Peter Kivy’s Bach Bird Example, de Saussure, and the Already Present Significance of Music and Language

In Michael Krausz’s article, The Tonal and The Foundational:  Ansermet on Stravinsky, Krausz argues against Ansermet’s claim that Stravinsky’s atonal music is both sub-standard and unnatural.  Krausz approaches the issue from a non-foundationalist epistemology, “which assumes that there are no uninterpreted facts of the matter and no single ahistorical Archimedean interpretive framework from which we can make our cultural entities intelligible” (383).  To illustrate his point, Kraus cites Peter Kivy’s example of the “Bach-bird,” whose song brings to Kivy’s mind, Bach’s Little Organ Fugue in C.

While my musical consciousness is busy fitting the Bach-bird’s song into a possible Western notation, based on major and minor seconds, the Indian’s musical psyche is just as busy accommodating it to the world of microtones.  Does he hear the cheerfulness of the Bach-bird’s song?  Why should he?  He doesn’t hear the same ‘music’ in it that I do.  I should no more expect him to hear the cheerfulness in the Bach-bird’s song than the cheerfulness of Bach’s fugue.  For he would need my musical culture to hear both of them; and that, by hypothesis, he does not have” (Peter Kivy, The Corded Shell, p. 92, as cited in Krausz, 383).

Kivy’s point is that in light of the fact that scales in the Western musical tradition are based on sequential patterns either alternating between major and minor seconds or composed of either major seconds (whole-tone scale) or minor seconds (chromatic scale), we in the West are accustomed to hearing music whose harmonies and melodies are based on these particular scales.  In Indian and other non-Western music, the scales themselves are different and contain, as Kivy observes, “microtones,” that is, intervals smaller than minor seconds.  Consequently, the harmonies and melodies derived from non-Western scales sound very different from those based on major and minor seconds.  For many musically socialized in the West, Indian music sounds dissonant or out of tune; however, to those having grown-up listening to Indian or non-Western music whose scales contain microtones, the same music is considered consonant and beautiful.

Kivy’s observations seem analogous to Ferdinand de Saussure’s claims regarding language.  That is, according to de Saussure, every meaningful sound is immediately connected with a certain concept. When I say the word “tree” to a community of English language speakers, this word/sign doesn’t somehow connect with a distinct universal concept “tree” shared by human beings. Rather, when I say tree to my fellow competent English-speakers, the sign is already meaningful—it already signifies.  This is the point de Saussure makes when he claims that the sign is composed of two parts: the signifier (the “sound-image”) and the signified (the concept). By itself, the signifier signifies nothing.  Stated otherwise, the signifier (“sound-image”) always signifies in connection with the signified (concept). This is markedly different from an Aristotelian view of language.  For Aristotle, concepts are shared by all human beings and can be arrived at through a process of abstraction.  Aristotle does acknowledge that the particular word that one might attach to a universal concept is conventional and depends upon one’s culture and language community.  Thus, if I am Russian, I will attach the word “дерево” to the concept, tree; if I am Czech, I will attach the word “strom,” to the same concept. This view suggests that there is a kind of universal language of concepts that maps on at a later stage to particular, spoken languages.  De Saussure finds this untenable, as we think in particular languages, whose words derive their meanings from within or internal to the language system itself. Moreover, de Saussure highlights the non-necessary connection between the mental image of an object and a particular word in a spoken language.  In other words, to the question, “why is the mental image of this object possessing leaves and a trunk associated with the word “tree” in English?”, de Saussure answers, “it is a social convention.” This is not to say that one individual within a particular language community can call an object whatever he or she decides to call it. As Heidegger might put it, we are, after all, thrown into our language communities and find ourselves already immersed within a language that, as it were, has us. Similarly, de Saussure’s point is once you are “in” a particular language community, the arbitrary origin of the connection becomes stable and even something to which I, as an individual member of that community, must submit.

4 thoughts on “Peter Kivy’s Bach Bird Example, de Saussure, and the Already Present Significance of Music and Language”

  1. An interesting, provocative thesis, far more detailed than my own far less specific thoughts along similar lines. Of course, once can learn a second, third, even fifth and sixth language, just as one can find beauty in non-western music, which confirms the conventionality of aesthetic preference without robbing such judgments of their force.

    I am adding you to my blogroll because you do what I wish I could do, and you do it better.

  2. This is a great post.

    More and more as I learn French, German, and Greek, I can find the import of Saussure’s argument. The relationship (or, often, non-relationship) these languages have with English (my native tongue) is very dissonant. And the music analogy is quite illuminating.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. Hi Aaron, I had a similar experience when I lived in Moscow, Russia and began speaking Russian on a daily basis. The intimate relationship between language and concepts becomes evident.

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