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Home » Simone Mahrenholz – The Copernican Turn in Musicology, or: Musico-logica and the hidden knowledge in music

Simone Mahrenholz – The Copernican Turn in Musicology, or: Musico-logica and the hidden knowledge in music

Simone Mahrenholz 


I sit and talk to God
And he just laughs at my plans
My heart speaks a language
I don’t understand

Robbie Williams

I  The question

These reflections investigate in a still rough and sketchy form what happens when we apply an analogon of Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican Turn” to understanding music. Kant revolutionised the problems of cognition of his time by inverting the epistemological perspective. Our thesis is: a comparable move helps to answer  some of the perennial questions regarding the understanding of music’s role in human life, its functioning and magic. Our question is twofold: What kind of knowledge, cognition or content does music convey? And the methodological approach: What does a “turn” with regard to the tackling of this question look like?

Before pursuing this topic, we should remember at least three difficulties. First: we will be continuously dealing with the problem of aiming at expressing something in words whose very nature is exactly that it defies words, standing in a kind of logical opposition to them. As a result, our articulation attempts are threatened by a bleak emptiness. Second: From our question follows that we will speak here in a quite undifferentiated way about music in general, not a specific kind, or historical phase, or a sociological context of music. Saying something about music “as such” is always in danger of being contradicted either by particular examples or of being too general to be of much cognitive use. In spite of this: our aim is precisely to say something that is a characteristic for human expression through musical sounds. A final remark: in what follows, “music” refers always to the acoustic, aural phenomenon of music, not to music as notated, as a score. (Cf. Mahrenholz 2006)

II  The approach

What is a “Copernican Turn” applied to music? The decisive move in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was this: We cannot explain successful knowledge-acquisition when conceiving of our mind as adjusting to the world. Instead, let us try to invert this approach and to conceive the world as adjusting to our minds. He took our thought-categories as being the centre of the epistemic universe and the world circling around it: adjusting to its categorical limitations. (Kant 1787) This “revolution” is comparable with the one of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), who, against all sensual evidence took the earth as rotating around the sun, not vice versa and thus managed to explain and predict previously unexplainable celestial movements. A comparable inversion of perspective applied to music could imply: Instead of the mind’s discursive language circling around music in order to catch its meaning, we must conceive of music as being a language that circles around us, our relation to the world and to discursive language. This implies seeing music not as our topic or object of inquiry, but as our tool or subject. ‘Understanding of music’ switches from being a genitivus objectivus to a genitivus subjectivus. Not what we understand about music, but what we understand through or via music is at stake. What music understands about us. This matches Beethoven’s Bonmot, according to which “Music is the (…) entrance into a higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.” (von Arnim 2012)

Following this track of investigation changes the logical status of music. Instead of applying the tools of language and discursive reason to music, we aim at applying the tools of music and of organized sound-phenomena to our situatedness within the world, which implies also: to language and discursive reasoning. – Of course: as music is man-made, what we are dealing with here is the confrontation of two very different forms of human self-understanding, two forms of human articulation that do not match, that are not compatible with each other for symbolic-logical reasons, but that are both articulate and precise in their own respective ways.

III  Making the investigation more concrete

How can music refer to anything though: not having a fixed semantics like verbal languages, and whose characteristic feature is that it consists of arbitrary signs? The answer, seen from a logical point of view, has two main components:

A) Music does not (in the first place) denote things outside of itself, as does language. It does not point to something (verweisen). Music’s characteristic form of reference or meaning is “vorweisen”, embodying, showing. Music has the features it “means”, it points to. It exhibits, manifests, features them. Language refers to something beyond itself, music exhibits features by itself. In short, and in simplifying brevity: Music does not denote but exemplies. It exemplifies its own features: aural labels, and these acoustic labels can in turn be applicable to other things than music and thus re-structure, re-organise the world-as-disclosed to us. (Mahrenholz 22000, Mahrenholz 2000b)

B) Music is not in the first place about cuts, about either-or, about contradictions. A major feature of music consists in its being nuanced. The nuances in tempo, sound-quality, agogics, intonation, dynamics etc. are precisely what distinguishes a great and outstanding interpretation from a mechanical or dull one. Music’s important differentiations or differences are potentially infinitely fine-grained. As Nietzsche puts it: “Musik ist unendlicher Verdeutlichung fähig.” In a more logical terminology: music’s characteristic logical structure is “density”, being nuanced, continuousness – in spite of the distinctness of the scales involved and of the metrical organisation. It is about transitions, not borders or boundaries.

