Musical Objects

[Vol. I, pp. 1-50]

It is the sense that an art work may exist independently of those who make it up and remember it that is distinctive of literate cultures. (As we shall see, it is that sense that allows us even to have the notion of a “work of art.”) And another difference is that having works of music, however large in scale, in written form encourages us to imagine or conceptualize them as objects, which is to say as “wholes,” with an overall shape that is more than the sum of its parts. […] Since the performance of such works must unfold in time, but the written artifacts that represent them are objects that occupy space, one can think of literate cultures as cultures that tend conceptually to substitute space for time—that is, to spatialize the temporal. (I, 20-21)

A tendency to spatialize the temporal. This is a nice way to explain a concept that has been nagging at my brain for a couple of years now, and Taruskin’s formulation helps crystalize my thoughts. I think this tendency arises out of humans’ proclivity for visual information. Time can’t be seen—at least not all at once—but limited portions of space can. This is at once the mysterious beauty of music, and its elusive frustration. The more something is unknown or indefinable, the harder it is to master. What we can’t master we consider a threat, whether it be the threat of political disorder throughout the realm (c.f. Zach’s recent post) or merely the threat of not fulfilling your duties as cantor due to the inability to recall intricate series of melismas (e.g., Notker Balbulus).

Putting music down on paper (or parchment, or wax tablets) allows us to see its edges, see its entirety. Even more, we can hold on to it, manipulate it, own it. In short, we can be masters of music—a goal that all musicology students can relate to. But the key point here, that often goes unsaid—and unnoticed—is that this brand of musical mastery is engineered synesthesia. The realm of hearing is relegated to that of seeing, through a series of meaningful symbols. We then interact with the sound through the mediator of sight.

There of course is nothing wrong with this, and it has proven to be a most valuable eventuality, especially to historians. To focus only on what can be seen—the Great Score of musicological lore—is to miss out on the music itself: a living, breathing, performance affected, error susceptible experience. It’s like preferring the 2009 Fodor’s guide to Paris to the real thing—there’s no way it will be comprehensive, and it will be out of date before it gets into your hands.

May I never choose the guidebook over the experience.


  1. “Engineered synesthesia”.. That’s a great way of looking at it. Very interesting, big topic, and one that I hope to return to as this project goes on.

    Another thought: the music/object relationship, while codified in written transmission, also held sway in the era of musical recordings, where people paid to own records and CDs, not scores. Perhaps, then, the decline of recorded music objects in the wake of the MP3 rise is returning us to an early music paradigm.

  2. One other thought/question on this one: I agree that a major philosophical switch occurred when time was transmuted into space for the switch from pure orality to a mixed transmission system. However, it doesn’t appear that this happened with the invention of notation. Indeed, hundreds of years passed before The Great Score began to occupy a place of primacy in the tradition. Early notation was more a matter of political expediency than it was a major mental shift. Reading backwards, the first manuscript of written music looks like the first eclipse of orality by the written word. But they didn’t treat musical texts as the end-all; they barely even acknowledged notation in the historical annals of the day, so seemingly insignificant was its invention. This begs the question: when did the text become The Text?

    1. Zach—good points/questions all. I admit that I took my ponderings outside the historical moment at hand (the invention of notation), and that the timing needs to be clarified. Also, as you say, our relationship to “the score” is an ever changing one. But Taruskin’s point is that the tendency is already there among literate peoples.

      Taruskin brings the issue up on the front end, however, and is very clear that it is one that will come up time and again during his narrative.

  3. Last thing: your concluding line reminds me of that saying – “Don’t mistake the map for the territory.” It’s an important fact to keep in mind.

  4. I think Taruskin would say that today’s technology has led us to a post-literate musical paradigm, which may have some similarities to the pre-literate paradigm, but will also have significant differences. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say on this issue as we reach the last volume of this series.

    As a theorist who’s been interested in the budding “world music theory” tradition, this thread in this chapter really hit home. So many of the world music traditions being analyzed now are oral in nature, and we (being the good trained literate musicians that we are) are literacizing them in order to codify, analyze, and come to a distinctly Western/objective understanding of the musical “rules” that apply in these genres of music. While I applaud adding these traditions to the eclectic mix of music considered to be “worth serious study,” it is distinctly possible that by literacizing these musics we might be altering the meaning that they have traditionally had.

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