What Does Music Mean?

Version 2One of the more perplexing questions of the ages concerning music is the question, what does music mean? Philosophers from Aristotle to Bernstein have tried to answer this question, but none have done so in a way that once and for all settles the matter. Bernstein devoted much of his lecturing life to tackling the question, and most often insisted that music had no semantic, or literal meaning, but instead had metaphorical meaning. You can say music makes you feel this way or that way, or that music means one thing or another to you because it is like something else that means that to you, but music can never communicate a precise bit of information or thought such as “today is Tuesday,” or “the sky looks blue today.”

Music educators have by and large been content with maintaining that music expresses feelings and emotions, and have left the debate as to whether or not it communicates anything else, or if it is or is not a language, to scholars and philosophers. All of that changed, though, when the National Core Arts Standards were released in 2014. Those standards changed the conversation, because something the authors called “expressive intent” is embedded throughout the standards.  The standards force us to come down on the side that music does have meaning, and that it is every listener’s task to comprehend what it is. One of the “artistic” processes is responding, which is defined as “understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.” To support that definition, Anchor Standard number 8 is to “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” 

If we are to require students to understand and evaluate how the arts convey meaning, then we are assuming that the arts do convey meaning. Such an assumption makes it possible for a listener to construct an interpretation of a musical work that reveals a meaning that the composer intended to communicate to listeners through that musical work. But how can we know for sure from listening to a musical work that we got it right? How can we know for sure what meaning the composer intended to convey? The writers of the standards skirt that crucial question by stating that composers leave clues by their use of musical elements. The authors of the standards state that, “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” That’s a start, but clues can only lead to guesses, not evidence-based conclusions; and if music can only convey metaphoric meaning as Bernstein insisted, it would seem that we are left with know way of knowing beyond a doubt. What’s more, do composers really consciously implant their music with “clues” or are they believing that they are expressing things much more succinctly than creating a musical mystery to be solved by detective-like listeners? How precise can those musical metaphors be?

We are used to performers offering an interpretation of a musical work but we are perhaps new to the idea of responders to music interpreting what they hear. Remember, we are talking about what the composer intended the music to mean, not what personal meaning an individual might find through association or experience, a process that is called connecting, or “relating artistic ideas and works with personal meaning and external context.” The authors of the standards defined expressive intent as “The emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music That definition implies something more than metaphor. The claim is that composers of music can, through their music, express thoughts and ideas. What thoughts and what ideas? Are there some thoughts or ideas that can be expressed through music, while others cannot? Can the musical metaphor as described by Bernstein be precise enough to express an idea or thought?

That depends on what a composer is trying to express. If I say “I have a burning desire to Bernsteinplay the piano,” I am expressing an inner experience (the desire) that drives me to an action (play the piano). The word “burning” here cannot precisely be explained so that someone else exactly experiences what I am experiencing. It can only generally describe my experience to that a person can relate to it, but not share or duplicate it within themselves. I could perhaps better express what it feels like to have this burning desire through music, symbolically representing my feeling through music that causes another person to also have a burning desire, if not for playing the piano, than equally for something else. When I have a burning desire, I am obsessed with the thought of doing something, and I have an overwhelming desire to do it. The thought of it all excites, and if I am not able to immediately go do the think, there are also feelings of restlessness, frustration, or despair. I could make music that sounds restless through active rhythms and oscillating dynamics, or I could use dissonance and dynamics to express frustration, or surging phrases to convey despair. The idea being expressed is that of doing something, of following the irresistible urge to do something and the emotional state I experience in the time preceding my opportunity to do so. The thought expressed is expected pleasure of doing the thing. I cannot communicate through the music that the thing is to play the piano, but I can convey the idea and the thought of doing something the anticipation of which causes me to think and feel what I can express with music. 

Getting back to the standards, we find the essential question, “How do we discern the musical creators’ and performers’ expressive intent?” If we trace the progression of standards from kindergarten through 8th grade, we find that those clues begin with dynamics and tempo, then continue with knowledge of concepts (meter, rhythm, pitch, form, etc), timbre, articulation, musical genres, culture, and historical context. We can see form this sequence that expressive intent is conveyed in its simplest form by manipulating the non-hierarchical structures of music, namely dynamics and tempo. Music that is loud and fast is likely to convey something akin to excitement, fear, or joy—the more active emotions that raise the heart rate and motivate us to physically move, while music that is soft and slow is likely to convey something akin to calm, restful, contented, peaceful respite, or melancholy repose. Later, when a child’s musical understanding has become more conceptual, more complex expressions can succeed that include the hierarchical structures of meter, phrasing, and patterns of tension and release. With these concepts intact, those ideas and thoughts can now be understood, because to convey them they must be apprehended over the course of extended musical time-spans rather than from momentary samplings of tempo and dynamics.

Music can mean anything for which a symbol can be made from sound. The extent of what can be symbolically represented with music depends on the familiarity the listener has with the musical genre being listened to, and with the composer’s ability to evoke in a listener a physical and/or emotional response that is recognizably associated with the thought, idea or feeling being expressed. The listener can successfully find the composer’s intent by observing what thought, idea or feeling is stimulated by the music quite apart from any personal associations or connections. 



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