T. W. Adorno

Music and Language: A Fragment

Music resembles a language. Expressions such as musical idiom,
musical intonation, are not simply metaphors. But music is not
identical with language. The resemblance points to something
essential, but vague. Anyone who takes it literally will be seriously

Music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal
sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds.
They say something, often something human. The better the
music, the more forcefully they say it. The succession of sounds is
like logic: it can be right or wrong. But what has been said cannot
be detached from the music. Music creates no semiotic system.

The resemblance to language extends from the whole work,
the organized linking of significant sounds, right down to the
single sound, the note as the threshold of merest presence, the
pure vehicle of expression. The analogy goes beyond the
organized connection of sounds and extends materially to the
structures. The traditional theory of form employs such terms as
sentence, phrase, segment, ways of punctuating - question,
exclamation and parenthesis. Subordinate phrases are ubiquitous,
voices rise and fall, and all these terms of musical gesture
are derived from speech. When Beethoven calls for one of the
bagatelles in Opus 33 to be played 'parlando' he only makes
explicit something that is a universal characteristic of music.

It is customary to distinguish between language and music by
asserting that concepts are foreign to music. But music does
contain things that come very close to the 'primitive concepts'
found in epistemology. It makes use of recurring ciphers. These
were established by tonality. If tonality does not quite generate
concepts, it may at least be said to create lexical items. Among
these we may start by singling out those chords which constantly
reappear with an identical function, well-established sequences
such as cadential progressions, and in many cases even stock
melodic figures which are associated with the harmony. Such
universal ciphers were always capable of entering into a particular
context. They provided space for musical specificity just as
concepts do for a particular reality, and at the same time, as with
language, their abstractness was redeemed by the context in
which they were located. The only difference is that the identity
of these musical concepts lay in their own nature and not in a
signified outside them.

Their unchanging identity has become sedimented like a
second nature. This is why consciousness finds it so hard to bid
farewell to tonality. But the new music rises up in rebellion
against the illusion implicit in such a second nature. It dismisses
as mechanical these congealed formulae and their function.
However, it does not dissociate itself entirely from the analogy
with language, but only from its reified version which degrades
the particular into a token, into the superannuated signifier of
fossilized subjective meanings. Subjectivism and reification go
together in the sphere of music as elsewhere. But their correlation
does not define music's similarity to language once and for all.
In our day the relationship between music and language has become

The language of music is quite different from the language of
intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has
to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the
divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized
prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt,
doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate

Music aspires to be a language without intention. But the
demarcation line between itself and the language of intentions is
not absolute; we are not confronted by two wholly separate
realms. There is a dialectic at work. Music is permeated through
and through with intentionality. This does not just date from the
'stile rappresentativo', which deployed the rationalization of music
in an effort to exploit its similarity to language. Music bereft of all
intentionality, the merely phenomenal linking of sounds, would
be an acoustic parallel to the kaleidoscope. On the other hand, as
absolute intentionality it would cease to be music and would effect
a false transformation into language. Intentions are
central to music, but only intermittently. Music points to true
language in the sense that content is apparent in it, but it does so
at the cost of unambiguous meaning, which has migrated to the
languages of intentionality. And as though Music, that most eloquent
of all languages, needed consoling for the curse of
ambiguity - its mythic aspect, intentions are poured into it. 'Look
how it constantly indicates what it means and determines it.' But
its intentions also remain hidden. It is not for nothing that Kafka,
like no writer before him, should have assigned a place of honour
to music in a number of memorable texts. He treated the
meanings of spoken, intentional language as if they were those of
music, parables broken off in mid-phrase. This contrasts sharply
with the 'musical' language of Swinburne or Rilke, with their
imitation of musical effects and their remoteness from true
musicality. To be musical means to energize incipient intentions:
to harness, not indulge them. This is how music becomes

This points to the question of interpretation. Interpretation is
essential to both music and language, but in different ways. To
interpret language means: to understand language. To interpret
music means: to make music. Musical interpretation is performance,
which, as synthesis, retains the similarity to language, while
obliterating every specific resemblance. This is why the idea of
interpretation is not an accidental attribute of music, but an
integral part of it. To play music correctly means first and
foremost to speak its language properly. This calls for imitation
of itself, not a deciphering process. Music only discloses itself in
mimetic practice, which admittedly may take place silently in the
imagination, on an analogy with silent reading; it never yields to a
scrutiny which would interpret it independently of fulfilment. If
we were to search for a comparable act in the languages of
intention, it would have to be the act of transcribing a text, rather
than decoding its meaning.

