The Body in the Music: Epistemology and Musical Semiotics

October 1, 1991

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," the saying goes.1 If music scholars were to accept this analogy completely, we would all have to resign our commissions; yet we can appreciate the sentiments and experiences that give rise to it. Both music and language are meaningful to us, but they seem to be fundamentally different sorts of discourse. We can use language to describe musical processes or effects, but we usually find that propositional statements about music are clumsy compared to the efficiency of the music itself, and the feeling persists that much remains unaccounted for, no matter how lengthy the explanation. Ethnomusicologists have worked at the epistemological relationship of music and language for decades; I am belaboring the problem here because the recent work of philosopher Mark Johnson provides useful new ways of reconceiving the nature of both musical and linguistic meaning. After sketching Johnson's theorization of a bodily basis to all human meaning, I will apply this perspective to a specific musical text and context.

The 1970s were the heyday of ethnomusicology's involvement with linguistics. Adopting the Saussurean assumption that symbols are arbitrary, musical scholars reasoned that (as Bruno Nettl summarized this position) "If all music is a system of symbols, one ought to be able to analyze it in a way similar to or derived from the accepted analysis of the intellectual grandfather of symbol systems, human language."2 Spurred especially by interdisciplinary acclaim for Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology, musicologists and ethnomusicologists leapt at analytical models from linguistics and semiotics, adapting them for the study of musical structures, musical grammars, and musics as symbolic systems. The results, for the most part, included disappointingly few useful insights, in spite of a great many breathtakingly intricate charts and thrilling, cryptic abbreviations. As Steven Feld pointed out in 1974, during the midst of the linguistics craze, there was little real theorizing going on as to the relevance of linguistic models for the study of music.3 Scholars were attracted by the promise and appearance of scientific rigor and precision, but they gave little thought to the price they paid, which was the customary one for formalist prestige—abstraction; that is, abstraction of musical structures out of the richness and social complexity of musical practices. Feld, himself trained in linguistics, asserted that most of this work was little more than trendy dabbling, yielding only fancy new ways to describe musical sound, instead of explaining it. Despite the later development of structuralist thought in anthropology, then, this work seemed to run counter to ethnomusicology's fundamental commitment to an anthropological interest in musical culture, to studying musical activities as well as musical structures.

After studying Johnson's work, it seems to me that the uneasy fit of musical practices and linguistic theory is the result of epistemological tensions: on the one hand, the often very satisfying intuitions we gain from ethnography, listening to music, and performing it; and on the other, the understanding of all meaning as abstract and propositional that we inherit from the dominant philosophical tradition of the West. Philosophers since Descartes have worked to justify and naturalize an essential split between mind and body, reason and sensation, with incalculable consequences for the history of the West. Johnson's project necessarily begins with a critique of "Objectivism," as he calls it, this Western bias towards abstract reason. From the point of view of his theory of meaning, the problem of the poor fit of linguistics and ethnomusicology appears not as a fault in our conception of music that makes greater scientific precision necessary (however difficult), but rather as a mistaken view of language as an arbitrary, abstract system which leads to attempts to make over music in its image.

To treat music as an abstract symbolic code is to accept the suggestions of arbitrariness and abstractness that come with the word "code." To work toward deciphering music in this sense is, as Pierre Bourdieu says, "to forget that the work of art always contains something ineffable, not by excess, as hagiography would have it, but by default, something which communicates, so to speak, from body to body, i.e. on the hither side of words or concepts, and which pleases (or displeases) without concepts."4 Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European theorists of aesthetics such as Kant and Schopenhauer had maintained that music transcended verbal communication, that it lifted the listener up out of the mundane plane of language toward a mystical experience of the Sublime or the Beautiful; Bourdieu here gestures toward a conception of music that would ground its operations below the level of verbal propositions.5 This is the direction of Mark Johnson's work, and after outlining more specifically certain aspects of Johnson's theory of meaning, I will apply this perspective to a particular repertoire as a way to suggest that Johnson's work has important implications for studies of how people articulate social meanings through music.


The Body in the Mind

The Body in the Mind, published in 1987, is Mark Johnson's challenge to the Cartesian split between mind and body that covertly underpins virtually all Western discussions of meaning. In opposition to centuries of abstract reasoning, Johnson insists that our reasoning is embodied. "Our reality," he says, "is shaped by the patterns of our bodily movement, the contours of our spatial and temporal orientation, and the forms of our interaction with objects. It is never merely a matter of abstract conceptualization and propositional judgements."6 The mental and the physical cannot be separated, Johnson argues, for the body is in the mind.

