Barton McLean

(Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 20, nos. 1-2; 1981)


An accelerating awareness of the drastic limitations of basic materials of Western music and its notation (such as twelve equally-divided pitches to the octave and rhythmic structures formed by adding units of a smallest common denominator) has taken place during the past three decades, causing such authors as John Vinton to protest:. . . composers in the West put the resources of rhythm behind bars and then virtually forgot about them. They rejected most of the world's sounds, including most sounds of the human voice, because they did not reduce to discrete pitches, twelve to the octave. They also rejected countless musical instruments because they were not tuned properly or produced too many subtleties of pitch and articulation. They rejected dissonances that were not closely bound by metrical and tonal controls. They developed taboos against tritones, wolf tones, and other phenomena that threatened the integrity of the system.1

For a more fundamental grasp of the significance of Vinton's words, one must reach outside the often incestuous writings of musicians to authors who can impart broader sociological, psychological, historical, and cultural contexts--writers such as Marshall McLuhan, John Shepherd, and Trevor Wishart. These and other original thinkers have shed a good deal of light on basic forces in our Western culture, forces unknown to us by virtue of our being so totally enmeshed in them.

As vital as McLuhan's, Shepherd's, and Wishart's ideas are to this exploration, even they only partially touch on what I believe to be a central concept acting as a common denominator of the others, dealing as it does with a basic human attribute transcending stylistic and cultural differences and reaching to a central property of human intelligence that enables us to create and explain abstract art--that of "extension." The extension process, explained to a large degree by the distinguished cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall in Beyond Culture, is one which a human creates an object or symbol outside of the body or mind. This is then used to increase efficiency, in effect becoming a natural human process enabling humans to come to grips with the outside world. Extensions are tools which enable us to exist on a civilized level. Verbal language is an extension of our basic thought. Sport is an extension of our competitive drive. Technology is an extension of our need to feed and clothe ourselves. And the arts extend our self-expression into the abstract realm. An extension may be a specific tool (a crowbar as extension of the forearm), or it may exist as abstract symbol (the major scale). Music and other arts deal mainly with symbolic extension. In essence symbolic extension is created to deal with abstraction and complexity, sparing us from always having to go back to "square one." Its necessity for the development of civilization can be demonstrated by asking ourselves where civilized humankind would be without the concept of numbers as a tool. Hall states: Extensions often permit man to solve problems in satisfying ways, to evolve and adapt at great speed without changing the basic structure of his body. However, the extension does something else: it permits man to examine and perfect that which is inside the head. Once something is externalized, it is possible to look at it, study it, change it, perfect it, and at the same time learn important thing about oneself.2

As the creative musical mind works through from the first intuitive impulse to the intellectual extension of it in notation, it travels from "internalization" to "externalization," in Hall's vocabulary. He writes: Altering the environment can be broken down into two complementary processes, externalizing and internalizing, which are ubiquitous, continuous, and normal.3

An internal element in a culture is one that is not extended into symbolic, i.e., written laws. For example, an American's toilet habits such as the designation of certain allowed areas, who can be in the same room, distance between participants, etc., are far different from those of a Beduoin tribesman, but both are learned by osmosis and become intuitive. An example of an external element in Western culture would be the concept of, say, geometry, with its complex extension system of three different symbolic languages (verbal, graphic, and numerical) needed to make it work.

Musically speaking, comparing a contemporary abstract piano sonata (externalized) with an improvised piano jazz solo (internalized) may be fruitful. Although both employ the same medium and perhaps even the same performer, a substantially greater amount of detail is externalized, i.e., written down, in the former instance, whereas in the latter idiom the external element may consist of only the basic pitch-metric structure, leaving the soloist to internalize the specific melodic-rhythmic- gestural material. That which is externalized (or extended) in a culture can easily be communicated, evolved, changed, and manipulated. That which is internalized must,. by its very nature, be a prisoner of the great difficulty of its transference from one individual to many, due to its oral character and its direct tie-in with a complex personalized gestural mode of performance. And it seems that, by their very nature, a fundamental difference exists between the two musics. Highly externalized music (a Beethoven symphony for example) is strong in vertical-contrapuntal sophistication and complexity, and relatively weak in melodic-gestural nuance; in comparison, an internalized improvised African flute melody lacks the ability to sustain large abstract pitch-rhythmic structures buy, being closer to the individual, is stronger in gestural-melodic-rhythmic nuance.

