Musical Meaning and Semantic Depletion

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Say the word ‘moon’ out loud twenty times. After a while it stops sounding like a meaningful word with connotations of romantic June nights and/or astronauts and just starts to sound like, well, a sound. A rather silly sound, indeed.

This is a process that linguists call semantic depletion. Say something often enough and the connection between signifier (the sound that points to an idea) and signified (the idea a sound evokes) breaks down. This isn’t usually a problem in conversation, so for linguists I imagine it’s an interesting phenomenon that gives them good clues about how the mind processes language, but doesn’t present any particularly urgent practical issues.

People who rehearse their meaningful utterances have more of a problem though.

In order to perform a song (or a sonata or a play), you need to go through the motions of the performance enough times that you can do it at will without significant error. By then, though, you can be so used to the content that you are just, um, going through the motions. And given that performance – whether artistic or rhetorical – exists for the purposes of conveying meaning and evoking responses, getting the performer to the stage in a state where they’ve lost contact with the meaning of their performance is not ideal.

Actually, the act of performance can sometimes still work. I recall one of my earliest conference-presentation experiences as a postgrad where I had rehearsed my paper enough that I was very confident in delivery but experiencing significant semantic depletion: it sounded okay, I thought, but contained nothing very surprising. But as I spoke it aloud, I could see my audience making sense of it, joining the word sounds that had become empty to me up into meaningful sentences, and responding to the ideas they contained by asking questions afterwards. Thinking about it, it was probably the experience of those responses that prevented subsequent presentations losing their meaning in the same way – as I rehearsed the delivery I was always aware of what my listeners might come back with.

A musician’s audience isn’t going to ask questions after the performance, but they respond nonetheless – both during and after the performance. So listening to ourselves rehearse from the perspective of someone hearing the music for the first time is likewise a useful way to keep the meaning current.

But even more important is to keep the meaning developing. The disciplines of music analysis and literary criticism are built upon the fact that artistic products have depth. Even when there’s an obviously accessible meaning on first acquaintance, there are layers and layers of deeper meanings lying beneath – structural connections, thematic connections, allusions to other pieces of art. Nick Cook once remarked that reading someone else’s musical analysis is like asking somebody else to do your piano practice for you. I think this captures very nicely the way that the point of analysing art is not to tell somebody else about your analysis, but to keep you interested while you do enough repetitions of the performance actions to be safe to perform it in public.

If you find yourself rehearsing on autopilot, therefore, this is a sign that you may need to be more inquisitive about what you’re preparing to perform.

Hi Liz.

I want to follow your blog here, but there's no follow buttom, unless I'm being particularly blind or stupid this morning! Can you help.

My primary interest stems from the fact that I sing in and am Chair of a mixed voice choir - the Waldershelf Singers ( - and it looks to me like you have a well established and well written and presented site.

Anyway, I would like to get updates by email, if that's possible?

Hi there,

The button for the RSS feed is up on the right hand corner of any of the blog pages. It is the traditional orange square with wiggly bits in. Just click on it and it will add the blog to whichever aggregator service you use. Hope that helps - give me a shout if you need any more pointers!


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