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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.


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