Consider, for example, the phenomenon of balance. No one can teach you how to ride a bicycle through words alone. Bike riding can be learned, but only experientially; this is simply not a type of knowledge that can be communicated propositionally. The relevant processes and forces may be described very precisely by scientific propositions, but no amount of propositional language is sufficient to convey the basic skills of bike riding. Johnson argues that concepts come after, and are based upon, these sorts of experiences, so that when, for example, we balance a checkbook, weigh our options, or blow off steam in order to stay on an even keel, we are conceptualizing our activities in terms of our physical experiences with balance. Balancing is an activity we learn with our bodies, preconceptually, and our abstract concept of balance emerges from that experience.

The Body in the Mind directly challenges the common view that only words and sentences can have "meanings," and that meaning must be propositional—that is, linguistic and abstract. In Johnson's view, linguistic meaning is only a special case in a broader view of meaningfulness, and language is itself dependent on metaphors and prelinguistic schematic structures. Human experiences of meaningfulness, he argues, are grounded at the level of prelinguistic structures which organize our experience and comprehension, which he calls "image schemata." Image schemata are not concepts; they are patterns of activity, and they "emerge as meaningful structures for us chiefly at the level of our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions."7 These schemata are "prelinguistic" not because they become superceded by language, but because they are fundamental mechanisms of meaning production that inform the more abstract operations of language and conceptual thinking.

I would like to consider in more detail only one of the major image schemata discussed by Johnson, one which I think is particularly relevant for the study of musical meaning. This is the schema that underpins the concept of "force," one of the most basic structures of experience that organize our perception and thought. As Johnson says, "In order to survive as organisms, we must interact with our environment. All such causal interaction requires the exertion of "force," either as we act upon other objects, or as we are acted upon by them. Therefore, in our efforts at comprehending our experience, structures of force come to play a central role. Since our experience is held together by forceful activity, our web of meanings is connected by the structures of such activity."8

The concept of force arises out of many kinds of bodily experience. We have bodies that are acted upon by many kinds of forces: gravity, wind, and the impingement of external objects and other living beings, as well as the forces we experience internally, as the body maintains its dynamic equilibrium: pulse, respiration, burping. "Such interactions," Johnson points out, "constitute our first encounters with forces, and they reveal patterned recurring relations between ourselves and our environment. Such patterns develop as meaning structures through which our world begins to exhibit a measure of coherence, regularity, and intelligibility."9 Soon we learn that we can be sources of force ourselves; we learn to manipulate our environment and our bodies, to grab things, to pull ourselves through space. We eventually formulate a concept of "force," and learn to articulate it through language, but it is grounded in our preconceptual physical experiences.

Johnson argues that metaphor links these bodily image schemata to language. Metaphor, in this view, occupies a central place in the production of human meaning. It is not merely a kind of poetic expression or a literary figure of speech; rather, metaphor is a crucial process for generating meaning, whereby we come to understand one area of experience in terms of another.10 It is by means of metaphor that image-schematic structures are extended, transformed, and elaborated into domains of meaning that seem less directly tied to the body, including language, abstract reasoning, and, I argue, music. Metaphor mediates between bodily experience, on the one hand, and discourses of language and music, on the other.

Attempts to explain "music as metaphor" have appeared with some regularity, but they have not yet been convincingly theorized. Metaphorical interpretations appear to many scholars to be arbitrary: the images you describe in response to a piece of music may be wholly unlike those I would use, and a Cartesian or positivistic orientation would then declare meaning, in this sense, subjective and out of bounds. This view had a parallel in the area of philosophical debate, in Gottlob Frege's declaration that products of imagination are valid only for the mind that entertains them.11 Yet ethnomusicologists have proven the value of metaphorical approaches: think of John Chernoff's insights into African rhythm and African values, Christopher Small's appraisals of musical relationships and social relationships, or Steven Feld's careful explication of the metaphorical links among Kaluli music, sentiment, and interpretations of the natural environment.12

In rebuttal to the Objectivist rejection of metaphor, Johnson stresses that meanings at the level of image schemata and metaphor are grounded in physical and social experience that is shared. He argues that image schemata "can have a public, objective character.... because they are recurring structures of embodied human understanding."13 Johnson presents his theory of image schemata and metaphoric links as a solution to what he sees as the false dichotomy between objectivist absolutism and "anything goes" relativism. That is, meanings are neither objectively inherent nor subjectively arbitrary; they arise out of human experiences of social interaction with a material world. Image schemata are at once general human mechanisms for the production of meaning, and culturally specific. For this reason, our experiences of our bodies and the rest of the material world are themselves mediated by language and other aspects of culture.