In contrast to philosophy and the sciences, which impart
knowledge, the elements of art which come together for the
purpose of knowledge never culminate in a decision. But is music
really a non-decisive language? Of its various intentions one of
the most urgent seems to be the assertion 'This is how it is', the
decisive, even the magisterial confirmation of something that has
not been explicitly stated. In the supreme moments of great
music, and they are often the most violent moments - one
instance is the beginning of the recapitulation in the first
movement of the Ninth Symphony - this intention becomes
eloquently unambiguous by virtue of the sheer power of its
context. Its echo can be heard, in a parodied form, in trivial
pieces of music. Musical form, the totality in which a musical
context acquires authenticity, cannot really be separated from
the attempt to graft the gesture of decision on to the non-decisive
medium. On occasion this succeeds so well that the art stands on
the brink of yielding to assault from the dominating impulse
of logic.
This means that the distinction between music and language
cannot be established simply by examining their particular
features. It only works by considering them as totalities. Or
rather, by looking at their direction, their 'tendency', in the sense
of the 'telos' of music. Intentional language wants to mediate the
absolute, and the absolute escapes language for every specific
intention, leaves each one behind because each is limited. Music
finds the absolute immediately, but at the moment of discovery it
becomes obscured, just as too powerful a light dazzles the eyes,
preventing them from seeing things which are perfectly visible.
Music shows a further resemblance to language in the fact that,
as a medium facing shipwreck, it is sent like intentional language
on an odyssey of unending mediation in order to bring the
impossible back home. But its form of mediation and the
mediation of intentional language unfold according to different
laws: not in a system of mutually dependent meanings, but by
their lethal absorption into a system of interconnections which
can alone redeem the meanings it overrides in each individual
instance. With music intentions are broken and scattered out of
their own force and reassembled in the configuration of the Name.
In order to distinguish music from the mere succession of
sensuous stimuli it has been termed a structured or meaningful
totality. These terms may be acceptable in as much as nothing in
music stands alone. Everything becomes what it is in memory and
in expectation through its physical contiguity with its neighbour
and its mental connection with what is distant from it. But the
totality is different from the totality of meaning created by
intentional language. Indeed it realizes itself in opposition to
intentions, integrating them by the process of negating each
individual, unspecifiable one. Music as a whole incorporates
intentions not by diluting them into a still higher, more abstract
intention, but by setting out to proclaim the non-intentioned at
the moment when all intentions converge and are fused together.
Thus music is almost the opposite of a meaningful totality,
even when it seems to create one in contrast to mere
sensuous existence. This is the source of the temptation it feels to
abstain from all meaning from a sense of its own power, to act, in
short, as if it were the direct expression of the Name.
Heinrich Schenker has cut the Gordian knot in the ancient
controversy and declared his opposition to both expressive and
formal aesthetics. Instead he endorsed the concept of musical
content. In this respect he was not unlike Schoenberg, whose
achievement he failed to his shame to recognize. Expressive
aesthetics focuses on polyvalent, elusive individual intentions
and confuses these with the intentionless content of the totality.
Wagner's theory misses the mark because it conceives of the
content of music as the expression of the totality of musical
moments extended into infinity, whereas the statement made by
the whole is qualitatively different from that of the individual
intention. A consistent aesthetics of expression ends up by
succumbing to the temptation to replace the objective reality with
transitory and adventitious meanings. The opposing thesis, that
of music as resounding, animated form, ends up with empty
stimuli or with the mere fact of organized sound devoid of every
connection between the aesthetic form and that non-aesthetic
other which turns it into aesthetic form. Its simple-minded and
therefore ever-popular critique of intentional language is paid
for by the sacrifice of art.
Music is more than intentionality, but the opposite is no less
true: there is no music which is wholly devoid of expressive
elements. In music even non-expressiveness becomes
expression. 'Resounding' and 'animated' are more or less the same
thing in music and the concept of~ 'form' explains nothing of what
lies beneath the surface, but merely pushes the question back a
stage to what is represented in the 'resounding', 'animated'
totality, in short to what goes beyond form. Form can only be the
form of a content. The specific necessity, the immanent logic,
evaporates: it becomes a mere game in which everything could
literally be something else. In reality, however, musical content is
the profusion of things which obey the rules of musical grammar
and syntax. Every musical phenomenon points to something
beyond itself by reminding us of something, contrasting itself
with something or arousing our expectations. The summation of
such a transcendence of particulars constitutes the 'content'; it is
what happens in music. But if musical structure or form is to be
more than a set of didactic systems, it does not just embrace the
content from outside; it is the thought process by which content is
defined. Music becomes meaningful the more perfectly it defines
itself in this sense - and not because its particular elements
express something symbolically. It is by distancing itself from
language that its resemblance to language finds its fulfilment.


Quasi una Fantasia, Essays on Modern Music, Theodor W. Adorno
(Translated by Rodney Livingstone), VERSO, London, New York

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