Music as Meaning

Essay 2011 6 Pages




A Personal View

My dictionary defines meaning as “what somebody wants to express” and “what something signifies”. As a teacher I used to ask my composition students why they wanted to write music, to which question the most frequently occurring answer, and one that I suspected they had usually not fully thought-out, was “To express myself.” But how do composers express themselves in music, and is self-expression, or for that matter, any clear-cut expression really possible, or just an illusion. Can music, of itself, really express or signify anything, and if so, how?

Because it seems that of all the arts it is music that is the least amenable to attempts at explaining its meaning. With literature and the representative visual arts meaning is usually obvious and intended by the author or artist. However, music does share its reticence as to meaning with abstract art and with some experimental literature. Or it could be said that the latter two art forms have taken on the imprecision of meaning possessed by music.

Although we can easily see the meaning of any clearly written literary work or representative picture, or at least tease out a meaning from a poem which may at first seem obscure, ask even an experienced musician the “meaning” of say, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the chances are that he or she will be unable to pinpoint any precise extra-musical significance that this work has, beyond the facts that it has for long been considered a masterpiece, that it has memorable and exciting ideas, and that it does indeed express some not-easily defined emotional states. In fact it is easier to say what the work is but not what it does to the listener. That it does something to many is attested by its lasting popularity, but just what it does would always seem to remain a mystery, incapable of being satisfactorily and unequivocally clarified.

Concerning this problem of defining exactly what music expresses to the listener, and how it does so, there has for long been much debate on two related questions: “Does music have inherent meaning?” And “To what extent can music be called a language?”

To take the second question first: if we accept from our experience that music ostensibly can have a sort of “meaning”- by evoking for us certain moods, situations, emotions etc. then it clearly has affinities with language. But equally clearly music is not a language in the sense that musical sounds-except for those that are obviously onomatopoeic- will automatically bring to mind images of specific objects or concepts in the way that words do. We know that music can have “meaning” for us but are seldom able to translate this into words, beyond a vague description of the moods or images evoked. If we could translate music into words with any degree of exactitude, then the music would become redundant and hence unnecessary, which it certainly is not. Nearly everyone needs some sort of music in their lives- no matter how little real attention they pay to it.

Returning to the first question “Does music have inherent meaning?” all we can say with certainty is that music has always had the power to suggest things outside of itself, and we all recognise this. The questions then become: “How does music do this?” and “how much of this suggestive power is inherent in the sounds themselves and how much in our cultural backgrounds and upbringing?”

Stravinsky[1] said that music “is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all”. And Trevor Wishart[2] says that words “never mean anything at all. Only people ‘mean’ and words merely contribute towards signifying peoples’ meanings.” That is, that the actual sound content of words (barring those obviously onomatopoeic in origin) is meaningless, but we give them meanings . If we take this line of argument, and I am personally inclined more to this way of approaching the problem, music in itself, as sounds, is meaningless, but we give it meaning. Furthermore I would say that it is not merely the sounds themselves that have meaning for us but the context of the sounds and the associations they present to our minds when hearing them. A personal example will illustrate this idea:

As I was thinking about the subject of this essay, just before falling asleep, fragments of Schubert’s string quartet movement in C minor came to mind and I considered their meaning (for me). Now this work is not well-known to me, and I have no special fondness for it, but it does present to me a definite meaning, or rather multiple meanings:

It begins with agitated minor key music, which I associate with negative emotions, possibly unease, worry, fretfulness. It is like much other agitated minor key music for strings in that respect, and I am pre- conditioned to connect such sounds with the appropriate emotions. But there are other factors which can be considered in respect of my reactions to the work:

It is by Schubert, whom I know to have had a short and not too happy life. Therefore this fact reinforces my concept of this work’s “meaning” in the context of a clearly defined tradition- that of European classical music, which is the tradition with which I am most familiar. Also, Schubert was Viennese. This last fact might be thought of as trivial- but the chain of associations here, i.e. Vienna-Freud- neuroses- troubled individuals in a troubled society, further reinforces my awareness of the work’s meaning. Therefore my own personal response to this work is conditioned by my previous knowledge and experience. Other listeners to this piece may have differing levels and types of musical experience, for example in popular music, jazz or the classical music of another culture, and will therefore have different and possibly contrasted responses. All music teachers know how responses to any piece of music can vary according to the psychologies and backgrounds of their pupils. But we also know well that music is not just a personal art form but can have a wide appeal both within and across different social groups. Thus you do not have to be a Negro to like (or play) jazz and many Asians have become enthusiasts for Western classical music- and so on. The fact that music can have a collective meaning as well as a personal one is embodied in the phenomenon of the “audience” , whether gathered together in one place for a concert or opera, or scattered and listening via the medium of radio or the recording.