The process of externalization or extension necessarily creates some distance between the creator and the symbol being extended. In fact this may be a virtue, for only by this means can the artist, confronted with the need to build complex structures, be liberated from having to consider all of the details all of the time. Marshall McLuhan describes the process as one of "letting go." Speech comes with the development of the power to leg go of objects. It gives the power of detachment from the environment that is also the power of great mobility in knowledge of the environment . . . Currency is a way of letting go of the immediate staples and commodities that at first serve as money, in order to extend trading to the whole social complex.4

McLuhan also speaks of extension as a process of separating or "amputating" ourselves from the extended material: Medical researchers like Hans Selye and Adolphe Jonas hold that all extensions of ourselves . . . are attempts to maintain equilibrium. Any extension of ourselves they regard as 'autoamputation.'5 In perceiving this double-edged capacity of extension to enable us to abstract and cope with detail while at the same time further removing or even "amputating" us from the material being extended, we begin to see the myriad ramifications as well as dangers for its use in art. For, as will be shown later, Western music beyond the common practice period has so successfully set up an elaborately extended pitch-rhythmic-notational system (one which has ultimately become far removed from our own basic human body gestures, rhythms, and melodies in its extreme development as exemplified in, say, post-Webern serialism) as to effectively amputate from humankind its sound art. It is ironic that a symbolic system of communication such as Western notation can be devised to be so efficient that it defeats its own purpose of communication. As Rollo May observes:

Our situation is that in our heydey of rationalistic and technicalistic episodes, we have lost sight of and concern for the human being; . . . The critical issue presented by contemporary drama, for example, is the breakdown of communication.6

To better understand how May's situation has come to pass, I return to Hall as he touches on a profound danger intrinsic to the extension process:

It is also paradoxical that extensional systems--so flexible at first--frequently become quite rigid and difficult to change . . . Extension transference (ET) is the term I have given to this common intellectual maneuver in which the extension is confused with or takes the place of the process extended.7

Although the ET trap lurks wherever creative artists use abstractions, it seems to me that the classical serial technique as developed by Schoenberg and its further extensions thereafter are a prime example of the extension notion gone wild, to the point where the serial technique "amputates" itself from the natural inclinations of the basic pitch materials and from vital human perceptual responses as well. Critics from Paul Hindemith to Trevor Wishart have discredited this technique from a variety of viewpoints--its lack of elemental acoustical basis, its arbitrariness, the difficulty in perceiving its structures (particularly retrograde) among others--but to me the serial problem is even more fundamental and relates to this primary characteristic of humans to become absorbed and engrossed in their extensions systems. McLuhan sheds light on this as he interprets the Narcissus myth:

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.8

One of the underlying characteristics of abstract classical music of the late 1970s and early 1980s is an almost universal tendency for composers to search for more fundamental roots in their music. This has spawned a return to the tonality (of many kinds), ethnic-folk influences, and the use of environmental sounds and textures, often within a framework of the utmost simplicity. In their avoidance of complex, abstract, closed pitch-rhythmic systems, they are coming to grips with the ET trap by correlating their sound art more directly to the original human and environmental sources from which all extensions are drawn. In fact, a fundamental principle may be stated that, to the extent that art is extended and re-extended beyond its primary human-environmental sources, to that extent it runs the risk of losing validity as a vital abstract artistic communication. This can certainly be documented historically, for example, by noting the prominence or domination, as you will, of German music from 1790-1890. It is no accident that, throughout that period, this music was infused with the simple chorale, not always in an overt manner, but more characteristically by its "neutral" qualities of deliberate melodic turn, square rhythm, harmonic flavor, all of which enabled it to infuse and refresh the music of several generations of German composers, to a large degree subconsciously. In our own century, the most-played works of Bartok and Stravinsky (such as the latter's--most enduring--works based on Russian folk-melodic-rhythmic repetitive techniques, including Le Sacre du printemps and the Symphony of Psalms ) were similarly never very far removed (i.e. extended) from the basic melodic-rhythmic-harmonic techniques of their respective folk musics. And many of the most-performed works of Berg and Schoenberg are those which are the least extended (not serial) such as Wozzeck, Verklarte Nacht, and Pierrot Lunaire.