With this we have already touched upon two main musico-logical differences. Verbal language concerns categories and differences, it cuts out parts from a continuous (analog) reality. Musical language is about nuances and transitions. The opposition between language and music with regard to their reference or semantics is denotation (verweisen, saying) versus exemplification (vorweisen, showing). The opposition with regard to their syntax or internal structure is discreteness, digital 0-1 versus density, continuous transitions, fine-grained-ness (Goodman 1968 about notational versus aesthetic symbol-systems). While the contents transmitted with verbal language focus on cuts, sharp boundaries (either dog or cat), on binary logics, on categorisations of different individuals under the same verbal label, on discreteness, distinctness – the contents exemplified by music aim less at things than at sensual qualities and their relations such as sound-characteristics, rhythms, harmonies, voice-inflections, transitions, or dialectical relations (as for instance between a first and a contrasting second theme in the classical sonata form: they do not contradict each other but only together form the sense conveyed).

This is only the beginning though of the manifold musico-logical characteristics featured and transmitted by music. The difference at stake here is one that philosopher Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) described when contrasting ‘science’ on the one hand – Latin scientia, containing the Indo-European primal word sci, to separate (as also in “schism,” “schizophrenia”) – with ‘system on the other hand: containing the syllable sy-, which means to integrate (as in “systemic”, “systems”, “symbol”, “symbiosis”). (von Foerster 2004). Applying this sci/sy-difference on our topic: language’s main interest consists indeed in separating, making distinctions, while music works as a system – details of which we will touch on in a moment.

IV Some contents

Again: What is it that music articulates about us, about the world, about the interrelations between us and the world, about ways of thinking that are not represented in language? Or in other words: about the way the universe (with us as its conscious extensions) is organised, structured, built? Why is music – again with Beethoven – “higher knowledge than all wisdom and philosophy”? (von Arnim 2012) As we just learned, music exemplifies: understanding music’s potential for cognition, revelation or meaning requires looking closely at its material.

Remember: in what follows we are undertaking the highly paradoxical task of putting into words in what respect a certain content cannot be verbalised. The result of which is that the sentences will seem naked and empty, trivial or content-less, unless we as readers enliven it with our resonant imagination. Also: whatever we say will evoke countless alternative aspects staying unsaid.

What, then, does music ‘know’, and say? Contents that transgress, contradict, and defy our normal way of thinking, processing knowledge and sense-content/perception. Below are some features of what it articulates through its ‘material’ internal structure.

1  Differentiation is not separation.

Listening to aural stimuli as being music consists in detecting relations: relating events to each other on numerous levels simultaneously. Music as well as verbal language unfolds sequentially, ordered according to a “first this – than that”. In language, this ordering has an exclusive form, the one of a tree-structure: when arriving at a bifurcation (either this or that), the decision for one of the sides implies the neglect and loss of the other. In music, the time-progress is inclusive, due to its mostly circular time-organisation (bars, rhythms, meters). Progress in music is basically repetitive, additive, pattern-like. Any decision in time opens up and produces possibilities for alternatives in the form of variations. Either-or in music becomes a both-and. In other words, music exposes differences in form of space-like patterns instead of linear, bifurcative progressions.

Making differences in language (“has your friend blonde or black hair?”) is usually separating, exclusive. In music, on the other hand, everything sense-making depends on relationships, on relating differences to each other, on the connecting reference between parts: forming patterns and bigger patterns, wholes containing parts and being contained by bigger wholes. This is characteristic of systems. Differentiation is not separation but on the contrary: connection. Listening to music is all about relating temporal structures to each other and detecting the differences within the same and the same within differences. (This is important: to learn that differentiation is not separation but rather the prerequisite to real connection is also one of the key lessons to be learned in all human relationships.)

2  Simultaneity, Multi-Dimensionality

In music, unlike verbal language, there are always numerous dimensions simultaneously present. One can imagine one single sound being at once part of the melody, part of the harmony, part of meter, part of the rhythm, part of the sound-quality, part of the agogic shift, part of the expressive intonation-“play”, part of the dynamics. All these aspects of a sound can participate in quite diverging developments: whereas the sound-quality can be soothing, the rhythm can be aggressive, and the intonation-“play” dirty or uprising – or on the contrary, sweet. Also even dirty and sweet at the same time: contradictions do not exist, ambiguities and dialectics abound. The message implied in this is that not only everything we experience but also we ourselves are continuously part of countless, numerous sense-dimensions at the same time. Any impression of one meaning only is an illusion. We can experience an occurrence as tragic and ourselves as isolated, and this is just a limited, fragmented view. (It was Schopenhauer who said that music is capable of removing the veil of Maya that presents us with the illusion of separateness: music alone being a picture of the “thing in itself” – in his case: the “Will”.)

Listening to music we experience an over-arching experiential field in which all elements engage simultaneously in several autonomous and at the same time interacting developments. Musical forms of interconnecting are dialectic (connecting contradictions) and architectonic: relating autonomous occurrences to one another, always within (systems of) more comprehensive wholes.

