Foundations Of Cognitive Science

Conduit Metaphor

The classical study of communication is dominated by the conduit metaphor (Reddy, 1979).  According to the conduit metaphor, language provides containers (e.g., sentences, words) that are packed with meanings and delivered to receivers, who unpack them to receive the intended message.  The conduit metaphor does not just apply to the scientific study of communication:  Reddy (his italics) provides a large number of examples of the conduit metaphor in everyday language, including: You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean; You have to put each concept into words very carefully; The sentence was filled with emotion.

The conduit metaphor also applies to the traditional view of classical music, which construes this music as a “hot medium” to which the listener contributes little (McLuhan, 1994).  When the conduit metaphor is applied to music, the composer places some intended meaning into a score, the orchestra brings the score to life exactly as instructed by the score, and the (passive) audience unpacks the delivered music to get the composer’s message.  One example of this application is Hanslick’s (1854/1957, p. 76) analysis of musical performance: “The active and emotional principle in music occurs in the act of reproduction, which draws the electric spark from a mysterious source and directs it toward the heart of the listener.  The player can, of course, give only what the composition contains” (my italics).


  1. Hanslick, E. (1854/1957). The Beautiful In Music. New York: Liberal Arts Press.
  2. McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man (1st MIT Press ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  3. Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor -- A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor And Thought (pp. 284-324). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(Added November 2010)