Fundamentally, symbolic extension systems in the arts (notation, theory) accumulate from the same mental processes as do the extension systems in other areas of our culture, and are a manifestation of our need to quantify and abstract in order to utilize, manipulate, and grow. Where these systems in the arts differ from those in other facets of our culture is in their inability to be discarded once they have become rigid and unyielding. This is due to the absence of data as to their usefulness. If a theory in the sciences does not work it is discarded on the basis of empirical evidence. But the arts do not operate this way. Although prolonged lack of audience acceptance of a work or a composer over a number of years may cause the public to discard that material, analogous to the discarding of a scientific theory, the opposite is sadly often the case in our day as certain composers and styles persist, particularly in academic-musicological-theoretical circles, by virtue of their conceptual or intellectual interest alone, apart from their intrinsic musical value. One rather startling statement by Ehle to this effect bears repetition: To retain the Western classical ideal of music as intellect, it has become necessary to give up the tradition of music as sound. Music in the last half of the twentieth century can thus be reduced to idea . . . . The intellectual tradition of Western music will continue to be expressed through eccentric, essentially nonmusical works while the sonic traditionalists will continue to produce works that are utilitarian, commercial, and trivial. Such is the peculiar nature of our time.9

Although I could not possibly disagree more with the above statement since it promotes "music as idea" over "music as sound" and thus separates it from the fundamental human aesthetic condition, the quote does shed some light on why music and music theory have undergone continual evolution. That Ehle is a supreme captive of extension transference is to put it mildly.

Whereas scientists and others have been able to breach the narrow confines of their discipline in order to verify their extension systems (e.g., scientific measurements corroborating a mathematical theory), artists have no easy method of such verification. This breeds two extension characteristics. First, there exists an extreme of rigidity as empirical data for confirming or discarding outmoded theories are lacking. Hall states,

"The danger is that real-life problems are dismissed, while philosophical and theoretical systems are treated as real."10 In connection with the above, I remember well a professor in my doctoral program who managed to turn far too many classes in musical style and analysis into lectures on set theory. Rhythm, texture, gesture, macroform, and a host of other attributes of the music at hand were dismissed as we probed ever deeper into the theoretical postulates of the pitch sets used, be they real or imagined. And this points to a second extension characteristic, namely, that to the extent that music theorists are unreasonably abstract, they will lose contact not only with the base human modes of aural response, but even with the very music they are dealing with. But together with this extreme rigid intellectual mode exists a counterforce of growth, development, and renewal owing to the tenuous non-verifiable nature of music. That the extremes of rigidity sometimes seen in theorists and the evolutionary process observed in composers are often in conflict is a normal part of the aesthetic world and process.

It is interesting to observe the exponential nature of the evolution of extensions such as the functional harmonic system. A backward look will show the evolution from 1700 to 1910 accelerating at a much more rapid pace toward the end of that period. And after the comparatively short time from Tristan to the Schoenberg works of 1909-11 (about 50 years), a time in which dissonance was on the verge of its emancipation, it took only about 15 years to take the giant step into serialism, and only about four years after that (c. 1947-1951) to completely explode into total serialism. Although I would not wish to single out the serial process as the one main path toward extension of the functional harmonic practice, it does serve as a good example of how the evolution of extensions is often exponential in nature, and how, after a critical point toward the end of the exponential curve has been reached, the intellectual element feeds only on itself, without regard for its fundamental human roots, propelled by its own narrowing logic.

That Western music and music theory of the last 250 years have evolved so rapidly is primarily due to their extension systems (notation, modular ordering, scale, harmonic systems), which are rather abstract and far-removed from the original creative impulse (when compared to Eastern music). Being thus removed, they are subject to a faster evolutionary process since the extension systems are of a high enough order to sustain a high degree of manipulation. Hall comments: It is now possible to actually see evolution taking place, an evolution that occurs outside the organism and at a greatly accelerated pace when compared to intrinsic evolution.11

It seems to me that several implicit and often erroneous assumptions lie behind much music theory of the past several hundred years--unchallenged, unconscious articles of faith, as it were, that might stand scrutiny under Hall's concept of "Extension Transference." In the following it must be understood that I will make extreme points for the sake of clarity.