3  Pervasive resonatory interconnectedness

Music gets perceived through resonance: in a contagious process it makes everything between the sound-source (instrument, voice) and the ear oscillate according to the same frequencies. Only through the fact that everything material between the sound-source of music and us as hearing subjects engages into synchronisation can we become aware of music. And the sound-waves thus transmitted to us surround us 360 degrees. In hearing, we are always in the centre of things: a circumferential situated-ness. Even more radical: the acoustic movements, the oscillations of matter pervade us. Also our body engages in the synchronous, so to speak solidary movement, its matter cannot not resonate. Being in the presence of music means: you cannot decide not to be part of it, physically. In that sense there is no “No” in music. (This pervasive movement of the sound through our bodies is quite sensible for instance in churches with very large deep-sounding organ-pipes: feeling the harmonies permeate through one’s body can be experientially transgressive: transcending the boundaries between ourselves, the space around us, and the Kirchenschiff. The principle that everything existing vibrates periodically and that everything existing is intimately physically connected with everything else through rhythmic vibration – this is the shock coming up while perceiving one’s body-organs resonate.

As this text was conceived, the visit to a medieval Christmas-market in the oldest part of Hanover, Lower Saxony took place. It was almost dark already, hardly any artificial light, and unexpectedly some atavistic sounds arose from nowhere in the crowd: a drum and several strident bagpipe-sounds. It was as if an additional form of “sense”-layer was all of a sudden present, connecting the hundreds of individuals, walking and shifting, with the darkening sky, the huts of the market, the old houses, the spire, the trees. All of a sudden through the atavistic rhythms and cries arose an impersonal-personal sense of connection, an involuntary synchrony was created through the plain rhythms and shrill voices, as if the illusion of separateness got abrogated via music through the removal of the veil.

4  Material-mathematical system instead of verbal semantics

The musical sound-system does not have a fixed semantics, but it has something which is more directly a system, grounding in the biological fact that the human ear is capable to detect mathematical relations of sound frequencies via different degrees of harmonies. In chords, we perceive sound-relations: the vibration-frequency-ratio of 1:2 as an octave, of 2:3 as a fifth, or 3:4 as a fourth – and so on. We sort intervals into grades of consonances and dissonances, we relate them to each other. The more complicated the ratio gets, the more tension-rich, intense or ‘spiced-up’ the chord becomes. Thus, there is an inherent ordering, a system involved in listening to music. The concepts ‘consonance’ and ‘dissonance’ are today too heavily ideologically loaded, as are ‘harmony’ and ‘disharmony’, but there are more innocent alternatives. Speaking of different degrees of tensions or directedness, of ‘dirty’ or ‘spicy’ or ‘blue’ versus ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ depicts the sought-for phenomenon, as does Schönberg’s ingenious coinage of the “Triebleben (drive-life) der Klänge”. Thus, we do not simply perceive sounds, their successions and their accord, but in grasping them we perceive a comprehensive system of relations, of directions, tensions and solutions, movements towards or away from certain transitory gravitational places. This system exists in the melodic-harmonic as well as in the metric-rhythmic (temporal) realm, in fact, both are intimately connected and obey the same laws. (Stockhausen 1963: 99f.) Listening to music is an experiential grasping of what principles connect material bodies – ours as well as stones, pipes, star-molecules and trees. In that sense, music also liberates us from the illusory “default mode” of seeing ourselves in the centre of the universe. (Foster Wallace) Experiencing music does rather the opposite; it transcends the omnipresent boundary between the self, the seemingly singular subject, and the universe by experientially conveying the fact that it is not about us against the universe but us being the universe: as one of its conscious, self-exploratory extensions. (Design below ascribed to physicist John Wheeler (1911-2008).

Das ist so. Music as affirmation

We were asking: What is it that music knows about us? Hearing music as music requires transcending the mind-body-gap, the separations between thinking, perception and emotion. Emotions work cognitively here, the intellect is a sensual, eros-driven organ, and the moving body is a thinking-tool. Thinking about how music works is thus thinking about the interaction and tensions of diverse forms of thinking: with the brain being an extension of the body as well as the body being an extension of the brain. (possible music-example from film-documentary: “Throw down your heart”, 2008, dir. Sascha Paladino). Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein said in his Harvard Norton Lectures of Poetry (1973) with regard to “The Unanswered Question” of music (the title of a composition by Charles Ives) that he does not know the question, but the answer is ‘Yes’. (Bernstein 1976: final section.) Adorno made a similar remark in saying that one of the most pressing musical intentions consists in stating “’This is so’ (Das ist so): the judging confirmation of something not explicitly said.” (Adorno 2003: 651) At this very point of thought, a cascade of possible continuations of speaking (or here: writing) opens up, one of which would be to adopt a likewise paradoxical task of defining “mysticism” or “the mystical” in a logical way, accessible to our rational understanding. Perhaps it means nothing more enigmatic than: capable of showing, of being shown, not verbally expressible. (Wittgenstein 1984, Mahrenholz 2011: 177ff) One has to “see” it – here in the sense of: “hear”. This is so in verbal form is empty. This is so via music can disclose to you nothing less than the sense or essence of your life, while re-expanding your sense of self to its true universe-al extension.


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