Is Music a Language?

Adorno, Voloshinov and the Language Character of Music

In: Historical Materialism
Mark Abel University of Brighton

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Marxists regard works of art as meaningful, and look for political meanings in apparently non-political literature, films and paintings. But where does music’s meaning lie? The conventional view is that music is non-referential, capable only of supporting other artforms or of expressing emotions. Adorno rejects the idea of music as a language of emotions, and does not believe that music has universal grammatical and syntactical rules. Yet he claims that music has language characteristics which make it as political as other artforms. What does he mean, and is he right? To answer those questions, we need to know how he understands language. This article examines how Adorno’s view compares with the Marxist theory of language and consciousness developed by Valentin Voloshinov, and explores the extent to which approaching music from this direction might clarify a Marxist understanding of music and contribute to solving the thorny question of musical meaning.

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