The Body in the Music

Musicians have long recognized the nonpropositional nature of what they do: "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn," Charlie Parker claimed, and "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," according to Duke Ellington.14 These statements are quite different from European aesthetic mystifications, for they locate hard-to-define meanings not in some imaginary transcendent realm, but in social (lived) experience and in the human body (swing). Next I would like to turn to a discussion of how metaphor connects image schemata specifically with music. Johnson's theory enables a great many interesting projects to be undertaken; many kinds of music could be studied in terms of the many schemata he identifies. But because timbre is perhaps the least successfully theorized and analyzed of musical parameters, I have chosen a type of music in which timbre is crucial, and in which it seems linked to the force schema. It is also a type of music which has received little analytical attention, yet which has been of great importance to millions of people. I propose to begin exploring the productivity of Johnson's ideas by examining the manifestation of the force schema in musical timbre, in the distortion used by electric guitarists in contemporary popular music, beginning with the genre of heavy metal.

Heavy metal guitarists pay almost fanatical attention to their "sound"the qualities of timbre and distortion created by their playing techniques and equipment. The crucial factors in electric sound production are the pickups of the guitar and the amplifier, and many manufacturers compete to offer the player the crucial sound. Their advertisements are useful documents, because they establish links between sound quality and the music's desired effects. For example, this description accompanies a forbidding picture of an explosion inside a vacuum tube:

One Word. Tube. Musicians call it The Sound. It's what matters in your music; It cannot be measured by watts or metered distortion, only by ear. Yours. The Classic Tube Sound. Overlord has harnessed the sound by using a genuine vacuum tube. It will give your music the power and mystery, color and range of the classic tube sound. Fire over to your music store and hear the sound in your soul. But beware, for Overlord takes no prisoners.15

The ad copy employs short, blunt sentences and a menacing tone to evoke a mysterious, powerful aura for what is, in fact, a little metal box. The distortion device, a means to an aural end, is evidently associated with social fantasies and experiences of power.16

The problem I want to address here is that of theorizing the link between acoustical phenomena and other realms of human experience. Mark Johnson's theory of embodied meaning would suggest that an attempt to discover how distortion signifies should begin with a search for metaphorical links with image schemata. From the explicit claims of such advertisements and from the images used to reinforce them, it appears that the force schema might be a good place to start. First, we must investigate the material base of guitar distortion—how it is produced—and consider, too, its relationship to other instances of distortion that we know from the physical and cultural world, asking: what experiences of distortion do we have that might connect it metaphorically with the image schema of force?

The bodily basis for understanding distortion extends to many areas, for we experience the phenomenon of distortion in many situations. For people who use audio equipment, the relationship of distortion to extreme power is familiar: a small radio turned on full blast, a portable cassette player booming cacophonously, a malfunctioning stereo system. This electronic distortion results when components are overdriven—required to amplify or otherwise modify a signal beyond their capacities to do so "cleanly." Historically, such distortion has been regarded as undesirable, and generations of audio engineers have joined in the quest for perfect audio fidelity, laboring to eliminate all types of distortion while increasing power-handling capabilities. To their horror, engineers, in the mid 1960s began to receive requests from guitar players to produce devices that would deliberately add electronic distortion. Despite its previous status as undesirable noise, at this historical moment, such distortion was now becoming a desirable sign in an emerging musical discourse.

Like electronic circuitry, the human body can produce aural distortion through excessive power. Human screams and shouts are usually accompanied by vocal distortion, as the capacities of the vocal chords are exceeded. Heavy metal vocalists distort their voices deliberately for the same reasons that guitar players distort their guitars. Vocalists project energy and power by overdriving their voices (or by artfully seeming to do so). Thus, distortion functions as a sign of extreme power and intense expression by overflowing its channels and materializing the exceptional effort that produces it. Of course, this is not to say that distortion always and everywhere functions this way; guitar distortion has become a conventional sign that is open to transformation and multiple meanings. Heavy metal distortion is linked semiotically with other experiences of distortion, but it is only at a particular historical moment that distortion begins to be perceived in terms of power rather than failure, intentional transgression rather than accidental overload—as music rather than noise.

Overdriving an amplifier actually creates two main effects: harmonic distortion and signal compression. The latter translates aurally as sustain; while a note played on an acoustic guitar or an non-overdriven electric guitar decays quickly, a heavily distorted guitar signal is compressed and fed back so that a note, once struck, can be held indefinitely, with no loss of energy or volume. Since sustain of anything, in material terms, always requires effort, the distorted guitar sound signifies power not only through its distorted timbre, but also through this display of unflagging capacity for emission. Heavy metal vocalists also produce long sustained notes as signs of intensity and power; sometimes a heavy vibrato is used for further intensification, just as in operatic singing.

