Meaning in (of? through? attached to? inherent in?) Music

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

Meaning and music. Their relationship is ambivalent at best. Is musical meaning associative, like a language whose syllables and patterns are collected and understood by the initiated listener? Or is it inherent, including certain physical reactions to vibrations of sound waves that hit every body in the same way?

I pose this question to my students—in the same either/or format—every time I teach an ethnomusicology course in which they confront musical systems that are arcane, and sometimes indecipherable, to them upon first listen, such as Javanese gamelan. At the beginning of the course, many students agree with the statement: “Music is a universal language.” By the end of the course, many students realize that the issue is much more complicated than that. They end up saying that meaning in music is both universal and specific. A culturally rich musical event will be experienced differently by one who is initiated into a culture than one who is an outsider (never mind for now the acknowledged problem with the terminology “outsider”).

But the truth is, as historians, we’re all outsiders. We are trying to understand a culture that is removed from us, just by a different type of distance: time. Sometimes I think we should approach an understanding of medieval culture (or Renaissance, or Baroque, etc.) more like we approach African music. It’s just as different. But I digress.

Richard Taruskin is very clear about what he will consider musical meaning in the Oxford History of Western Music (OWHM). Meaning represents a full range of associations:

It covers implications, consequences, metaphors, emotional attachments, social attitudes, proprietary interests, suggested possibilities, motives, significance (as distinguished from signification)…and simple semantic paraphrase, too, when that is relevant. (I, xvi, ellipses in original)

That is a fairly rich and seemingly exhaustive list upon first reading. There is a clear theme to the list, which Taruskin goes on to expound. These types of musical meaning are all what he calls “social facts.” In other words, it is the human that makes music meaningful; the music becomes meaningful not because of what it does to us but what we do with it. This is clearly an important way that we find meaning in music. We associate music with personal feelings, memorable events, social acts such as dancing, or just as motivation for cleaning the house.

But does it really represent the “full range”? If association is the end all, we can’t rightly say that there is any meaning in the music at all. We have to change the phrase to meaning in humans, with respect to music. Modern scholars tend to be perfectly happy stopping with such a solipsistic understanding. But I wonder.

I wonder if there is more to music than just that. Is it possible for music to literally act on a person, aside from, or overruling one’s associations? Plato and Aristotle thought so. Religious composers have always thought so. Baroque composers thought so. Romantic composers certainly thought so. Can we accurately recount the history of these periods (and all those in between the few examples given here) if we don’t at least consider the same possibility? Or will we be missing a large part of the significance of the music?

These are questions I intend to chew on as I read on.


  1. zachwallmark says:

    One quick thought on your last point: it seems fairly clear that music can act on a person, irrespective of culture, in its patterns of repetition. I can’t really think of any other musical factor that works on the brain in so fundamental a way. Melodies, harmonies, rhythms, timbres.. all of these vary wildly in their ability to signify meaning. But a repetitive beat – especially one that is drawn on for hours or days – will affect everyone. This might be the only musical universal.

  2. marksamples says:

    Good point. Rhythm has the universal effect of body movement. A good example is my nephew, who is just over a year old. Before he knew more than a handful of words, he would hear a good beat and just start dancing away. He’s pretty good too!

  3. Robin Wallace says:

    I just discovered this blog and am finding it fascinating. It *almost* makes me wish I was in graduate school again.

    I do want to make a suggestion here. I’ve also thought a great deal about the issue of musical meaning as raised by Taruskin, and I too am uncomfortable with the idea that the meaning of music can be limited to association and is in no way inherent. However, I don’t think the options are necessarily limited to the version of the great either/or that you posit here.

    In short, I think there are musical patterns that are so archetypal that they exist in human consciousness prior to the cultural contexts in which we refine our understanding of their meaning. These would include things like ternary structure, which, when it occurs, almost always implies some kind of expressive contrast between the major sections. Versions of it that appear fairly widespread include what Maynard Solomon calls “trouble in paradise:” – the typical Romantic character piece, in which the middle section increases the expressive intensity, permanently altering our perception of the main section – and what I have dubbed “encouragement that fails,” which is roughly its inversion. These structures may not be true universals, but they are highly transferable from one cultural context to another. Furthermore, they are not *caused* by the sounds as physical entities, but by their resonance with psychological archetypes, which I am old-fashioned enough to admit that I believe in.

    In his review of Roger Norrington’s recording of Beethoven’s 9th, Taruskin himself admits that “what the piece has come to stand for” is to a large extent inherent in it, and that a performance like Norrington’s that ignores that web of meaning is denying something essential about the music. It still seems impossible to conceive of “the 9th symphony” without those meanings.

