Debate: Ambiguity

Updated Saturday 24th June 2006

Professor Dennis Kurzon takes issue with Darren Barenboim's Reith Lecture contention that music has ambiguity lacking in real life.

Piano keyboard Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

I would like to take issue on a small remark by Daniel Barenboim in the third Reith lecture. He relates to ambiguity, saying "in real life ambiguity may be described as a doubtful quality, somebody who is ambiguous, not knowing exactly what he or she wants, how to react etc. But in the world of sound, in this magical world of sound, ambiguity means that there are many many possibilities, many ways to go."

I would not agree with him. Ambiguity is rife in real-life, too, and it has nothing to do with not knowing what to do. Any linguist, and I am one of that breed, will tell you that almost everything that is said is ambiguous. It is the context that helps to disambiguate. The ambiguity found in music -- and I like the way Barenboim presents that topic -- is also found in language, unintentionally in everyday conversation, intentionally in literary texts, but it is different in nature. It is usually not the question of what is coming next, but the two or more meanings of what one has already said.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Some merits of Manchester Creative commons image Icon Nightfall404 under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Some merits of Manchester

In Manchester, William is struck by the city's dignity - and woollen socks.

The Sound and the Fury: Wrecking Ball Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

The Sound and the Fury: Wrecking Ball

The first in a new music series: How the early 20th century saw a fragmented, abstract, discordant sound come to the fore.

OU on the BBC: Sound of Life - The Song of the Earth Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: NASA article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

OU on the BBC: Sound of Life - The Song of the Earth

Experience a magical journey through one day of the planet's life, through sound: Join Aubrey as he listens to the song of the Earth.

20th century composers: making the connections Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license activity icon

History & The Arts 

20th century composers: making the connections

Explore the world of 20th century classical and avant-garde music through the composers and the fascinating connections that exist between them.

Learning to groove Creative commons image Icon Bill Henderson under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license audio icon

History & The Arts 

Learning to groove

The story of Tomorrow's Warriors, teaching young people to love jazz - and training them for music industry success.

15 mins
Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective Creative commons image Icon Jesse Kruger under Creative-Commons license free course icon Level 3 icon

History & The Arts 

Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective

Music is created to be performed, in most cases for an audience, whether in a concert hall, at a street fair or through a radio. But how those listeners receive a piece or style of music influences future music production. This free course, Reception of music in cross-cultural perspective, explores how audience reception, changing social situations and technology impact musical performance.

Free course
15 hrs
The Passing of the New: Bowie and Boulez Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mark Waters | article icon

History & The Arts 

The Passing of the New: Bowie and Boulez

Are there any similarities between David Bowie and Pierre Boulez who both passed early on in January 2016?


History & The Arts 

How to use a musical score

Do you know how music is written down? How do musicians use scores in their work? Catherine Tackley and Naomi Barker, of the Open University, explain about different types of music, how it is written down, and what that notation means to performers.

55 mins
An introduction to music theory Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

An introduction to music theory

Gain an understanding of the basic building blocks of musical theory and notation. This free course, An introduction to music theory, will introduce you to music staves, clefs, rhythmic and pitch values, rhythmic metre and time signatures. This OpenLearn course provides an introduction to music theory pitched at a level equivalent to Grades 1–3 of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music theory exams. You can test your understanding as you proceed by completing simple multiple-choice questions.

Free course
8 hrs