Agawu: How music means


1. Kofi Agawu, in his book Playing with Signs, is ultimately concerned with meaning in music. He is concerned with how the composer reaches its audience and believes the analyst's job is to reveal the various dimensions of his communicative process. Agawu stresses the importance of the audience in the creation of classical music. He says that Mozart's music in particular is an example of "listener orientated" classical music and does not fail to mention the numerous references to "the audience" that Mozart makes in the letters to his father. It seems that both Mozart and Agawu are/were concerned with how the music reaches their audience.

2. The audience's active role in the creation of music, particularly that of Mozart's, reminds me of Bakhtin's writings. (For example, Mozart and his audience are involved in a musical dialogue: He speeks to and is influenced by his audience.) Bakhtin's theories are very much concerned with the nature of discourse. They are concerned with the how in communication. I think it is interesting that Bakhtin's approach to discourse as interactive and dialogic strongly coincides with Agawu's description of communication in classical music. (I wonder if anyone else saw the same connection.)

3. Agawu is concerned more with how a piece of music means rather than what it means. Like Alex, I also understand the how as the form/process of a piece and the what as a specific realization of its form, namely its content. I also find Agawu's separation of how and what a little troubling. The only way this separation makes sense to me is to think of the separation as a temporary thing.

4. Perhaps it can be useful to temporarily separate the how (Agawu's structure) from the what (expression) when, for example, you need to focus on a ‘theory' itself. Schenker does this when he labels the "how/structure" the "background" and the "what/content" the "foreground." This separation allows the analyst to see and explain what all the whats have in common and how the whats work. I think Agawu must have just separated the two in order to better develop his theory of meaning in Classical music.

(Back to Sandra's Home Page)