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Syntax vs Semantics

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Syntax vs Semantics

If you listen to a lot of different kinds of music you might notice that there are two fundamental elements. This is on an abstract level, not a concrete one. The two elements are syntax and semantics, both words coming from ancient Greek. So do the words melody, harmony and rhythm, by the way!

Syntax is the way things are put together. In language it is the way sentences are constructed and the subject of grammar. Semantics is the meaning of the words and sentences. In music this distinction is often referred to as form vs content, but I want to get away a bit from that historical approach.

I see composers as falling into roughly three groups: the syntax composers, the semantics composers and the ones who manage to balance them both. For example, a composer like Steve Reich, in his earlier works, was a purely syntactical composer. Drumming is about nothing more than rhythm, downbeat, hemiola and phasing which is just the incremental shifting of rhythmic patterns. There is literally NO semantic content. Early Philip Glass is similar, for example his Music in 12 Parts has no extra-musical content but is just about patterns and pitches. But we also have earlier examples. Bach's Art of Fugue is a purely syntactical piece as is his Well-Tempered Clavier and the two and three-part inventions.

The program music of the 19th century starting with Hector Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique was an attempt to focus on the content rather than the form, color rather than contour in visual art terms. French composers, starting in the 17th century, made rather a specialty of making pieces about their extra-musical content. Of course, once you integrate referentiality into a piece of music then that becomes part of the music. There are innumerable examples from the French clavecinistes in which they fill conventional forms like the rondeau with all sorts of referential content. The tombeau, for example, is nothing but an allemande with special reference to the death of someone.

Then there are composers who manage a real synthesis of form and content. Bach is a great example of this as well in his cantatas, passions, masses and so on. Haydn is another good example. In many of his symphonies and string quartets, which are primarily syntactical forms, i.e. "pure" music, he infuses referential content. Some examples: the "Farewell" Symphony, the "Rider" String Quartet and so on. In Beethoven there have been many efforts to uncover or elaborate on referentiality in the symphonies and piano sonatas, some of them encouraged by Beethoven himself. The association of the Symphony No. 3 with Napoleon and the nicknames attached to some piano sonatas like the "Tempest" or "Hammerklavier" are other examples. But in all of these works, the syntax is equally involved, it is not a question of merely dumping content into a conventional form. That is why I refer to these works as syntheses.

Mind you, there are lots of examples of pieces that have such an evocative atmosphere that they have acquired a nickname that is not related to anything the composer did. The "Moonlight" Sonata of Beethoven had no associations with moonlight in Beethoven's mind.

These categories survive in the music of the present day, Caroline Shaw, for example, uses a lot of traditional musical syntax in constructing new pieces with often ambiguous titles: Boris Kerner for cello and percussion, for example, uses a very traditional harmonic and melodic syntax combined with contrasting percussion. Become Ocean by John Luther Adams is the opposite in that the referential atmosphere predominates and it is difficult to discern any traditional syntax.

There is a kind of progression from the mind of the composer to the mind of the ultimate listener. The composer often thinks in terms of syntax because that has a lot to do with how the music is written. The listener however takes the opposite approach and asks themselves "what does this music mean to me?"

Interestingly, jazz also seems to have these two fundamental elements. There are lots of referential pieces that draw on popular song forms like Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and many other examples, but there are more purely syntactical pieces like "So What" by Miles Davis or "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane. In popular music, however, the purely syntactical seems not to exist outside rare examples like Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra.

Here is the Tombeau sur la mort de M. Comte de Logy by Sylvius Leopold Weiss played by lutenist Edin Karamazov.




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