mimesis and music

is a series of three texts. They should be read in the following order

Movement conjuring signs
Sonorous beings and absolute music
Auditory mimesis and music

Whoever is not familiar with the concept of 'mimesis' should first read

Below are the summaries of the three texts:


Image conjuring signs are signs that elicit the performance of a movement. They contain information about the nature and the timing of the movements that are to be executed. They may be visual, but only as auditory signs do they develop into the elaborate system of movement conjuring signs that is called 'music'. With 'speech music', the movement conjuring signs are inherent to the conjured up movements (speech, song). With work and dance music, they are played by musical instruments, and hence exherent to the movements that are conjured up . The use of musical instruments leads to the full development of the system of musical signs (pure tones organised in scales), and to the further unfolding of speech music into singing. Dance music and speech music are often combined in the popular formula of ''melody with rhythmic accompaniment'. This kind of music is primarily a sign for and not an imitation of movements, and does, hence, not belong to the realm of (the) art (of imitation), but to the domain of the design of image conjuring signs and dance movements.


The sounds of speech music and dance music can also be heard as auditory phenomena in their own right. They are then experienced as the appearance of a sonorous being that moves in an appropriate musical space. Such reading is facilitated by the use of pitch as movement conjuring sign, and by the formation of all kind of complex musical formations like melody, harmony and polyphony. It lies at the roots of the development of what is called 'absolute music'. Absolute music is mimetic: the auditory appearance that we hear in musical space does not emanate from a really existing soul, it is produced by the playing of instruments in three-dimensional space. The singer and the musician are merely the medium bearers of the moving sounds. Absolute music is not the paradigm of abstraction, but rather the apogee of completed mimesis. It is immediate mimesis of monosensorial beings. The musical material may be more or less favourable to the unfolding of musical space. Also the movement of sonorous beings can be conjured by movement conjuring signs (although that is not always the case). That leads to the phenomenon of what we call 'sympathetic mimesis', but also to the various attempts at playing or dancing along with the sonorous beings. The latter lie at the roots of the misleading impression that music is the auditory appearance of the musicians or the composer: mimesis misunderstood as expression.


Music has increasingly come to be understood as an 'abstract' - non-mimetic - art. To convincingly demonstrate that - or in how far - music is mimetic, is the touchstone of every theory of mimesis. In 'Movement conjuring signs' we showed that speech and dance music are a question of signs (semiosis), not of imitation (mimesis): speech music does not imitate speakers or singers, but rather elicits their speaking and singing, and dance music does not imitate dancers, but rather elicits their dancing. With auditory mimesis, something is imitated by duplicating its auditory appearance. Next to auditory mimesis of non-intentional sounds (ordinary auditory mimesis) there is also mimesis of intentional sounds. The intentional sounds may be speech - in which case we are dealing with verbal auditory mimesis (as in lyric poetry and theatre), or it may be musical appearances - in which case we are dealing with musical mimesis. Thus, musical mimesis is only one of the domains of auditory mimesis as such. The domain of musical mimesis itself can be divided in many subdomains, according to the kind of musical appearance that is imitated. We can discern musical appearances of existing and of imaginary beings. To the former category belong musicalised (non-)existing beings, wordless speakers and singers, (non-)existing singers and musicians, but above all the sonorous beings that we discovered in 'Sonorous beings and absolute music'. Musical mimesis consists in singing or playing the appearance that belongs to one of these beings. Next to unmediated musical mimesis, there is also mediated musical mimesis: the conjuring of images through movement conjuring signs (as for example in 'program music'). There is a strong resistance to the idea of mimetic music, and the mimetic nature of absolute music and of mimetic music in general is universally misunderstood. That leads to to all kinds of philosophical misconceptions. The many kinds of music can be combined, and many forms of music can be read in each other's terms. That is precisely why it is so important to discern the various kinds of music: only then is it apparent that music is mostly of a hybrid nature. But above all does it becomes apparent that next to the paradigm of the image - the visual, non-moving and single image of which the art philosophers seem so fond - there are also far more complex kinds of images, not only in music and in literature, but in the visual arts as well.

Stefan Beyst, spring 2012.

 facebookshare facebookvolg    twitter

image of the week:

eXTReMe Tracker