Further to my experience of the Schubert piece, it will be seen that virtually all of the meaning it has for me is by association. Just as I associate the word “chair” with an object with four legs, a seat and a back, so I associate minor key with negative emotional states ( but I do not know why this should be) and rapid quiet sounds (in a minor key) with agitation. It would be absurd to say that the sounds themselves are either sad or agitated, but they do bring hints of sadness and agitation involuntarily into my consciousness. Any other meanings the work has for me are dependant on my previous knowledge of the composer and the circumstances of the work’s origin.

But, over and above all of this, I am also aware of the piece purely as sounds. I can shut out any possible meanings the music has and respond solely to the sounds alone- either enjoying them as timbres or as the play of patterns. With music from other cultures, of which I have had little previous listening experience, this is just about the only response I can give. When attending to, for example, Indonesian Gamelan music or African drumming, the sounds do not convey to me, anything outside of themselves- i.e. they have no cultural associations for me because I have not been brought up in the cultural environments from which these “musics” originate. All I can do is to listen to, and more or less appreciate, patterns of pitches and rhythms. Therefore it could be said that I am only getting, as it were, half the message that the musicians intend to put across in their performance. To get the whole message I would either need to have been brought up in their respective cultural milieus, or, as an “outsider”, spend a fair amount of time in both listening and acquiring background knowledge of the culture concerned.

Meaning in music can be implied - that is the composer has a purpose to express some non-musical idea or picture, which he does by means of use of the basic elements of music including melody, rhythm and tone-colour. Alternatively it can be acquired - in which case the listener attaches his own significance to the music. A very well-known example of the latter process is the association of Chopin’s Prelude in Db major with drops of rain (it was composed during a wet winter in Majorca and there is a repeated note theme running all through it!) Acquired meaning may be personal- as when a particular piece suggests something to us or recalls some emotion we were experiencing when we first heard it. Or it can be shared. The Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber, because it has been so much used for funerals and solemn occasions, has now come to represent mourning and solemnity for many people worldwide.

Levels of implied meaning will vary from one type of music to another and from one composer to another. Whereas some composers definitely aim for some sort of expressive message in their works, others are more concerned with music as sonic structures to be listened to for the aesthetic pleasure afforded, or as timbre to be relished for its own sake. Thus- and this is a very brief sketch of what could be covered in a whole book[3] implied meaning is:

Low- in much contrapuntal music, for example, Bach’s Preludes & Fugues. Moods may certainly be evoked in these but the music is designed primarily to demonstrate the play of contrapuntal lines. We do not listen because of any extra-musical significance these works may have, but mainly for the intellectual pleasure of following Bach’s “thoughts”.

Medium- in descriptive instrumental music such as tone-poems where the composer sets out to depict situations, places, moods, etc., but meaning may be prompted by literary addenda such as titles and programme notes. In symphonic works and sonatas with only a number and key attached to them, the listener is left unaided to decide any meanings the music may convey.

High- in opera and oratorio. As soon as composers set words to music (provided they are audible) or join music with theatrical spectacle, they are, as it were, providing the listener with cues as to the exact expression intended. There can hardly be any doubt about the implied meaning of the Hallelujah Chorus or Siegfried’s Funeral Music. In fact, in Wagner, music comes very close to being “a language” in which musical themes represent characters and objects (for example, the sword motive). The themes transform in accordance with changes in the characters they represent, and in the unfolding of the drama. But like any language, we have to learn it- (and have the inclination to do so.) The 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen has also thought of musical ideas as corresponding to extra-musical entities e.g. the recurring themes in his Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus of 1944.

So it would seem that meaning in music can never be absolute, but is always relative to variables such as: what does the composer (or performer) intend to say in the music? What aid does the listener get in terms of verbal addenda? And then, who is listening, and what previous experience do they have? How and in what context is the music played, or used? Does it have a well-attested collective meaning or is it solely a private experience?

By way of concluding, let me return to my opening paragraph and to my question to those young and inexperienced composers. What I was always hoping they would answer is “because I want to create music, for its own sake.” If we merely have the urge to express ourselves then a better medium would be words rather than notes- which we have seen are poor communicators of exact meaning. Perhaps we should be thankful that music can never be fully understood in terms of its meaning. That power of music to suggest rather than to state outright is, surely, the greater part of its permanent attraction for us.



[1] A Chronicle of My Life, 1936 London, Gollancz.

[2] Sonic Art, 1996, Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers.

[3] See, for example Deryck Cooke, 1959, The Language of Music , OUP


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Title: Music as Meaning