Meaning is Learned

Seth Kim-Cohen writes in response to an earlier post, "I feel that the big issue for sound practice these days is the question of meaning."

To stir the pot a bit, I will submit that the relationship between sound and meaning is learned. By way of contrast, it seems to me that a tempting point of view for composers and sound artists is that sound itself is immediately meaningful, even when abstracted from its physical context or history of use: that to have a sound is to have a meaning, reflexively, and nothing further is required. This amounts to a kind of belief system that designates acoustic artifacts as the absolute value. An alternative is that sound and meaning are loosely coupled in our minds, and the latter must emerge from use.

In the case of language, this is clearly true in two respects. First, the meaning of sounds is learned in light of Saussurean arbitrariness: the sound "dog" is unconstrained by the concept "dog", and the association is in fact entirely contingent on one's childhood environment. It is therefore reasonable to think that if somebody calls you a dog, your visceral reaction won't really have anything to do with the acoustic image per se of the message, except insofar as its meaning is conditioned.

Second, and less obviously, we learn to distinguish speech sounds differently depending on our native language. For instance, native English speakers think that the 'p' in 'peak' and the 'p' in 'speak' are the same sound, but for native Hindi speakers they would be different sounds because the first is aspirated and the second isn't. In Hindi 'kapi' with an aspirated 'p' means "meaningful" while 'kapi' without an aspirated 'p' means "copy". Confusing the two words would be like confusing 'peer' and 'beer' in English.

Meaning is a broad concept. Observations about sound and lexical meaning don't necessarily generalize to other kinds of meaning. Other varieties of linguistic meaning, such as performative meaning ("may i have the salt" means that I'm requesting something), intention ("may i have the salt" means that I end up with salt), or conceptual organization (the possession of sodium in "mentalese"), would seem to be mediated by experience as well, both by way of dependence on the lexicon, and a fortiori to the extent that they are culturally determined.

We can also talk about indexical meaning effects: the sound of an approaching car might be meaningful if you're in the middle of the street. These seem to be necessarily mediated by experience as well, as the learned association between a material object and its acoustic image. If the sound itself of a car is meaningful irrespective of any particular physical situation, that meaning is surely a distinct from that of an actual car barreling towards you.

Meaning in music is impossible to paraphrase but uncontroversial for its fans, and would seem to offer the best case study for a type of meaning which is inherently auditory, residing in sound irrespective of context. But people commonly feel that they don't understand a musical idiom the first time they hear it – it often takes considerable exposure before they find meaning in it. Again and again in the twentieth century we saw that new idioms considered incomprehensible when they were invented became perfectly intelligible to casual listeners within a matter of decades.

Morton Feldman's longer compositions, which last many hours, offer an interesting response to this issue. He essentially builds the necessary exposure into the compositions themselves. In my experience, there is indeed a palpable sense that each new note or chord acquires a deepening significance towards the end of one of these pieces.

In both language and music, the meaning effect would appear to be based in the acquisition of a grammar – a recognition of the way in which groups of sounds at various scales of magnitude elaborate previous ones and become registered as a portion of larger groups. In this sense we could say that speech and music convey meaning compositionally, as an effect of heirarchical constituency. One the other hand, each word in a language also conveys a stack of paradigmatic information to someone who is fluent (has been adequately exposed to the use of the word within this heirarchical texture), and it is reasonable to think that individual sounds in a musical idiom can also acquire a unique significance to someone who has been exposed to enough of it.

The question remains then, is there a meaning which is not dependent on this sort of formal consistency, which is a univocal result of the acoustic artifact, a meaning of sound itself? This would appear to be a matter of faith, for when sound and meaning become affixed one-to-one, with no slippage, they become indistinguishable by the same token.

I think this all jibes with Seth's comments, which seem to indicate that one would have to use sound for a specific extrinsic purpose before it would be worthwhile for him. In light of the above, perhaps for a sound artist this purpose would involve intervening in either established and prevalent sound-meaning associations, or in the process of acquiring them.



Seth Kim-Cohen's picture

Jackson, sorry for the tardy reply. But I agree with everything you've said here. I think you and I are coming from a similar post-structuralist/Barthesian/Derridean perspective. I don't believe that there is, as you put it, "a meaning which is not dependent on this sort of formal consistency, which is a univocal result of the acoustic artifact, a meaning of sound itself." I'm on record as being highly skeptical (some might say, dismissive) of sound-in-itselfism. Meaning is learned for sound as for nearly everything else. (And I'm only writing "nearly" to fend off an argument with the evolutionary psychologists out there.) Your suggestion that sound artists might benefit from "intervening in either established and prevalent sound-meaning associations," pretty well describes my approach as an artist. And, as you also suggest, as often as not, these established associations present themselves to me in the form of music. I love your examples, by the way. I'm interested in a Hindi meaningful copy, and in having beer with my peers. 

Pauline Oliveros's picture

A train whistle has a practical meaning as well as an affective meaning. The practical meaning is a notification of the presence of a train. The notification can be a warning or indictation of arrival. The affective meanings are numerous depending on the experience and expectations of the person perceiving the sound. I love hearing train whistles in the night from a distance. If I start digging into the meaning then I will soon be carried back to many memorable experiences and the feelings.


jordancrandall's picture

That's a good way to see it, but there are also affective dimensions that are outside of meanings.  If we think about affect along the lines of Massumi for example, it doesn't *mean* anything.  That precisely the source of its power.

What you're saying is along the lines of what Teresa Brennan says about affect, which is important -- it's triggered by meanings, and indelibly tied to them (signs give rise to affects, affects give rise to signs), but it's a field of electro-chemical / vibratory transmission and exchange that is always in excess of that, always beyond the bounds (corporeal, spatial, linguistic) that we might set for it.