[AN OVERALL SOUND PROCESS] Syntactic parameters, statistic parameters, and universals

Nicolas Meeùs


Introducing Part Two of the Fifth volume, L’Unità della musica, of the Enciclopedia della musica (2005), Molino and Nattiez stress "two major coexisting and opposed traditions in Europe concerning the nature of music, considered either as an abstract discipline founded on numbers, or as an affective and moral experience." This distinction is reminiscent of that made by Curt Sachs (1943, p. 41) between "logogenic" and "pathogenic" music; Molino and Nattiez (p. 352) refer rather to Leonard Meyer’s "distinction between syntactic and statistic parameters."

This distinction, essential to the organization of the third section of L’Unità della musica, organizes not only the fifth volume itself, but also the whole project of the Enciclopedia. Yet, most of the authors describing typologies in the fifth volume appear less at ease with statistical parameters, with noises, with unmeasured rhythms, with "complex dynamic models" of pitch organization. Even Nattiez forgets statistic elements when he states that the Enciclopedia "proposes a typology of the scales, a classification of the modes universally used in the vocal monodies" (p. xxviii), as if scales and modes – syntactic elements – necessarily existed in all musics of the world.

My paper intends to show that comparative musicology, in facts if not in principles, appears inherently linked to the syntactic elements of music – and so also any encyclopedic project aiming at uncovering universals in music. Not that statistic elements cannot be universal, but that they cannot be commented as such, because they remain largely unquantifiable.

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