Assumption #1: Since Western music consists of discrete components which, in themselves are relatively neutral and meaningless (notes, rhythms) but which, when combined with others, form musical works of uniqueness, the assumption is that these same works can be analyzed and explained in terms of these modular components, even without other scrutiny. This is the basis of much harmonic analysis. I remember attending a graduate styles course in which the principal task was to fit the particular functional harmonic symbols of that school to the pitch content of the music, this even

in Wagner, Debussy, and Scriabin (!), the latter two explained chiefly in terms of how they subverted the system rather than in terms of their own unique language. Although we learned much about the school's particular harmonic classification system, very little if any insight was gained into the music itself. This analytic syndrome is not only widespread in music theory, but is a fundamental tool of the sciences. The methodology employed is one of explaining an event or object by reducing it to its constituent parts, a procedure which was designed to work well in science, but which is employed most judiciously in the arts only on an elementary level. In functional harmonic analysis, where every single note in the work is subject to compartmentalization in a more or less arbitrary scheme, classes of students spend much of their time explaining why an event fits or does not fit into a particular slot in the theoretical system (for example, is a chord progression a modulation or a secondary dominant) rather than in gaining an insight into the music. On the other hand, if the main purpose were to develop and coordinate eye-to-ear skills, then this analysis might be more appropriate. That this method is general and all-pervading in Western academic circles is stated by Shepherd as he observes:

But so seductive is the Newtonian/Laplacian world view, and so strong is scientific mythology that some people, such as Helmholz, believe that, at least in theory, every phenomenon can be reduced to its constituent material parts and satisfactorily explained through classical physical theories.12

This predilection to equate theory (i.e., a "modulation") with that which is theorized about (i.e., the section of the work containing the modulation) is a prime example of ET, and pervades music theory. Theorists are sometimes so fascinated by their systems that they lose track of what they are analyzing.

Assumption #2: A corollary of the above is that music must usually be explained or analyzed by using a verbal-analytical system. Analytical systems are useful as long as one is learning more about the music than about the system and as long as meaningful intrinsic events are not excluded because they do not fit into the system, but the reverse is often the case in music theory. As Shepherd states:

For them (European civilization) everything is rationally explicable when reduced to the appropriate analytic constituents. Anything which cannot be so reduced and which therefore cannot be made visually explicit, immediately becomes non-knowledge.13

Assumption #3: One result of the reduction of phenomena to their constituent parts has been the often artificial assumption that content and form are always separate, when frequently the music would be better served by ignoring this distinction, particularly in internally-generated process-oriented music.

Assumption #4: Music theorists have assumed that the discursive modes of speech and the non-discursive modes of music are interchangeable on many levels. This is not the case. Formal analytic symbols in music work best when describing the general and the simple. To the extent that they become involved in their own complex relationships they lose contact with the music. This is not understood by many theorists who revel in verbal sophistication and complexity.

Assumption #5: states that music is constituted of, and can be totally defined in terms of, its notation (or more precisely, pitch-rhythmic notation). This not only produces insensitivity to such intangibles as performance-gestural modes, timbre, and texture, but also frequently excludes whole categories of music from serious theoretical (and any other) study, categories such as electronic, ethnic, and indeterminately-notated music. This failure to distinguish between symbol and content has led to--among other notions--a process whereby music theorists and musicologists tend to select works for study on the basis of their visual-conceptual properties alone. On perusing the analytical writings of the past 15 years, one notes a preponderance of analyses of Webern, for example. But who has cared about Prokofief? Only the performers, listeners, and audiences.

These five assumptions, all flirting with the extension transference trap, underlie some central problems concerning the relevance of higher levels (i.e., primarily not skill-related) of Western music theory and musicology of the past several hundred years and particularly of our own time.


Before delving further into the extended symbol's application and misapplication in music, it is necessary first to explore its role in the much more clearly defined verbal language, since it will be shown later that a good deal of the ET mentioned previously results from the misapplication of the musical symbol as if it were a verbal one. Since a crucial test of any language, be it musical or verbal (spoken or written) is its ability to convey nuance, subtlety and richness as well as specificity of meaning14 (i.e., the composers' intent), it is interesting to see how the spoken and written verbal language differ in this regard. McLuhan writes: There are not many ways of writing 'tonight,' but Stanislavsky used to ask his young actors to pronounce and stress it 50 different ways while the audience wrote down the different shades of feeling and meaning expressed.15

Here McLuhan touches on the difficulty of the extended written verbal symbol, in and of itself, to convey shade and nuance of meaning. But is the symbol not always translated and interpreted by context and the experience of the listener or reader? Yes, partly. But as I will show, the written language by its very nature will, before being read, already have acted as a "filtering" mechanism to allow only modes of expression and thought that, in its distilled discreteness, it can convey.

There is a vast difference among the several modes of verbal thought and communication. They may be portrayed as 1) pre-extension non-verbal, 2) oral-verbal, 3) written, and 4) computer-derived. Each is an extension of the previous one, and is a further abstraction of it.

