Reflections on Musical Meaning and its Representations

Publication Type:



Leo Treitler


Musical Meaning and Interpretation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, p.317 (2011)


Ars nova, exegetics, linguistics, music literacy, notation, orality, performance, plainchant, rhythm and meter


 Leo Treitler’s focus here is in creating a synthetic understanding between the language, performance, notation, and interpretation of music, and not necessarily in any particular order. The chapters are divided into four sections devoted to each of these topics, but this division is not categorical, as each chapter deals simultaneously with all of them. One sees in the work the goal to create a paradigm of understanding how the performance, language, and notation of music relate to and inform each other, ‘always with reference to specific local historical forces and circumstances’ (103). This programme is often carried out by drawing attention to flaws in the dichotomy of viewing symbols of musical reproduction as either ‘denotation’ or ‘exemplification’, arguing for a synthesis wherein both inform each other. These terms in many ways mirror the dichotomy between the linguistic terms ‘constantive’ and ‘performative’, but Treitler avoids using them.
Most of the chapters are culled from previous articles and chapters published between 1989 and 2008, with the two chapters from the third section, titled 'Notation', appearing in published form for the first time. However, the essays are well worth revisiting in this context, having received at times significant revision to draw upon each other and to provide postscripts offering valuable hindsight.
The first three chapters deal broadly with music, language, the process of encoding information into writing. Noting the common duality in which extramusical descriptions of music are often discarded as being without any useful meaning, while still allowing room for extramusical expression markings to be taken seriously as encoders of quantitative musical properties (such as mesto), Treitler draws on the historiography of linguistics and philosophy to disregard the traditional argument of music being ‘unique’ among the senses in its ‘ineffableness’ (46). In its stead he links the associative power of human cognition in activities as far-flung as language acquisition and the descriptive ‘notation’ of wine tasting to suggest a revised, much broader definition of music notation which allows for qualitative descriptions about the music. These descriptive signifiers act in their own way as much as ‘traditional’ notation does: ‘Having once learned them, we are alerted by those words [or signs] to experience their referents’ (67).
The second section, made up of two chapters—one on medieval song, and the other on early recordings of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas—makes extensive use of the theoretical framework set out in the previous section. Treitler touches on arguments here that, when taken as a whole, imply that our narrow definition of notation has often led to a mislead assumption that our own understanding of musical representation (e.g., the accurate and reproducable transcription of pitch and rhythm) were equally important to the transcribers of medieval song. His argument, of course, is not limited to medieval notation but to the performance of music in general—still, it lends itself with great facility to the field of medieval musicology.
In the third section Treitler deals specifically with definitions and conceptions of music notation. Chapter 6, 'What Kind of Thing Is Musical Notation?', is by far the longest in the book, and brings together much material from the previous chapters. Treitler's argument here is against the conceptual separation on one side of notation as a mimetic, graphical system that imitates musical ‘reality’ by encoding that reality into a transferable copy or log, and on the other side, notation as a conventional, essentially textual system that arbitrarily encodes instructions which, in turn, are themselves significative systems of understanding that thing which is the imminent reality of performance (esp. 112-13). The implications of this in medieval scholarship are made apparent using two of his demonstrations: firstly, in the piano parts of pieces by Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms, the composers rely on conventions which are either impossible to perform (or impossible not to perform), yet remain important to the score because they carry an intuitive significance to pianists in how they react to those signs (142-46); secondly, he walks through several proofs demonstrating that the vertical-horizontal pitch arrangement of western notation is a system in which a 'musical item is not… an array of pitches but… a configuration of functions' (147). These demonstrations have allowed Treitler to discuss 13th-century rhythmic notation, for example, in a context in which their mnemonic role is 'fundamental', relying on similar brain functions that allow someone to read a line of poetry and intuit its rhythmic devices by a mixture of memory, temporal relationships between groups of syllables along a preconceived metric structure, and performance convention (152-53).
His discussion of the nature of music notation extends into the next chapter, where he draws up a short historiography of the idea of the musical sketch as an unfinished document pointing toward a later, ‘finished’ work. Treitler questions the utility of examining sketches in this way, tied as it is to 19th-century aesthetic models of which musicologists have come to be wary, and instead offers a view in which western notation ‘beginning in the 9th century’ was at its execution never intended to be anything other than a musical sketch, a ‘document [of] a performance practice’ (167-68). In the act of writing down the music, he argues, musicians were ‘forced to recognize properties and problems of the tradition that they could not have conceived and would not have confronted in the oral tradition’ (165-66); here one can add, ‘in the oral tradition alone’, as throughout the book Treitler relies on the (quite defendable) implication that musical notation in any form is heavily so—in many cases even primarily so—on conventional understandings which presumably could only be developed through an oral tradition (for lack of a more fitting term).