Dissertation Index

Author: Buhler, James

Title: Informal Music Analysis: A Critique of Formalism, Semiology, and Narratology As Discourses on Music

Institution: University of Pennsylvania

Begun: January 2006

Completed: May 1996


This dissertation investigates the relation of language to music. In particular, it probes the manner in which discursive claims on music are adjudicated: How do we apply critical and analytical language to musical works and what limits do we encounter simply because this language cannot be the work itself?

Chapter 1 defines the basic problem field that any representation of music must traverse and looks especially at the difficulties of translating music adequately into language. Chapters 2 through 4 offer critical close readings of Hanslick's formalism, the musical narratology of Kramer and Newcomb, and the semiology of Nattiez. Each of these chapters shows how a basic conceptual confusion leads to a loss of potential insights into the problems of constructing an adequate discourse on music. These close readings culminate in chapter 5, which draws on the work of Abbate and Adorno to argue for an "informal" mode of analysis. Informal analysis is an ad-hoc but still rigorously theorized analytical eclecticism that is able to appropriate the central insights of traditional analytical methods while redeploying them so as to increase critical depth.

Chapters 6 and 7 present "informal" analyses of works by Mahler and Tchaikovsky. Chapter 6 offers an extensive discussion of the key ideological presumptions grounding the metaphysics of sonata form. The informal analysis of chapter 7 serves a dual function. First, it is a critique of Langer's notion of absolute music, which shows that Langer must in fact presuppose the priority of program music despite her explicit intentions. Second, the analysis in this chapter develops a nuanced theory of musical bombast, where bombast is understood as something other than a simple sign of artistic failure.

Keywords: Analysis, Semiology, Semiotics, Formalism, Narratology, Critical Theory, Absolute Music, Program Music, Sonata Form


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