The pre-extension level is that through which the basic thought emerges in a non-verbal or partially- verbal state. Its nature is holistic, continuous, and free-associative, being unfettered by the necessities of verbal syntax. In order for communication to exist, this primordial state must give way to spoken language. As Edward Hall states: . . the spoken language is an abstraction of an event that happened, might have happened, or is being planned. As any writer knows, an event is usually infinitely more complex and rich than the language used to describe it.16

By the very nature of the extension process one must select the vocabulary and syntax which best articulate the thought to be expressed, a process which, unlike the primordial state, becomes discrete, analytical, and combinatorial. That this process of selection and conforming to an already-established pattern works fairly well in spoken language (as opposed to music) is a testament to the nature of verbal discreteness, its power of aural nuance when spoken, and the endless ingenuity with which the individual can permute its symbols, not to mention its capability of improvisation and its ability to withstand a variety of inflection.

The confining qualities of the extension process can be seen more clearly when the spoken symbol is converted to written language (the third stage). Although both the written and the spoken symbolic system seemingly utilize the same vocabulary, syntax, and articulation of thought processes, profound differences appear, ones which are central to my subsequent discussion of music and notation. Again I quote from Hall: Older readers may remember when English teachers tried to convince them that the real language was the written language, of which the spoken language was merely a watered-down, adulterated version. Actually, the spoken language is the primary extension. The written language is a second-generation extension . . . the written language is a symbolization of the spoken language.17

The Funeral Oration of Marc Anthony is an excellent example of the limitation of the written word in conveying subtlety of meaning. As the central phrase, "But Brutus is an honourable man" is spoken again and again and its meaning gradually shifts from praise to bitter sarcasm as we realize that the true intent of Anthony is not to praise but to damn Brutus, the brunt of the meaning is borne through oral inflection. If we were only to read the drama its richness of meaning would be partially lost. Here the central issue is the severe limitation imposed on the ability to articulate nuance and richness of meaning be the intrusion of the written symbol. However necessary this symbolization is in our industrial-technological Western society, my concern is that we become aware of its restriction as a mode of artistic expression in an abstract medium. When the written is distilled from the oral, much is lost. The written symbol demands conformity to an established syntactical practice. It is also relatively incapable of expressing gestural and oral inflection. Furthermore, in contrast to its oral counterpart, the written symbol fosters standardization and conformity, traits which are admirable in science, industry, and the more objective academic disciplines, but which hinder artistic expression particularly when non-objective art forms, such as music and its notation, are practiced by those unaware of these implications.

Recent times have witnessed a fourth-generation extension, that of the computer. Originally employed in mathematical-scientific-technological modes in which the lines of logic are relatively straightforward, the medium has increasingly entered the arena of more social-based human communication (i.e., with devices which teach, translate, and verbally communicate to users). Anyone who has recently applied the computer to these tasks, particularly the individual involved in developing computer software, is aware of the profound difference between the types and richness of verbal language capable of being utilized by the computer and verbal language in the rest of society. Although both modes seemingly employ the same syntax and vocabulary, the computer, in its constraint of only being able to react to a situation already foreseen by a software developer, and only then in a non-holistic manner, in essence limits the discourse between it and the user to, again, those situations already foreseen and programmed, thereby resulting in a relatively efficient operation when the communication is straightforward and utilizes considerable repetition. But when all of the subtleties of written language, along with its infinite shades of meaning derived from differing concepts are processed by the computer, the latter is unable to cope. The natural result of this extension, then, is a reshaping and further "filtering" of the written material specifically for computer use, resulting in an enormous deterioration in richness of language. This is acceptable and necessary when the end results are pragmatic, but poses dangers in the arts. For example, in computer-generated music most of the works to date have had severe limitations imposed on them by the computer, particularly in those intangible and complex areas of timbre and its ability to change, and human gesture. Since rhythm and pitch are vastly easier to quantify and manipulate than timbre and gesture, the great majority of computer-generated works to date are basically note-oriented, lacking the richness of other parameters. As of this writing, a movement toward correcting this inherent characteristic through more sophisticated programming which interfaces more directly with the creator is in evidence. But the basic problem--that the computer extension is a roadblock to the creator's impulse--will remain, only to be painstakingly conquered. This is not to deny the fundamental importance of the computer in the future of new music--only to point out its inherent limitations. It is interesting to note that, in its Narcissistic preoccupation with technical developments, an almost infinitesimal amount of the literature on computer music deals with the concept of extension transference (in name or fact) and the way the computer imposes its limitations on the creative thought process. Only touched on here, this is a rich field for exploration.