In Western musical history, the only other instrument normally capable of indefinite, unarticulated sustain is the pipe organ (and its contemporary descendent, the synthesizer), which also shares one other singular attribute with the electric guitar: the capacity to produce power chords. Power chords (a technical term used by musicians) result from distortion of the chord voicings most often used in metal and hard rock, an open fifth or fourth played on the lower strings. Power chords are manifest as much more than these two notes, however, because they produce resultant tones.17 Resultant tones are created by the combination of any two notes, but they are accentuated by the acoustical conditions of heavy metal. They are most audible at high volume levels, and they are intensified by the type of harmonic distortion normally used in metal guitar playing. Distortion of a single note results in a timbral change toward brightness, towards a complex wave form, since distorting a signal increases the energy of its higher harmonics. Power chords, on the other hand, also produce powerful signals below the actual pitches being sent to the amplifier. Thus, the distorted guitar signal is expanded in both directions: the higher harmonics produced by distortion add brilliance and edge (and what guitarists call "presence") to the sound, and the resultant tones produced by power chords colonize the lowest audible frequencies, adding weight to the sound. Such resultant tones are also produced by pipe organs, where high volumes and open voicings on very low notes are often employed to the same effect: to display and enact overwhelming power—usually, in that context, for the greater glory of God.

Heavy metal is far from being a homogenous discourse or subculture, and the metaphorical power mobilized through distortion (among other means) has many different kinds of social relevance. Distortion is an important signifier, for example, in social constructions of gender, politics, and religion. Heavy metal has long been a male-dominated genre, both in its performance and its reception, and for many fans, metal reinscribes the masculine dominance demanded by prevalent cultural values but not easily achieved by young men who lack social status, economic power, and perhaps even full physical stature. Yet since the mid 1980s the metal audience has been about 50% female, and it is clear from the interviews and other fieldwork I have done that several different sorts of female empowerment are found in the powerful metaphors of metal as well. Moreover, some metal lyrics try to channel the music's power behind political criticism; other bands enact experiences of control and survival in the face of the social disruptions of modernity.18 There are even Christian heavy metal bands, for whom power chords evoke the transcendent power of God. Distortion is an acoustic phenomenon that signifies culturally, but it is, like all signifiers, polysemic, available for different social interpretations and uses.

Guitar distortion is also used outside of heavy metal in many different contexts. Billy Bragg is an activist songwriter and solo performer in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, but he deviates from the norms of political folk song by using distortion in his guitar sound. The undistorted acoustic guitar has long signified simplicity, populism, and sincerity—Tracy Chapman is a contemporary musician whose music employs such a semiotics of authenticity. Indeed, the sound of the acoustic guitar might be understood as suggesting a repudiation of force, in favor of other sources of strength. Bragg, though, chooses to use a gritty, noisy guitar sound that is insistently forceful, and it serves perfectly to help articulate his radical politics. Where Guthrie and Chapman evoke a sense of communal strength, Bragg calls for decisive intervention. His strong, clear voice rings out over the agitating din of his distorted guitar as a call to arms against the systematic injustices he attributes to the laissez-faire capitalism of Margaret Thatcher's Britain.

Once distortion is established as a musical sign, it becomes available for use in a variety of discourses. It becomes dialogic, as Bakhtin says; it can become the site of social contestation.19 For example, the U. S. Army, during the late 1980s, used distorted guitar in its "Be All You Can Be" recruitment advertisements. In this context, the force of the distorted guitar seems designed to seduce young men with the promise of empowerment. Moreover, the historical association of guitar distortion with rock and roll rebellion gives the ad additional appeal. "Rebel," the ad seems to say, "become powerful and free: join the Army." These distorted sounds will not be heard as attractive by everyone, but many in the target audience of young men have been socialized to regard power as a primary value. The Army's jingle arouses by engaging the schema of force, and by seeming to offer opportunities for the free exercise of force.



To summarize, distortion is perceived as powerful in contemporary popular music because our socially-guided bodily experiences with distortion lead us to perceive it that way. Through our disparate experiences with our own voices and the electronic devices that surround us, we recognize the image schema of force in the timbral quality of distortion. Thus the preconceptual grounding that makes distortion meaningful to us includes our most basic experiences of self and environment, but it is also historically and culturally specific. Not only does it depend on experiences with electronic technology, but it is only at particular historical moments, in particular cultural contexts, that such force images are appealing enough to spawn whole musical discourses.

