A Summary and Reflection on Victor Zuckerkandl’s
Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (1956)
by Luke Dahn
Written as a blog in 2006 and 2007

Part 1 of 4: Tone

I am currently working through Victor Zuckerkandl’s book Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World from 1956. The book is divided into four sections each containing a subheading: Tone – Motion – Time – Space. My blog entries on Zuckerkandl will come in four parts corresponding to these four sections.

In his opening section subtitled "Tone," Zuckerkandl (henceforth referred to as VZ) concerns himself with general (but by no means simple) questions involving the nature of music, how and why it is that we hear sounds as music. His first order of business is to deal with melody. Since melody is more than a simple succession of tones, what exactly is melody? VZ initially provides a very unhelpful definition of melody as "a series of tones that makes sense." (15) Obviously this begs a further question, "What is it that is meaningful in tones, that allows us to distinguish sense from nonsense in successions of tones?" (16) The answer to this question becomes a principal tenet of the entire section: "It is the dynamic quality that permits tones to become conveyors of meaning; that makes melodies out of successions of tones and music out of acoustical phenomena. The dynamic quality is the properly musical quality of tones." (21) What VZ has in mind by dynamic quality is this: each tone we hear within a tonal system (C major, for example) "becomes active" and carries with it a tendency or tension ("almost a will") that strives towards resolution. Ultimate resolution rests in scale–degree 1, which is the tonal center. And each scale–degree points to scale-degree 1 in its own distinct way, giving each tone its own unique dynamic quality. It is this dynamic quality that we hear inherent in the tones that gives them meaning—that makes them music.

VZ is very much a formalist, believing that the meaning of music comes from within, not from without. "Tones do not relate to things, do not express anything about things, represent nothing, betoken nothing, indicate nothing." (16) Rather, meaning rests for VZ in music’s syntactical structure. Melodies are created when musical tones succeed one another in a sensical manner. Scale degree 2 leads to scale degree 1 in the same way that a transitive verb leads to a direct object.

From here VZ analyzes various theories of how the dynamic qualities came to reside in the tones. He offers and finally dismisses the Pulse Theory which has as its basis the frequential "pulses" of the acoustical pitches of the overtone series He also rejects "Associationism" which claims that the dynamic qualities came to inhere tones through conventionally established use. In other words, we learned to hear these qualities in.

VZ then sets up a dichotomy between the outer tangible world which we encounter through sense perceptions, and the inner world of our thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Every sensation is usually thought to be "made up of two components, one coming from without, physical, one coming from within, psychic." (58) In other words, we see red in the external world through our eyes, and our inner thoughts add to that perception a feeling tone: warning, excitement, or whatever. The same applies to music. We hear a tone, an acoustical fact, through our ear, and then we apply to it an emotional tone. But music’s third component, namely its dynamic quality, links and ultimately drastically diminishes the other two components: "What makes tone musical tone is so much the work not of the physical and not of the psychic component but of the third, a purely dynamic component, that, compared with the latter, the two others appear to sink to the function of trigger and aftereffect: a physical process sets off the dynamic phenomenon; the latter reverberates in a psychic process." (61) VZ calls musical tones dynamic symbols. They are unlike the symbolism of words in a language. "Words are signs that refer to things or ideas... they bring to our knowledge the things they signify... The meaning of a tone, however, lies not in what it points to but in the pointing itself; more precisely, in the different way, in the individual gesture, with which each tone points toward the same place." (68) Tones are dynamic symbols because we hear forces in them.

VZ ends the section with one of his more provocative ideas. The sense of hearing, the hearing of tone more specifically, is unique from the other four senses. Our senses of feeling, seeing, touching and tasting encounter things, objects. We don’t see red, we see red things. We don’t feel smoothness, we feel smooth things. VZ claims though that "[musical] tone (as distinct from ’noise’) is the only sensation not that of a thing." (70) The sense of hearing then enables us to encounter an invisible, intangible part of this world. The final page of the section contains the following ideas to which these thoughts lead. Make of them what you will: "There are tones because there is music, not the other way around. Only in tone is the true nature of sound revealed; in the hearing of tones the sense of hearing fulfills its destiny and discovers the side of the world that is its counterpart. Which side is it, since it is not the material–factual side? Whatever the answer may be, we know that the question itself is reasonable... Because music exists, the tangible and visible cannot be the whole of the given world." (71)