As an aside, it may be remarked that computer-generated music shares the problem of transferring subtlety and nuance from the creator-performer through the performance medium with other electronically-generated music such as that for the keyboard synthesizer or electric piano. That the further extension of the acoustic properties of the instrument through electronic technology has produced such ghastly devices as "vibrato," "fuzz," and "wah-wah" effects to attempt to cover up this basic problem only serves to highlight and emphasize the "canned" quality of these instruments and the ensembles which use them, because of their inability to offer the infinite gradations of expression possible with their acoustic (non-electrified) counterparts. And so, as electronic technology extends the instruments beyond their normal volume into a larger space, it robs them of the richness of centuries of expressive capability. A new performance-composition tradition is developed--one which substitutes the obvious "expressive" devides controlled by knobs for the older direct contact with digits and limbs. At their best, these instruments utilizing electronic amplification have the potential for their own kind of quality, no less alluring or legitimate for artistic expression than acoustic instruments. But it is a quality depicting the extension of the human (i.e., the machine) rather than humankind itself.

Before exploring Western music notation and its problems in delineating the richness of nuance and subtlety needed in a sound medium where basic communication is much closer to the individual, i.e., less extended via symbolization, it will be useful to see how modes of extending verbal thought operate in preliterate (those without written language) as opposed to Western literate culture. The comparisons are significant to music since throughout this investigation the reader will be in a better position to discern what we as a culture have lost.

For example, cultural anthropologists have found that preliterate cultures often do not systematically form thoughts with individual building-block words as we do in the West. The preliterate thought process is largely holistic (as is music), unlike the Western tendency to separate word from thought and alphabet letter from word, forming a hierarchal structure where, as McLuhan says, "semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds."21 McLuhan and others have gone on to show how this separation of symbol from its meaning relates to the advent of movable type printing and is essential to the fostering of the industrial-technological-scientific society: this extension and separation of the symbol from direct contact with that being symbolized enabled it to become modular and reproducible en masse, resulting in, for example, a car part made in Japan for production in Detroit, a scientific journal in one city being understood in another distant laboratory without direct contact, or a sonata written in one location performed in another by another individual.

For all the benefits of the creation of a standard modularized language and syntax, and there are many, much is lost as McLuhan states:

Uniformity reached also into areas of speech and writing, leading to a single tone and attitude to reader and subject spread throughout the entire composition. The 'man of letters' was born. Extended to the spoken word, this literate equitone enabled literate people to maintain a single 'high tone' in discourse that was quite devastating. . . . .

Permeation of the colloquial language with literate uniform qualities has flattened out educated speech till it is a very reasonable acoustic facsimile of the uniform and continuous visual effects of typography. From this technological effect follows the further fact that humor, slang, and dramatic vigor of American-English speech are monopolies of the semiliterate.

Of course the complete separation of meaning from symbol is not the only way to achieve written symbolization in a culture. The Chinese ideogram may be said to present a middleground between preserving richness and nuance of an event on the one hand while scribing or documenting it on the other. There is often little or no modularity in an ideogram. A particular symbol may mean a word or a grouping of words, there being no distinction between them. And each symbol's meaning is often much more specific, rich, and complex than is the modularized symbolization of Western culture. Therefore it follows that the concept of alphabet as we know it in the West is not present. Instead, thousands of often highly intricate symbols exist, each with a particular meaning. Since each must be separately learned, dissemination of the written language over a wide area is difficult, because in order to understand the symbols much more must be transmitted orally and be absorbed through osmosis in the culture (or what Hall calls a relatively "high context" approach). But on the plus side, a much richer palette of nuance and shading is possible, provided the individual once learns a specific symbol. In other words, it may be said that the ideogram is not as highly extended beyond the oral language as is the phonetic alphabet due to its relative lack of abstraction of symbol from direct contact with that which is symbolized. The ideogrammatic symbol, then, does not have a hierarchal structure of its own beyond what it means.


Traditional Western music notation is a symbolic extension of the creative process, in this case proceeding from the initial idea to its final symbolic realization. In so proceeding from this non- or less-extended to a more highly extended mode, the process involved is actually one of translation from one medium, the unformed gestural impulse, to its extended (notated) counterpart. When one particular extended symbolic system is translated into another of the same order or generation of extension (or the same amount of abstraction) fewer problems are encountered. The ease with which one can translate English into Spanish, or a play into a movie (as McLuhan's theory of analyzing the

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