Earlier, I quoted with approval Bourdieu's ascription of a kind of ineffable quality to artistic meaning. This might seem contradictory, given my attempts to ground musical meaning in material practices. But musical meanings, I argue, are rightly seen as mysterious in relation to verbal meanings. Bourdieu's comment can be taken as an indicator not of the mystical, aesthetic nature of music, but rather of the richness of nonpropositional musical meanings, and the inability of propositional statements to account fully for any kind of meaning. When we talk about music, we must use propositional language, but our mode of description is not the same as what we describe. Moreover, propositional meaning in language, as well as musical meaning, is itself dependent on nonpropositional, experiential schemata.

I have tried to sketch Mark Johnson's challenges to conventional epistemology and relate them to problems of thinking and talking about music because thinking about "the body in the mind" may be a good way to develop more satisfying modes of musical analysis. It can help us avoid the impasse of structuralist linguistics while still finding solid material grounding for the metaphoric meanings we discover. It can maintain the special, nonlinguistic status of music without resort to the mystifications of aesthetics. It provides a defense for scholars who study music as social discourse against allegations of unscientific subjectivity. By focusing our attention on the role of culturally-specific preconceptual experience in creating discursive meanings, we can avoid the search for inherent universals while preserving a means of accounting for cross-cultural similarities of structure and interpretation.

Finally, this perspective offers a framework for bringing together a variety of intuitive and tentative partial explanations of musical meaning. For example, Roland Barthes has written of the elusive quality he calls the "grain of the voice," which he relates to timbre, but which he claims was somehow beyond such objective classifications. Straining to define his new concept, he professed that "the grain is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs."20 Motivated by a sense of the inadequacy of conventional categories of musical thought, Barthes' attempt to formulate this new concept again points to bodily experience as the untheorized basis of meaning. "The grain of the voice," "It won't come out of your horn unless you've lived it," "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing,"—such statements about music sound magical precisely because they dance around reason and invoke the body in the music.21

1This line was attributed to Thelonius Monk on an NPR broadcast, though I have not located a printed source for that attribution. Rock star Elvis Costello delivered it as his own, in an interview in Musician 100 (February 1987): 56.

2Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 212.

3Steven Feld, "Linguistics and Ethnomusicology," Ethnomusicology 18:2 (1974): 197-217.

4Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 2.

5Many semioticians of music, however rigorously structuralist they may appear, are still carrying around the epistemological baggage of eighteenth-century aesthetics. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, for example, maintains Beauty as an irreducible quality of ineffable appeal, searching in the meantime for essences, definitions, and totalizing truths. See his Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).

6Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), xix.

7Ibid, 29.

8Ibid, 42.

9Ibid, 13.

10This argument is, of course, not Johnson's alone; many scholars have contributed to an expanded view of metaphor. See Johnson's own bibliography and citations in The Body in the Mind.

11Johnson, 168.

12John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music (New York: Riverrun, 1987); Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, second edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990).

13Johnson, 196.

14Parker is quoted in Ben Sidran, Black Talk (New York: Da Capo, 1982), 18. "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" was composed by Ellington in 1932.

15Advertisement for Dean Markley's Overlord effects pedal in Guitar for the Practicing Musician 6:4 (February 1989): 102.

16Advertisements for classical music series and classical record clubs are equally revealing of social fantasies and ideological agendas.

17The strongest resultant tone is produced at the frequency that is the difference between the frequencies of the main tones. If, for example, the open A string on the guitar (which vibrates at a frequency of 110 cycles per second, or 110 Hz) and the E above it (165 Hz) are played as a power chord, then the A an octave lower (165 -110 = 55 Hz) will sound very prominently. If the A is played with a fourth above instead of a fifth, D (147 Hz), the D two octaves lower (37 Hz) will be produced as a resultant tone. These resultant tones are often at frequencies lower than the instrument itself can normally produce—both of these examples result in the production of pitches far below the actual range of the guitar. See Arthur H. Benade, Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 273-74.

18This is a brief reduction of arguments I have made more fully elsewhere. See my Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Weslyan/New England, forthcoming in 1993), and "Bon Jovi's Alloy: Discursive Fusion in Top 40 Pop Music," OneTwoThreeFour 7 (Winter 1989): 7-19. On cultural empowerment and the contradictions of masculinity, see chapter 11 of John Fiske's Television Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987).

19See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) and V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 23.

20Roland Barthes, "The Grain of the Voice," Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 188.

21I wish to thank Susan McClary for critiquing a draft of this paper, and Judith Becker for her helpful comments and for inviting me to participate in the session on "Non-Verbal Communication" at the Annual Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, November 1990, Oakland, CA, where a version of this paper was read.

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