VZ’s writing is engaging and his ideas are always provocative. If one of the main goals of philosophers and music theorists is to question given assumptions which in turn stimulate deep though, VZ by all means succeeds. He is not afraid of the bold and dramatic statement. However, in my opinion, his analysis of melody and tone as being defined entirely by the dynamic quality of tones is far too simplistic. Meaning is not determines solely by this quality. True, the dynamism of tones contribute to our understanding of the syntax of tonal music. (Implied in VZ’s analysis is the idea that "atonal melody" and even "atonal music" are both oxymoronic.) And if the syntax of music is incoherent, we will have trouble making sense of the music. But so much is left unsaid by VZ. Even in the context of tonality, so much more than the dynamic quality of tones contributes to the meaning of music and to our emotional psychic responses to music. After all, these dynamic qualities can be heard in the worst of the worst tonal music.  (6.10.06)

Part 2 of 4: Motion

The second section of Zuckerkandl’s Sound and Symbol is devoted to the paradoxical concept of musical motion. Motional description of music is quite natural. But what is it exactly that moves in music? In the external world, motion refers to the act or process of a physical body or thing moving from one place to another. How can something move in music which has no physical bodies or things? This is the problem taken up—a problem that is eventually turned around ingeniously by VZ by showing that it is exactly because music is not attached to things or bodies that musical motion is the purest instance of motion.

One might answer the above question of what moves in musical motion by saying that, at least in terms of melody, it is the tones that move. VZ points out an inconsistency between this idea and reality. In reality the successive tones that comprise a melody are of course, completely stationary. "It is the exact opposite of motion." (83) And when an attempt is made to generate a smooth connection between tones (say, an ascent from scale degree 1 to scale degree 5), "the result is the familiar screeching glissade of the siren, in which melody and music are destroyed." (83) The idea of melodic motion is indeed problematic.

In passing, VZ discusses our use of spatial terminology when describing music, particularly in terms of height. We say that one tone is higher than another, but nothing is really higher at all. After making a few brief suggestions as to why we do this, he says that the use of these terms are entirely metaphorical. Furthermore, the issue is said to be entirely irrelevant to our understanding of musical motion. VZ brings this point out in his discussion of triadic harmony, for harmonic motion demonstrates more clearly than melodic motion the irrelevance of height metaphors since what we hear in a chord transcends its constituent tones to a greater degree. The question of whether a V–I cadence is an ascent or descent becomes pointless. "Thus, to a certain extent, harmonic motion represents the most extreme and purest case of musical motion." (114)

In what initially appears to be an irrelevant excursion, VZ describes the famous paradoxes of Zeno. His aim is to rescue musical motion by showing that our conception of physical motion, motion as we experience it in the real world, is itself highly problematic. If the proverbial tortoise is given a head start, then the hare will never reach his opponent since he will forever be cutting the distance in half. The paradoxes can be rendered in various ways, but the underlying point stressed by VZ is the incongruity between the motional and the spatial or material. "[Zeno’s error came by] equating the ’between’ of motion with interspace. They assumed that the process of motion could be entirely comprehended in spatial data... The contradictions and paradoxes... merely show that motion cannot be entirely comprehended in spatial–local data." (128) VZ’s first tactic is therefore not to bolster the shaky foundation of musical motion but to attack that of physical motion, indicating that the dismissal of musical motion on the simple grounds that it fails to link up with our concept of physical motion is no longer valid.

Turning then to the psychological perception of motion more specifically, VZ draws on the work and studies of Max Wertheimer. Wertheimer noted that an accurate idea of motion is largely divorced from things and places. The distinction is made through the precise use of prepositions: "If seeing motion is not a seeing of things in places, if the process that we see as motion is able to free itself from connection with things and places, appears as a progression neither in places nor through places, but over them, as a pure passing over, this means that motion is such." (135) Motion is something purely dynamic, detached from everything static—"change detached from a thing that changes." (136)

Now to the crux of the matter. When we listen to music, we do hear motion in the tones. When we use motional terms to describe music, we are not using metaphors (contrary to the spatial metaphors we use). It is true that on a "lower level" we hear stationary tones that comprise a melody. But on an "upper level," we hear the musical motion that resides between the tones—the musical motion that transcends the tones. And since we are constantly listening between the tones, which are themselves not stationary but dynamic—since our hearing "does not remain with the tone, but reaches through it and beyond it" (137)—and since music does not involve things or places, motion itself is manifest "in absolute purity and immediacy" through music. Musical motion is the core of all motion, and "every experience of motion is, finally, a musical experience." (138) We can see motion and touch motion but only through the mediation of physical things in physical space. But in relation to these senses, our hearing faculty "gets at the essence; [it] pierces to the core of the phenomenon." (146) Music therefore provides an invaluable source of access into our world. "We see the rind, or, under special conditions, through the rind, but we hear the core of this world." (147)  (6.18.06)

Part 3 of 4: Motion

Music has often been regarded as a temporal art par excellence. Yet Victor Zuckerkandl is one of few to have recognized the extent of music’s capacity in revealing to us the phenomenon of time and temporality. As noted in the previous section dealing with musical motion, music is free from "things and places"—from our physical external world. This freedom is identified by Schopenhauer and others as precisely that in music which brings fulfillment. Music takes us out of our bleak external world of trials and temptations. But VZ views this capacity of music as being contingent upon our experience of music as a flow of time. "To one who is hearing music, the physico–spatial existence of the world becomes indifferent precisely to the degree to which music reveals existence as the flow of time." (152) This contingency marks a sharp distinction with Schopenhauer: music through its connection with time is “peculiarly terrestrial, of this world” rather than being otherworldly.

