Composer | Conductor

Thoughts on Mahnkopf’s Musical Supertext


Martín Rincón Botero


The listener relates any music to the totality of all music—spontaneously. In this respect, listening to music is like understanding language. We understand the meaning of a sentence because we understand the (native) language. Every verbally articulated statement is part of the virtually infinite supertext of language. In music it is exactly the same: music, most of all tonal music, develops a supertext that is generally comprehensible and permits an internal differentiation of its vocabulary [...]. (Mahnkopf, 2014, p. 14).

The idea that listening to music is like understanding language is a very powerful idea. However, it seems to imply that listening to music is the same as understanding it. In the same fashion, listening to someone speak doesn’t necessarily imply that the used language will be understood. The use of the word “native” doesn’t help here either, especially since we (some of us) are capable of understanding other languages than the own native one.

What Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf refers to more precisely has to do with the fact that all music is somehow made out of the same limited collection of small components, as he states in a footnote:

If one analyzes music down to the smallest level (rhythmic shapes, motifs, sounds, chords), one will find that all or almost all of these elements are unoriginal. They are identical or similar to what one finds at the same level in other music (Mahnkopf, p. 14).

This means that a process of “semantization” has somehow occurred in the listener through repeated exposure to music. That is, these small, unoriginal elements in themselves (signifiers), have been somehow given meaning by the listener.

From a semiotic point of view, these musical signifiers have to be understood in relationship to their denotation (the surface or literal meaning of a musical object, something that normally only musicians are more aware of, such as identifying the group of notes C-E-G as a C major chord) and their connotation (the cultural or emotional association that a musical object or phrase carries, a part of meaning that musicians as well as non-musicians may understand).

So, the musical supertext is the total amount of musical signifiers which in turn have denotative and connotative meaning. Denotation is only intra-musical while connotation may be extra-musical. If the latter is true and if it always applies for every piece of music, then the term absolute music is an impossibility from the listener’s perspective, especially if every musical object is understood through some sort of what we might call neuronal semantic network. C. S. Mahnkopf seems to recognize only a semantic network based on the denotative aspect of music:

Brain scientists assume that when we hear a word, our minds instantaneously summon up all the associations this word has for us into a form of current consciousness storage, making this knowledge present. Something similar happens with music: we compare the sounds, rhythms, melodic motifs and harmonic connections with what we have heard before—and if we are adults, we have heard a great deal. We understand because we recognize similarities and connect them to form a multi-faceted network. (Mahnkopf, p. 14).

It is however very likely that we also compare connotative associations of a certain piece of music to what we have heard before. These connotations can make the listener reaffirm his or her own musical experience (such as when a listener identifies in a new song that it is music to be danced to), or they can confront the listener’s own emotional associations (like hearing The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as part of the Requiem für einen jungen Dichter by Bernd Alois Zimmermann).

But even in more absolute cases, any piece of classical music may evoke emotions or images that the composer didn’t consciously intend to. Or a piece of music may evoke “wrong” emotions when the composer meant differently. “Misunderstanding” music is indeed possible. In this respect too, music resembles language.

All quotes taken from Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s “What is the Meaning of Musical Substance” in “Substance and Content in Music Today”, New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century Vol. 9, Wolke Verlag, Hofheim. The closing phrase (”In this respect...”) was taken from the original text (p. 15) but left unquoted for not affecting the text flow.