[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.