As might be expected in a discussion on temporality in music, VZ deals at length with rhythm and meter and the relationship between the two, a relationship that he characterizes as a "synthesis of law (meter) and freedom (rhythm)" (160). The antipodes of law and freedom, however, turn out to be reciprocal in nature. For one cannot have freedom without having a law from which to be free. History justifies this idea. The employment of structured meter after the Medieval period of chant led to freer and freer rhythmic activity. Furthermore, the extent to which the rhythm deviates from metric accentuation determines the vivacity of music. "Tones talk music precisely to the extent to which they free themselves from the constraint of strictly metrical accentuation." (164)

Meter in its own way is a measure of time, for "meter is not born in the beats, but in the empty intervals between the beats... in the empty intervals between the beats, in the places were ’time merely elapses’." (181) Meter as a time–measurer should not be thought of as a straight line, but as a wave, a cycle with crests and troughs. This concept of wave shows meter to be of a dynamic order, making it analogous with the dynamic qualities of tone referred to in previous sections. Every part of a metrical cycle is therefore "characterized by a particular metrical quality, which differs from every other solely by the direction of its kinetic impulse: the metrical order appears as a dynamic order." (169) Meter is ultimately an "ordered working of forces."

The unknowable mysteries of time have long been a topic of discussion among philosophers, scientists and psychologists. The "hairline of the present... evaporates into immeasurability, separating two oceans of nonbeing"—the not yet of the future and the already of the past. (155) The problem rests in the fact that time itself can never be the direct object of sensation or perception. Our perception of time is necessarily mediated through the changes of our physical world—that is, the measurement of time is an impossibility apart from measuring the motions of bodies. (209) To put it differently, we often confuse forces of things in time with time itself.

Here is where music steps in to save the day. For it is through music that the perception of time becomes possible. It is true that the forces or changes in time must be distinguished from time itself just as light must be distinguished from the thing illuminated. "But it is not true that [in music] only the tones are concrete experiential content, with time an abstract, empty form, only to be apprehended in reflective thought. No—through tones, time becomes concrete experiential content; the experience of musical rhythm is an experience of time made possible through tones." (203) "Music is a temporal art in the special sense that in it time reveals itself to experience." (200)

However, if music at once allows us to directly experience time, it also calls into question "the basic validity of the entire conceptual complex [of time]. The hourglass concept of time, it declares, is incompatible with the simple facts with which music confronts us." (224) In music, the past and future are wrapped up in time’s present. To return to meter in its wave–form, beat one represents a completion of the previous metric wave just as it points ahead to beat two. In this sense, future and past are present. This is not to suggest that either a remembering of the past or an anticipation of the future occurs, for as soon as the listener does this, the experience of the present is arrested. On the contrary, "the present of musical meter contains within it a past that is not remembered and a future that is not foreknown—and not as something to be supplied by thought but as a thing directly given in experience itself." (227) What this means in the end is that time itself stores the past and time itself anticipates the future. "I cannot anticipate time—time already anticipates itself. But the self–anticipation of time can be the subject of an experience. This is precisely what happens when I hear music. Without leaving the present behind me, I experience futurity as that toward which the present is directed and always remains directed." (233)

Now to summarize the entire section (at the omission of two interesting "digressions" on repetition in music and Temporal Gestalt and a third discussion on musical form). First, what must be refuted is the idea that the physical time concept exhausts object time. VZ denies that physical time and musical time should be relegated to two separate realms. They share the same terrain. And since music has the unique capability of allowing us to experience and conceptualize time, music "has something very definite and essential to contribute [to the problem of time]." (246) The dichotomy of the physical and the musical can be recast as a dichotomy between the eye/hand and the ear. The knowledge of space that the eye and hand gain is proportional to their ignorance of time. "No eye has ever seen time; no hand has touched time. But ears have heard time." (254) A sound image created by a piece of music is then a time image—"not an image in time but an image made of time." (258) Time has broken into our image world via music.

"Thanks to music, we are able to behold time!" (261).  (7.14.06)

Part 4 of 4: Space

Summarizing concisely the fourth and final section of Zuckerkandl’s Sound and Symbol on aural space is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, many threads branch off the main line of discourse, not all of which seem very pertinent to the matter at hand. Second, at times I simply do not know what Zuckerkandl means. He is concerned throughout the book, and in the fourth section in particular, with redefining terms that challenge our various preconceived suppositions. In this final section, for example, he calls into question our basic notion of space.

