This paper was read originally at the ninth annual meeting of the Society held in New Orleans, Louisiana, December 26-28, 1966. It was part of a Triple Session with The American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology entitled Inter-American Musical Research.
The other papers in that session were The Lundu and Modinha of Brazil in the Nineteenth Century by Gerard Béhague and Musical Archives in Mexico City, Tepotzotlan and Puebla by Lincoln Spiess and E. Thomas Stanford. Summaries of their papers also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 7.
A most fascinating case of semantic signaling is presented by the ritual music of the Tepehua tribe of Northern Veracruz in México. In the context of ritual actions, these songs are textless. However, outside the ritual situation all the participants are capable of quoting consistent texts for the songs. This indicates that the music stimulates the participants to associate semantic content with melodic outline. These wordless tunes are played on a violin, accompanied by guitar, and are the nonverbal adjunct to every act of the ceremonies. I have called them "thought-songs" to indicate their functional nature.
The Tepehuas say that the music speaks. It can hold communication with spiritual and human beings, calling them to the ceremonial center and instructing them in something they must do. The music also comments on events that are occurring in the ceremony or prepares the people for events about to occur. The ceremonies are held for curing psychosomatic illness, for securing rain and good crops, for mitigating emotional tension, and for preparing the proper departure of the dead to the other world. All the messages signaled by the music are restricted to these ceremonial situations; the semantic meaning is only valid for a ritual situation.
The ceremony is called "the-moving-of-the-things." All its activities are designed to rearrange the cosmos of a person, group of persons, or the community. The music announces that deities arrive, calls for sacrifices, says that the offerings are being received, announces changes in the ceremonial procedure. Apart from this purely functional nature, it prepares the participants emotionally and at proper moments induces euphoria. A different song is used for each act of the ceremony and is played over and over until the act is finished.
The semantic code consists of various types of melodic and rhythmic motives. This code of musical signals operates with a few basic rules. There are four kernel motives in each phrase which, according to their position, can be assigned grammatical functions. The motival nucleus is its rhythm, and meaning can be interpreted through the rising and falling motives associated with it. There are simple and compound motives. Compound motives do not always relate to the meaning of their separate parts though occasional reduplication does occur. Transposition of a phrase or motive will alter the context of its interpretation. The whole rhythmic pattern of a phrase signals the general context for the whole message. The motives were isolated and identified by associating a motive common to given songs with the idea that was unique to the texts quoted for them. These basic rules have been written in a transformational grammar which will generate musical sentences with the kernel ideas that can be understood and interpreted by the Tepehuas.
The Tepehuas have evolved a musical system which signals much information with a nice economy of effort. The ascribed meaning of these ritual melodies assures that all those present at the ceremony are informed and participating correctly in each act. The priest is thereby freed so that he may attend to other duties. Also, the songs affect the psychological processes necessary to the ceremony's successful realization. For a "primitive" musical system, that is an impressive accomplishment.
(Summary prepared by the author)