What is Musical Meaning? Theorizing Music as Performative Utterance

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Andrew Chung


In this article, I theorize a new conception of musical meaning, based on J. L. Austin's theory of performative utterances in his treatise How to Do Things with Words. Austin theorizes language meaning pragmatically: he highlights the manifold ways language performs actions and is used to "do things" in praxis, thereby suggesting a new theoretic center for language meaning, an implication largely developed by others after his death. This article theorizes an analogous position that locates musical meaning in the use of music "to do things," which may include performing actions such as reference and disclosure, but also includes, in a theoretically rigorous fashion, a manifold of other semiotic actions performed by music to apply pressure to its contexts of audition. I argue that while many questions have been asked about meanings of particular examples of music, a more fundamental question has not been addressed adequately: what does meaning mean? Studies of musical meaning, I argue, have systematically undertheorized the ways in which music as interpretable utterance can create, transform, maintain, and destroy aspects of the world in which it participates. They have largely presumed that the basic units of sense when it comes to questions of musical meaning consist of various messages, indexes, and references encoded into musical sound and signifiers. Instead, I argue that a considerably more robust analytic takes the basic units of sense to be the various acts that music, in being something interpretable, performs or enacts within its social/situational contexts of occurrence. Ultimately, this article exposes and challenges a deep-seated Western bias towards equating meaning with forms of reference, representation, and disclosure. Through the performative theory of musical utterance as efficacious action, it proposes a unified theory of musical meaning that bridges gaps between musical reference on the one hand, and musical effects on the other. It offers a way to understand musical meaning in ways that are deeply contextual (both socially and structurally): imbricated with the human practices that not only produce music but are produced by it in the face of its communicative capacities. I build theoretically with the help of various examples drawn largely from tonal repertoires, and I follow with lengthier analytical vignettes focused on experimental twentieth and twenty-first century works.

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