The subject is spatiality in music, or aural space, and the crux of the matter is stated in the form of a "problem" at the section’s beginning: "On the one hand music appears as the art that—in Schopenhauer’s words—’is perceived solely in and through time, to the complete exclusion of space’; on the other hand, it is full of phenomena that seem to presuppose a spatial order and that in any case are wholly incomprehensible if space is ’completely excluded’." (270) Music’s ability to transcend above and transport beyond the physical world is considered to be one of its greatest powers. Yet, it is difficult to reconcile this idea with the fact that we can hardly talk about music without using spatial concepts and terminology.

According to those who like Schopenhauer consider music to be "otherworldly," when spatial terminology is used to describe music it is used entirely metaphorically. VZ takes a completely different tack. For VZ, music is very worldly, not otherworldly, and when we use spatial terminology, we are not invoking metaphors at all. Rather, we are describing reality. He attempts to reconcile the paradox, then, by challenging our basic notion of space: "Tones are not transcendent in respect to space as such but to the space in which bodies or objects have locations. Since space is commonly equated with this space—the space of bodies, the totality of all places—the spatiality of music must be denied. But then a full understanding of music as well as a full understanding of space have been precluded." (270)

VZ proceeds to differentiate aural space from the "space of bodies" by first returning to basic concepts of tone. We must remember that tone is an entity, not a property. In other words, tones, unlike colors, detach themselves from their sources. "Tone is the only sensation that encounters us not as a property of a particular bodily–spatial thing." (272-73) Yet tone, being sensed "from without" (that is, it encounters us via sound waves), is "not a wholly nonspatial experience. The listener becomes aware of space." (274)

VZ makes four statements that characterize and distinguish aural space. Aural space is...
1) ...an undivided whole, having no parts or subdivisions. (275) In other words, tone is everywhere within its space, whereas things in physical space have specific location.
2) ...a flowing space—a concept meaningless to our preconceived notion of bodily space. (278) In the world of sound, space itself is in motion.
3) ...not measurable, not expressed in figures. (285)
4) ...a placeless depth surrounding the hearer. (290) In the "space of bodies," depth is measured by the proximity of objects away from the observer. In the aural world, however, the listener is allowed to participate in the depth of space that is revealed by musical tone.

VZ summarizes this train of thought in this way: "Music makes us understand that we do not learn all that is to be said about space from eye and hand, from geometry, geography, astronomy, physics. The full concept of space must include the experience of the ear, the testimony of music." (292)

But this only leads to another problem: the problem of order. There certainly appears to be order in aural space, yet how can this be? In bodily–space, order is juxtapositional or locational—that is, bodily–spatial order is "the relation of spatial parts to one another and to a spatial whole." (295) But it has already been established that aural space is not one of location; it is a space with no distinction of parts, a space that is simply an "undivided whole." VZ reconciles the paradox by stating that order in aural space is not of a juxtapositional kind, but rather an interpenetrating kind. He uses the basic musical chord as the simplest illustration. The discrete tones that make up a chord do not cease to exist when combined to occupy the same aural space, whereas colors, when applied to the same space, run together into a new mixed color. This is what VZ means by an interpenetrating order. The tones of a chord sound through one another. (299) Therefore, in the chord, aural space opens up before the listener. In sum, "tones have taught us that a phenomenon which does not belong to the space of places, to visible space, to corporeal space, which is transcendent in respect to that space, can still be spatial in the full sense." (309)

The most complete illustration of interpenetrating order in aural space is polyphony. Through the combination of multiple voices our experience of aural spatiality is intensified. For example, the operatic ensemble, which VZ calls one of the "most remarkable examples of musical... and artistic form," is only possible in music. Four people speaking at once would in normal situations result in utter nonsense, but with music, we experience not the destruction of meaning, but "a supermeaning" as each voice combines to create a perfectly coherent and wonderful musical whole. (331-33)

While we learn nothing new from music about the world, nothing that we cannot learn from other sources, through music we experience our world more directly. Music’s great appeal does not lie in its ability to access otherwise inaccessible insights. However, music brings to us patently those insights that are elsewhere accessible "only by laborious speculation, and then only uncertainly and insecurely." (348) Music then, contrary Schopenhauer, must be worldly. For if music "becomes the voice of the other–world," then it has nothing to bring to our experience of the world in which we live. For VZ, the audible and the visible belong to the same world, the same reality, the same space, however much the audible challenges our notions of that world, reality, and space.

"Tones hold up for our perception, as real, a dimension of the world that transcends all individual distinctions of things and therefore all verbal language." (371-72)  (5.29.07)