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date: 17 May 2021

Meyer, Leonard B. locked

  • F.E. Sparshott
  • , revised by Naomi Cumming


( b New York, Jan 12, 1918; d New York, Dec 30, 2007). American musicologist and writer on aesthetics . Meyer studied philosophy and music at Columbia University (MA in music, 1949) and the history of culture at the University of Chicago (PhD 1954), and studied composition privately with Stefan Wolpe and others. In 1946 he became a member of the department of music at the University of Chicago (professor and chairman, 1961–70; Phyllis Fay Horton professor in the humanities, 1972–5) and in 1975 was appointed Benjamin Franklin professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also visiting professor at a number of North American universities, including Harvard University and the Eastman School of Music. He became professor emeritus at Pennsylvania in 1988.

Meyer first became well known for the theory of musical meaning expounded in Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956). Here he develops a distinctive account of musical content by bringing together aspects of Gestalt psychology and American pragmatist thought following Charles S. Peirce. From the pragmatists John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Charles Morris, Meyer took up Peirce's central pragmatic idea, that the ‘meaning’ of an event (X) could be found in the consequence (Y) to which it pointed. Peirce had argued that any automatic and habitual response to an event must embody an anticipation of its probable consequences (Y), showing that the person responding tacitly understood the event's meaning. Dewey suggested, further, that the failure of an habitual response would lead a person either to reason about an event's meaning or to respond emotionally, and it was this idea that formed Meyer's central position. Music's expressive content or meaning, he suggested, could be observed at those moments when an established pattern had given rise to an habitual response, but the pattern had then been interrupted in some way. Gestalt psychology provided an account of modes of perception that could be taken as ‘naturally’ ingrained habits. Complementing this with a recognition of style as a set of learned conventions, Meyer developed an account of musical expectancy as perceptually constrained and stylistically learned. His account of meaning and expressiveness in music was then carried through by attention to formal and stylistic patterns, as the content of listeners' expectancies. It was thus a combined formalist/expressivist position....

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