    It also seems natural today, though, to think that if a piece is bounded by such a matrix of meaning, that necessarily diminishes it as music. If the 9th really comes with all that baggage, surely it’s not as good as, say, the “Eroica,” where the baggage still seems less weighty (although I would argue it’s really not). Thus, I think it’s significant that some of the most thoughtful early reviews of the 9th symphony suggested the exact opposite: that the more meaningful baggage came with the piece, the greater it was. As historians, I think we also need to take this view and its implications seriously. It’s not just “what has it meant?,” but also “what have people thought about what it means, and why did they think that way?”

  4. Mark Samples says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Robin. If I understand correctly, you are positing a third realm where music can act: archetypal structures. The positioning of contrasts and the perception of narrative in music (such as your “trouble in paradise”) do seem to resonate with us in fundamental ways. I am reminded of a point Lawrence Zbikowski made in _Conceptualizing Music_. Humans are adept at cross-domain mapping: when faced with a new experience (such as listening to a new piece of music) we pull from our experience in other areas (relaxation -> tension -> release can be understood through narrative metaphor). It seems natural, then, that we would understand music through narrative analogs. This of course has been a longstanding trope in music criticism (cf. Carolyn Abbate’s introduction to _Unsung Voices_). If this is a universal trait, though, the specific interpretation will differ from culture to culture depending on what metaphors prevail among a given people.

    I’m with you on your final point about understanding what a piece has meant, and how that changes over time. The traditional notion of the work concept has been sufficiently challenged for many of us to concede—even if only when pressed—that there is not just one version of Beethoven’s Ninth for all time, with one Universal Meaning. As you say, we must also take into account its reception history and accumulated baggage as it has traveled through time from its premiere to today.

    Your comments are always welcome!

  5. Robin Wallace says:

    “If I understand correctly, you are positing a third realm where music can act: archetypal structures.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Of course the meanings attached to such archetypes—and often the archetypes themselves—are culture-specific. But they are not “constructed” in the way that much post-modern criticism insists that all interpretations and meanings are. They act on us more than we act on them.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      This is a fascinating argument – thanks for your thoughts. I just finished Abbate’s article “Music: Drastic or Gnostic?,” which really amplifies your ideas. I’m very curious if you know of any other great sources that deal with this question. Thanks!

      1. Robin Wallace says:

        Well, I’ve always admired David Maslanka’s essay “SOME THINGS THAT ARE TRUE: Reflections on being an artist at the end of the 20th century,” which is posted on his website, It’s written from the POV of a composer rather than that of a scholar, but may be all the more worthy of attention for that reason. (If I’m not mistaken, though, Carolyn Abbate is a composer too; when I was a grad student at Yale, she was working on finishing Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher.)

  6. Robin Wallace says:

    And here’s another thought. It’s true that the standardization of the chant liturgy under Charlemagne took place for political reasons, as one of you point outs in one of your later posts. The meaning of the liturgy, however, is far from exclusively political. Singing a fixed liturgy on a regular basis is one of the most tangible ways to experience a central tenet of religion: that you yourself are only a small part of of something much bigger and more permanent than your own identity. Gregorian chant was preserved and used as much as it was because, embedded in the liturgical structure, it conveyed that experience as few other musical repertories have ever done.

    Does this have political repercussions? Of course it does. A de-ndividuated populace is certainly subject to political manipulation. However, I can hardly believe that that’s the whole story.

  7. Mark Samples says:

    I’m glad you made that point about the liturgy. To use the centralized codification of the liturgy as an example of political subjugation is to sell it way too short. It’s a good example of a modern perspective overruling historical perspective. Because many don’t believe the liturgy could possibly be divine, there is no ability or desire to treat that facet seriously. Never mind that that’s how all of the composers and singers and listeners (and maybe even Charlemagne) thought about it, not to mention the millions who still do today.

    On the other hand, Taruskin does acquiesce in this regard in volume two when describing Frescobaldi’s _toccata di durezze e ligature_. This piece was played at the moment of transubstantiation in the mass, the eucharistic miracle. To his credit, Taruskin explains the liturgical moment without hedging or hint of sarcasm (II, 44).

    1. Robin Wallace says:

      Thanks for the backup, Mark. OTOH, having taught at a Baptist school for seven years, I can attest that the Baptists are probably more aware than anybody of the political implications of standardized liturgies and worship practices.

  8. Really great read. Honestly!

  9. Gilberto Roy says:

    Wow am I really the only reply to your great read!

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