What Do Music Notes Mean?

2011 Symposium2

I searched the title of this post today, and the results were any number of explanations of how to read music; what the note names were, the different kinds of notes, the treble and bass clefs, and so forth. But is this really what those notes on a page mean? Not at all. As you read these words on your phone or computer, what do the letters mean? Would you say that in the word “ice cream,” the individual letters mean anything? Of course not. The letters mean nothing unless they are in a string with other letters so that the string of letters spells a word. It is the word that has meaning, not the letters from which the word is formed. It is the same with music Each note has a sound of its own, just as letters have sounds of their own, but an isolated note means nothing. It must be part of a group of notes which one can understand as expressing some human quality that the creator of that group of notes intended to express. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young People’s Concert “What Does Music Mean,” said  “if I play a note, one note all alone means nothing. It’s just a plain old F sharp or a B flat.

If a person knows that a particular note on a musical staff is g, or a, b-flat, or whatever, then good for him or her, but that knowledge alone, or even in combination with hearing or performing that one note, won’t result in an expressive musical experience. It will result in a pitched sound being heard. Music must be a musical creator’s  expression of something. The creator can be a composer, improvisor, or sage passing along an oral tradition in song. One note all by itself cannot possibly be so expressive. People innately understand music by grouping perceived sounds into rhythmic or melodic groups often called rhythms, measures, motifs, phrases, themes, and so forth. Whether it is a West African drum pattern, an Indian raga, or a marching band drum cadence, music makes sense to us when we are able to aurally organize it into groups. Music that purposefullyBernstein impedes or blocks a listener’s ability to do so is perceived as confusing or unintelligible. Listeners find it difficult to determine what such music means, because they do not have a familiar way of responding to it emotionally or kinesthetically.

There is, however, a sense in which an individual note, if it is one among other notes,  can have meaning. In Western tonal music, individual tones can have meaning according to a harmonic function. We have names for these individual notes which give us a clue as to what their function is. These names include leading tone, tonic, supertonic, dominant, subdominant, mediant, and submediant. The leading tone has meaning in that it draws us to the tonic a semi tone above. It compels us to anticipate the arrival of the tonic, and in so doing creates tension and forward motion in the music. But without other notes to establish it as the leading tone, it is powerless to do any of this. So even an individual note relies on relationships to other notes to give it meaning. So what music notes mean has nothing to do with note names or where a note happens to be placed on a musical staff; it has nothing to do with what a note is named, it has to do with what a note does. There are leading tones, dominant tones, tonic tones. There are blue notes, altered notes, dissonant notes and accented notes. These characteristics are closer to the mark; they describe what a note can mean. An altered note is one that becomes a leading tone, or dominant tone within a tonality where this ordinarily is not the case. Altered notes introduce tension because they have strong tendencies to move us toward another note, and because they are often dissonant in the current tonality. The name of a note–b-flat or f-sharp–is merely a convenience; it tells a musician which pitch ought to be played or sung. The names themselves have no meaning, only the sounds one produces by reading a particular pitch in written music.

snare drumWhat of notes that have no pitch? Do notes that are for non-pitched instruments such as a snare drum or high hat have any meaning? Yes they do. Just as pitched notes have tonal meaning, non-pitched notes have metrical meaning. Meter the ordering of beats into patterns of strong and weak beats. Like pitches, these different strengths of beats have names, like crisis and anacrusis. The note at the beginning of one of these patterns is the strongest, and the note at the end of one of these patterns is the weakest. This kind of note meaning gives a waltz its characteristic lilt, and a march its orders to step LEFT right, LEFT right. Like pitches, non-pitched notes have no meaning apart form relationships with other notes. One note cannot be perceived as strong unless it is surrounded by other notes that are less so. Conversely, one note cannot be perceived as weak unless it is preceded or followed by one that is strong. Syncopated notes, relatively long notes or loud notes, accented notes all have meaning because of the relative importance duration and articulation assign. As with pitches, rhythms have names. These names are called rhythms syllables, and include Curwin, Eastman, and Gordon rhythm syllables. These syllables, like pitch names, help identify durations and in some cases also rhythmic function, but they are not the meaning of the rhythms. The meaning, again, is in how the notes sound in relation to other notes, and in how groups of notes sound. Bernstein summed all of this up well when he said, “the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies.”


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