In 1958, Leonard Bernstein gave a Young Peoples Concert entitled “What Does Music Mean?” In it, he said that music doesn’t mean anything in the ways language does, but instead means what it is. Today, I will take up the matter of musical meaning, restricting myself to developing Bernstein’s points, and avoiding deeper aesthetic and philosophical debate.
To understand something is to know its meaning. Meaning is not born of the physical sounds that are music. It is instead born of two things. First, of the intentions of the one who planned and organized those sounds in such a way that we would consider them to be musical and therefore music. For this reason, a composer’s intent has a great deal to do with what a particular piece of music means. For example, a gavotte was first a French folk dance. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the gavotte became a popular court dance, with more complicated dance steps added by ballet masters of the day. It also became a standard movement in the suite, such as J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Later still, Prokofiev wrote a gavotte as one of the movements in his first symphony. Here, the gavotte was not intended as dance music at all, but as music to be listened to by a sedate audience.
In one sense, the meaning of a gavotte has stayed the same. A piece of music in common time, in three sections, moderately fast, originally intended for dancing. A person could learn about the form and history of the gavotte, and call this information about a gavotte to mind when listening to one. Such a listener would be well informed, and in at least one sense be correctly said to understand the music. But knowing about a piece of music is not all there is to understanding it. Musical meaning is not restricted to historical facts and analyzed form. If it were, then music would be meaningless to every listener who heard a piece of music, but did not know much or anything about the music. We know this is not the case. People hear music everyday about which they know very little or perhaps nothing, yet are able to make sense of the sounds in a musical way, and to respond physically and emotionally.
This leads us to the second thing of which musical meaning is born: from the listener’s perception. Music compels us to move, and arouses emotions. These two responses—movement and emotions—are just as necessary as form, structure, and history. Musical structure enables us to make sense of music, to perceive it as more than an accidental soundscape. Music makes us move and experience feelings because another human has designed it to do exactly that. Music is composed for the purpose of affectual and psychomotor communication. When we dance or otherwise move to music, we are allowing our bodies to do what the mind naturally tells it to do as a natural response to music being heard. Interestingly, when we respond emotionally to music, we say that the music “moved” us. Though not referring to physical moving, the word also means to be affected, and is very much tied to the physical response. Music that moves us also increases our heart rate, may give us “chills” or “goose bumps” and cause our muscles to tense, even while sitting in a concert hall.
Ultimately, musical meaning is experiential–the experiencing of a planned, purposeful, organization of sounds into music. Music meaning is what we experience while we listen. This is not as subjective as it first may seem. People with a shared culture and shared musical enculturation will experience a given musical work similarly. While there will certainly be minor differences in musical experiences of a given work among audience members of a concert, by and large, they will find very similar meaning in the music. The more students are allowed to fully experience music through movement and emotions, the more meaningful music will be for them. Music listening is an action, not a passive behavior. That is why Elliott considered music listening a way of making music and why Gardner considered music a way of knowing. To concentrate on form and “what to listen for” to the exclusion of physical and emotional meaning is to teach a restrictive and distorted view of music. These things are only the table setters to a rich musical dining experience where movement and emotions are the main course.