• Vitor Guerreiro

On the difference between singing and speaking

Updated: Feb 17

This is about Jeanette Bicknell's guest lecture on the topic of singing and speaking and the difference between the two (check Media --> Guest Lectures) - it is based on one of Jeanette's papers, which you can read here. It connects to our seminar’s program in two ways. On the one hand, it is an example of the sorts of questions you will find on the “philosophies of the particular arts”, as philosophy of art in the 20th century became more and more interested in specific problems raised by different artistic practices. If you think about it, it is a perfect example of a philosophical question on art, in the sense that no amount empirical data is going to settle the question (though we need the data from empirical research, e.g. from ethnomusicology, to be able to start thinking about it). On the other hand, it comes with a perfect timing since you are now concluding your reading of Arthur Danto’s paper “The Artworld”. Why do I say this? Well, because we can see (and this is my suggestion) the argument Jeanette puts forward here – that the difference between singing and speaking is not given by physiological or acoustic “markers”, but by virtue of cultural background and both singers and listeners’ expectations regarding what they are doing – as a test case for Danto’s ideas about the difference between what is art and what is not residing in “something the eye cannot decry” (here we should say something the ear cannot decry), in our background “art theories” and cultural context. According to Danto, you can have two perceptually identical objects, one of which is an artwork and the other isn’t; and you can have two perceptually identical objects, each of which is a separate artwork. If he is right, then nothing about the physical structure of the object, or its phenomenal appearance to an uninformed observer or a “purely innocent” gaze will allow us either to 1) distinguish art from non-art, 2) individuate works of art. In his view, “mere real things” (physical objects) are always parts of the artwork, which can never be an artwork outside a context made up of shared beliefs (background theories and a cultural setting).

Notice however that there is a nuance here. Jeanette is not discussing whether a certain form of song or speech is art, which is a separate question: maybe not all song is art, just like not all speech is. A proponent of an aesthetic theory of art, like Zangwill, would have difficulty claiming that something is song and not art, given the focus on intentions to produce aesthetic properties from combinations of non-aesthetic properties; while a different kind of theorist might claim that not all cases of singing are cases of art. But that is not the question Jeanette is dealing with. Whatever our ideas about the difference between art and non-art, those ideas would not help us in establishing the difference between singing and speaking. She starts by questioning an assumption made by the Canadian philosopher Francis Sparshott, in a 1997 paper called “Singing and Speaking”: that we can easily tell when someone starts singing. The challenge is made by presenting a series of “borderline cases” across different social and cultural contexts: children’s hand clapping rhymes, auctioneer chants, street sellers’ calls, religious chant, calls to prayer, Sprechstimme (of which a famous example is used by Schönberg in his Pierrot Lunaire), talking blues (Jeanette uses the example of Johnny Cash’s 1971 Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues, but I can’t help adding, in the way of illustration, Woody Guthrie’s 1937 Talking Dust Bowl Blues), rap, and spoken word poetry. For instance, talking blues and spoken word poetry can be indistinguishable, and yet they have completely different cultural associations: the former is treated as song and associated with “low” or “folk” art, the latter is treated as speech and associated with “high” art. She then argues that the way to understand these borderline cases is to look beyond physiological or acoustic “markers”, into something very similar to what Danto is thinking about when he speaks of what “the eye cannot decry” (though Jeanette makes no reference to Danto here – any problem with that idea should be imputed to me, since I am making it, but I do think it fits with the argument.

Jeanette concludes the lecture with the other part of her argument: why do we sing when speech seems more effective in performing the function of relaying a message? Here she will challenge another of Sparshott’s assumptions in the paper mentioned above: that speech is the default mode of human communication or the primary use of the human ability of vocal communication while singing is a modification of it. However, a case can be made (though this is work for empirical science) for the idea that both speech and song evolved together, and even people arguing that we got it all backwards (though the latter is a reference I am adding to Jeanette’s lecture)

But whatever the conclusions about this point (which is primary, which is derivative, or whether none are), we choose to sing when we could speak because we see a sort of value in singing (blinking my eye to Zangwill here). Jeanette concludes by characterising song as a form of communication inviting special sorts of attention, in a way that for me is reminiscent of Ellen Dissanayake’s concept of “making special”, which you have already found, if you remember, in reading Dutton.

Vítor Guerreiro

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