“Sweet Sounds”: The Verbalization/Conceptualization of Music, Sound, and Aesthetic Experience

Music is rarely alone. It has always been in contact with language in a complex way. The linkage between music and language, between practice and philosophy, is the “most stable partnership” among all artistic media (Grüny, 2012), but also the “analogy most rich in tradition” within the study of music (Störel, 1997). Musical phenomena are tied to language and linguistic phenomena to music. And the question of the similarity and difference between these expressive modalities is historically in line with the effort to define each.

One way of inquiring into this relationship is to consider discourse about music itself. Although when it comes to details a great deal of different material, is hidden beneath the rubric of “music,” a widespread prevailing opinion is that “music” defies verbal access: that understanding and formulating what is perceptible and can be experienced in it, quickly leads language to its outer limits. Accordingly, it may be deduced that the semantic properties of language are insufficient to denote the core of musical expression, meaning, or experience. In this sense the verbalization of music presents itself as a more or less “futile effort to grasp concept-free musical thinking in a conceptual code” (Karbusicky, 1989). This idea of musical “ineffability” has become a strong topos.

According to Hanslick (1891), unlike visual art, music does not admit verbal description without being metaphorical. Consequently, we are obliged to speak of it either in technical terms or with the rhetorical means of “poetic fiction.” Hanslick further argues that there is no subject (“content”) outside of the musical form that warrants study: “The query of ‘what’ is the subject [content] of the music, must necessarily be answerable in words, if music really has a ‘subject’ because an ‘indefinite subject’ upon which everyone puts a different construction, which can only be felt and not translated is not a subject as we have defined it.” (Ibid., p. 162.)


Speaking about music is evidently a problem—or it is no problem, at least not a special one, for from a different perspective it is here hardly distinguishable from the general problem of speaking about something: “It is the same problem as the problem of speaking at all, which is not a problem that has ever caused anyone in normal circumstances to stop speaking.” (Kramer, 2013)

Aside and apart from the question of what in music can, might, or should find verbal expression, the forms of verbal confrontation and communication occupy an extraordinarily wide spectrum, so that there can hardly be any doubt that “people speak about music just as often and easily as they do about language or indeed about anything at all.” (Zbikowski, 2013)

Since the early nineteenth century, it has been possible to add another “problem” to that of speaking about music, described by Albrecht Wellmer (2009) as a “speaking that intrudes into music”: a process marked by the discourse chosen in each given context not being without consequences for music itself; and furthermore by the form of expression emerging in relation to something meant “within music,” and the type of verbal discourse “about music,” even being constitutive to a specific degree for “listening” to a musical “contents” or “expression.” Here language aimed in this way at tones that are perceived cannot be simply viewed as an “aesthetic response,” such as that expressed in the “aesthetically-emotionally” evaluative word “beautiful!” Rather, in the course of conceptualizing or categorizing, it anticipates the potential contained in what is perceptible in music. In addition, to a high degree it challenges creative verbal capacity—both on the side of language production, the verbalization of the material musically perceived and aesthetically experienced, and on the side of reception, the material’s decoding. Against this backdrop, linguistic creativity does not only consist of “finding the most precise possible formulations within existing genres” but “always also establishing new ways of speaking about music.” (Grüny, 2012).
The Ph.D. thesis-project on “Sweet Sounds” examines the form and function of language in the verbalization of the aesthetic experience of music, that verbalization’s qualities or characteristics.  Using a body of texts from the realm of musical aesthetics, and both press and online material, I will apply qualitative-quantitative methods stemming from linguistic analysis to explore the question of what verbal concepts, categories, and discursive factors are her effective. Beyond this the project is aimed at identifying frequencies and patterns of linguistic usage in music-related writing and at describing field-specific conceptual metaphors.

External research partner: Christian Bär