Unlike literature, music doesn’t really require interpretation. In Truth and Method, Gadamer gives a convincing account of how the interpretative dimension of reading works. The brilliance of Gadamer’s description of what he calls the hermeneutic circle paradoxically illustrates the poverty of considering music in literary terms. In Gadamer’s thinking, interpretation happens through a series of projections that guide the process of reading but that are also consequently revised by it. What a text means, therefore, is not something that is passively revealed by the literary work; rather, interpretation requires projecting hypotheses that at first limit our engagement with the actual heterogeneity of text. Continued reading, however, transforms and enriches those original hypotheses and those reshaped possible interpretations open the hermeneutic circle yet again. In other words, as soon as you start reading you think you know where it’s all going to go but then, SURPRISE MOTHERFUCKER, THINK AGAIN! Interpreting the meaning of something is the dynamic mediation between the reader and the text.
While music has the same temporal dimension as literature—its experience involves the passage of time—it doesn’t involve the same kind of interpretive projections. The anticipation is experiential not semantic, more bodily than cognitive. Take for example the arresting yet completely enigmatic Super Beagle sample that opens Kanye West’s “Mercy.” The question one asks is not “What does that mean?” but “What is he saying?” But even without understanding one word, you experience it musically as counterpoint to the heavy, deliberate, and minimalist beats at the songs opening. It’s a stunning intro. The first time I heard it I could feel my body dilate to the song to feel where it was going. I anticipated affect not meaning, an ending but not a resolution. If it plays any role at all, interpretation is something that happens in music only after most of the somatic sensations that connect us to music dissipate. (This might sound like an odd claim in this blog, but if you notice carefully I hardly ever interpret songs here. Mostly I describe what they do and then use them to illustrate the social/aesthetic/theoretical/personal context that I want to write about.)