Musicality as a Phenomenological Tool:

a contemporary approach to music and its role in comprehension & perception

Previous | Non-Fiction List HOME | Next



abstract for an article by Zachar Laskewicz


Both music and dance act to 'teach' individuals. But what is it precisely that music teaches us?  In this article I explore the ways human 'musicality'-a subject itself defined within the contents of this writing-act as a tool to assist us in our comprehension of reality and the perception of our world, particularly spatiality and temporality. One of the problems with fixed product-based methods in occidental musicology is that many theoreticians use scores as their source of analysis which are essentially abstracted from their performative context. The composers are dead and cannot give a description of why such works were composed, and they are recorded permanently in the form of musical notation providing the theoretician with a certain degree of certainty about how the music signifies. Music is, of course, far more complex than this notation implies, and music composed today is more problematic because the composers are still alive and their works are conceptualised in an embedded context. Music fills space and time with sound and motion. It makes the present real to those that experience it and it has the power to change the way its participants relate to or perceive their environment at given moments of musical realisation. When music fills a space, that space can no longer be experienced in the same way as before the music began, be that in a Balinese temple, a supermarket, a French restaurant or a disco. The presence of music makes a given moment unique. Musical experience is thus a phenomenological force which influences the way people perceive their environment.


A number of contrasting forms of semiosis are viewed, from the conceptually simple to the culturally complex. The 'indexical' role of music in some significative functions is one of the first major topics.  Music points at itself and guides the listener to the type of situation involved in the musical event in question. Sometimes this 'reflexive' information is contextual, so the main message of music in a disco is 'now you can dance' rather than 'listen to me'. Culture plays a big role in educating us about how these signs signify; this is therefore part of the structural and behavioural aspect of music and its pedagogy. Music often plays a more specific role, however, when it is embodied in a non-musical context. A typical example is in poetry: when we read a line of text which rhymes, we know that there is another structure which we have to make sense of through our musical perception skills. This kind of musical sign is also highly enactive; we may know that a poem rhymes, but it is only when we read the poem and experience the rhyme that it 'signifies' in any real way. The initial pointing function of music to itself is a simple but no less important signalling act of musical processes in action. In contrast to this indexical approach, another major topic discussed is the ability of music to change the way a given environment is perceived. This is most certainly one of the functions of music within specific types of ritual such as weddings or funerals, but there are many other situations which make use of this characteristic including social events like 'parties' (when the music stops, so does the celebration). Here music and dance combine to direct the listeners towards the phenomenological 'we' through its communal aspects. This can also be observed through its exploitation by the advertising industry; one of the functions of muzak, for example, is to put us in the mood to buy. The advertising industry realised long ago that this aspect of music could be used for commercial ends.


There is no question that music communicates something to those who experience it, but the continuing problem of what is communicated remains a moot point. Music is difficult to theorise about because it is involved with the communication of information which is difficult if not impossible to express in language. Although we are able to 'verbalise' about language, we are unable to 'musicise' about musical experience. We can, however, describe the dynamic contexts in which the information is communicated to gain a greater insight into what the music is communicating, and the intention of this discussion is to try to conceive of the parameters of this somewhat difficult task in a contemporary context.  Overwhelming evidence from observing music in action and from interviewing both musicians and laymen about how they experience musicality demonstrates that it strongly influences the way we interact with our world. Music plays a role in defining who we are and it has the power to remind us of the joy of being alive.


© Zachar Laskewicz 4-2004

Night Shades music-theatre-language Nachtschimmen



Attali, Jacques (1977) Bruits: essai sur l'économie politique de la musique, Paris : Presses Universitaires de France.

Austin, John Langshaw (1962) How to Do Things With Words, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Baily, John, "Music Structure and Human Movement" in Musical Structure and Cognition, P. Howell, I. Cross, R. West (eds.), London: Academic Press.

Barthes, Roland (1972) "La Grain de la Voix" in Music en jeu 9, Paris.          

Barthes, Roland (1984) "De l'oeuvre au texte" in Le Bruissement de la langue, Paris : Éditions du Seuil.

Blacking, John (1992) "The Biology of Music-Making" in Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, New York: MacMillan Press.

Bossert, Philip J. (1985) "'Plato's Cave', Flatland and Phenomenology" in Phenomenology in Practice and Theory, Dordrecht, Martinus: Nijhoff Publishers.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1980) Le sens pratique, Paris : Les Editions de Minuit.

Featherstone, Mike and Burrows, Roger (1995) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment, London: Sage Publications.

Foucault, Michel (1966) Lets mots et les choses, Paris : Éditions Galimard.

Henri, Adrian (1974) Environments and Happenings, London: Thames and Hudson.

Hoffman, S. Epistemology of Music in Java, Lebanon USA: American Gamelan Institute.

Horgan, John (1992) "Quantum Philosophy" in Scientific American, Vol. 256, no. 1 July.

Jakobson, Roman (1980) "Le Temps dans la Systématique des Signes" in Dialogues, Paris : Flammarion.

Johnson, Mark (1974) The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason, University of Chicago Press.

Kapferer, Bruce (1986) "Performance and Structuring of Meaning and Experience" in The Anthropology of Experience, V. Turner (ed.), Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Kersenboom, Saskia (1995) Word, Sound, Image: The Life of the Tamil Text, Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Kersenboom, Saskia (1999) "It takes three to Epistemology" in Subjectivity, eds. Willem van Reijen/ Willem van Westeijn, Amsterdam: AvantGarde Critical Studies, Rodopi: 315-330.

Laskewicz, Zachar (2003) "[radical] Experimentation, [enforced] Machination and [involuntary] Stage-Fright: the utter terror of the non-discoursal" in Homo Orthopedicus, Paris: L'Harmattan: 369-392.

Lee, Benjamin (1985) "Peirce, Frege, Saussure, and Whorf : The Semiotic Mediation of Ontology" in Semiotic Mediation, Orlando: Academic Press.

Leepa, Allen (1968) "Minimal Art and Primary Meanings" in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, G. Battcock (ed.), New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1960) "Sur la phénoménologie du langage" in Éloge de la philosophie, Paris, Gallimard: 73-95.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2001) Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris : Gallimard.

Merriam, Alan P. (1964) The Anthropology of Music, Northwestern University Press.

Moerdowo, R. (1983) Reflections on Balinese Traditional and Modern Arts, Jakarta: PN Balai Pustaka.

Rappaport, R. (1979)  Ecology, Meaning and Ritual, Richmond: North Atlantic Books.

Smith, Frank (1985) "A Metaphor for Literacy: creating worlds or shunting information" in Literacy, Language and learning, D. Olson, N. Torrance, A. Hildyard (eds.), Cambridge University Press.

Varela, Francisco J. (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, Cambridge: The MIT Press.






© May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings