Responding To Music: Subjective or Objective?

Version 2The National Core Arts Standards include three anchor standards for responding that lay out the ways a person can respond to music. When our students respond to music in our classrooms or on their own in other settings, they are probably doing so in one of the ways described in these anchor standards. They are probably perceiving and analyzing, interpreting intent and meaning, and/or evaluating the music to which they are listening. Analyzing and evaluating are the more objective ways of responding. Analysis can be done for specific elements. These can include phrase structure, use of a given musical element, harmony, melodic motifs, and so forth. Evaluating a musical work involves using an established set of criteria. While evaluation is often at least partially subjective, holding to the criteria keeps the subjectivity to a minimum and makes the task largely objective. But what about interpreting a musical work? That sounds like a largely subjective thing. Can’t music mean different things to different people? How can we know for sure what a composer’s expressive intent was? Aren’t we just guessing based on clues left by his or her use of musical elements?

It is worth noting that the anchor standard includes two things that interpretation is to reveal: intent and meaning. While the two are related, they must not be the same or they wouldn’t both be included in the standard. What is intent and what is meaning of a musical work. First, music itself has no intrinsic intent or meaning, because it has no intelligence of its own. Music is an created thing. The creator has intent and attempts to communicate meaning, so it is the intent  of the creator of the musical work, and the meaning he or she has placed in the musical work that we are trying to learn from interpreting.

Regarding meaning, we must be careful to ask the right question. Many writers have researched musical meaning by asking people, “what does music mean to you?” The problem with that question is that it invites subjective answers, and typically elicits a gamut of answers that are often vague, philosophical, or deeply personal. While it is valuable for individual to hold philosophical and personal views on the meaning of music in their lives, we are looking for something more universal. If music has any meaning at all, it must be the same across individuals of a given culture at least, if not across multi cultures, in the same way that a red octagon means stop to a motorist, no matter in what language the word “stop” is written within it. The meaning of musicMIOSM will follow philosophical and personal meanings, but it will generalize them into something we can all agree on, something we can teach to our students and that they will be able to apply to their own music experiences. The meaning of musical works will interact with any personal philosophies and views a person may have, and never fail to bring an experience of music to an understanding of that music to which they are listening. Such a meaning of music will be objective, and at the same time modifiable by personal philosophies and views.

So then, what does music mean? What shall we teach our students regarding the communicative powers of musical works? Let me start with a statement from songwriter Sarah McLachlan. She wrote that music is “a universal emotional language that allows us to feel. It brings us closer to ourselves and others in that it creates an avenue for empathy and understanding. It can often communicate something that cannot be put into words, a resonance of the spirit and a recognition that another feels what you feel and understands.” There is a problem right away in that she starts with “music is” rather than “music means,” but I shall work around that, for there is much of value in what she has to say here. First, music communicates what we as humans feel, and it communicates it in a universal way. The universality is sometimes limited by cultural context. Rhythm tends to be more universal in this respect than melody. Rhythm activates our body movements, and the part of our brain that governs motor activity. Things like fast movement, increased heart rate, even sweaty palms are all stimulated by rhythmic structures that are likely universal. Melodies, with the variety of scales, intervals, and even instrument timbres is less universal. The feelings that a melody will stimulate will vary from none to extreme depending on the musical experience and culture of the listener.

Music brings us closer to ourselves in that it pulls up emotions that might otherwise remain hidden to our awareness, or repressed by choice. I have many times experienced a surge of emotion, sometimes to the brink of tears, from a musical phrase that gushes beauty and emotion. Such emotional moments may remind me of other, non-musical experiences about which I felt similarly, and the music might even be fused to such an experience, adding emotional strength to both the music and the memory. If the composer has written music to express how he or she is feeling, and then we are talking about intent, then by listening to that music I may be able to feel what the composer is feeling, and empathize with his or her emotional condition. Music certainly can be this “avenue for empathy and understanding,” but it cannot be reliably so because no listener can be sure that what feelings are elicited in the music are in fact what the composer was feeling at the time he or she wrote that musical work. It is well known that Beethoven wrote his cheerful sixth and seventh symphony while in the midst of deep depression and sadness over his deafness and overall quality of life. So to think we are empathizing with Beethoven as we listen to this cheerful music is just not so. We need to know, through a composer’s writings perhaps, that he or she was feeling the way the music cam out in order to know that the music is indeed that “avenue or empathy and understanding.”

That music can communicate things that can not easily be put into words, or that cannot be put into words at all, should be beyond dispute. Music certainly rises even above the expressive potential of poetry, which in turn rises above the potential of prose, for being a vehicle for this kind of expression. Whereas prose resonates with our intellect, music, as McLachlan points out, resonates with the spirit. Music brings to the surface a deep experience that can share with our consciousness the navigating of our innermost selves through realities we cannot otherwise approach. It is like the “aw” factor we seem to universally experience when we see a newborn infant. Even just a photograph of the newborn child melts the sternest of hearts like water, and this feeling is quite out of our control. Music is like that.

When we search for what a musical work means, we must first look inward, to discover what of our inner being it has touched, moved, and communicated with. Then, we need to be aware of what others have found similarly looking inward responding to the same musical work. This is where the community of students in a music class is so valuable. To create a climate where students first become practiced at being aware of what the music has communicated to them, and then being willing to share that experience with others. In so doing, students can find a sort of classroom universality whereby they discover not just a personal meaning, but a common, shared meaning that comes close to or hits the mark of what the music truly means. This shared meaning, by virtue of the data extending beyond individuals and through a community of learners (listeners), takes on a good measure of objectivity. The more agreement there is, the more objective that meaning becomes.


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