 10:57 am

  6. I agree that the music can move the dancer, Kvond, just as gravity can keep me on the ground and a passing mountain lion can have me for dinner and a neighbor can give me some homemade spring rolls. All of these events occurred through outside agency. The question has to do with intentionality. I presume that the neighbor wants to give me the spring rolls, but does gravity want to keep me on the earth? I presume that a song can just come to mind or get played on the radio station I’m listening to, but does the song try to get into my mind or to get air time? That’s the premise of memes: there’s something like memic intentionality, wanting to get distributed and reproduced. It’s similar to the “selfish gene” argument, where the gene wants to propagate itself through bodies. Does the Ford Escort want to populate the garages and roads of America, so that the car gets investors to build factories to manufacture copies of itself?

    Comment by john doyle — 11 August 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  7. “The music is moving the dancer”.

    and what about the Lacanian/linguistic insight that this is in fact a METAPHOR? I’m sorry Kvond I would not dream of imposing on your Spinozism with such lascivious thoughts.

    Comment by Dejan — 11 August 2009 @ 2:25 pm

  8. Eloise we simply must use this platform to elaborate on our enormous narcissism as a consequence of Dr. Sinthome’s acceptance and affirmation, perhaps even admiration, and that the wonderful bouqet of compliments the cat delivered made all that toiling on her public relations that I performed in the past two years absolutely worthwhile.

    Comment by Dejan — 12 August 2009 @ 3:00 pm

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