Raymond Monelle observes the belief that there are simultaneously plural cultural temporalities, which musical temporalities exemplify. This is distinguished from the impression of natural time, as a flow that is uniform and singular.
One could hardly exaggerate the importance of temporality – cultural time – in musical decisions, because music is predominantly an art of time. Although we live in the “monochronic” west, where time is imagined to be uniform and linear, we nevertheless possess a musical culture that reflects several forms of temporality.
It is important to distinguish time from temporality. These two aspects, the first natural and the second cultural, have quite different functions in music as well as in perception. Natural or “objective” time is a condition of life, a “transcendent form” in the expression of Kant. It is continuous and irreversible, the present always poised between a past and a future…Apparently, natural time flows at a uniform pace in one direction and penetrates all that occupies it…It is the time in which events can be placed, the tabula rosa on which the temporal forms of life are written.
It is argued nowadays that natural time is itself a cultural convention…A musical writer confesses that natural time is “little more than a social convention agreed to for practical reasons” (Kramer 1988, p.5)…Nevertheless, for ordinary purposes we base our serialities on a conception of linear and uniform time. But it is impossible to live in natural time; in order to perform any of the ordinary functions of daily life, we must somehow grasp time imaginatively, either in the present or in the longer scope…
The unifying imagination which enables us to grasp time is furnished by culture. As was realized by Henri Bergson, our freedom and our power to act are founded in imagined or experienced time, not in natural time. But different cultures furnish different times, and culture normally offers several simultaneous times. Every anthropologist stresses this, but nevertheless one sometimes hears of “monochronicity.” Modern western culture is apparently governed by one time alone, the time of the clock…
If we adopt “temporality” as the term for cultural time, then we are obliged to make a further distinction. Sign systems may proceed in time; however, it is not necessarily the case that the levels of content and expression acknowledge the same temporality, or that pertinent juncture occurs correspondingly on the two levels. In other words, the levels of content and expression may be temporally nonconformal…Language and music are temporal signs, of course, but the time within which they are structured is not necessarily connected to the time they may mean.
For example, most linguistic and musical syntagms in traditional styles end with closure, the grammatical completion of the phrase…Of course, closure is not the only temporal feature permeating linguistic syntax and semantics. Yet the condition of music is even more complicated. As in language, there is a temporality of syntactic structure. But theorists have studied this sort of time, in its typical forms of meter, rhythm, and phrasing, with such profound attention that we forget that music can also signify time. There is a temporality of the signified, as well as a temporality of the signifier.
Unlike language, music usually signifies indexically, and every temporal feature of its syntax is available to signify some temporal meaning. We are apt to find often in music…that syntactic features acquire semantic load, by indexicality. But musical syntax does not necessarily carry semantic weight; the failure to distinguish syntactic and semantic temporality has led to much confusion in the temporal theory of music.
Monelle, Raymond. 2000. The sense of music: Semiotic essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.