More Thoughts on Musical Meaning

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

The question of meaning in music is one of the most fascinating – and rancorous – inquiries in contemporary musicology. As Mark cogently points out, the question is a highly nuanced one, yet the default position of many in our culture is the old maxim – music is a universal language. Imagine the World Music 101 student’s surprise when they learn that this feel good notion isn’t at all the end of the discussion. Meaning, it turns out, is a Protean concept and tough, if not impossible, to fix.

The issue is often phrased as a dichotomy, an approach Taruskin labels “The Great Either/Or” (I, xix). Is music a universal, open and free to all; OR is it situationally based, culturally specific, and constructed? His derision of this binarism makes his own perspective clear: music is both. One major problem, it seems to me, with the either/or approach to this issue is that is can potentially shut down all meaningful study, analysis, and discourse surrounding music and absolve all judgements from having to shoulder any reasonable burden of proof. If music is the universal language, period, then we’re all born with musical meaning preenscribed into our understanding of the world. No need to look too hard at the nit-picky details of time, place, culture, subculture, economics, ritual, use-value, race, gender, et cetera ad nauseum. If music is universal, then what’s to understand about it? We, almost by definition, must understand it already! It’s a convenient out. On the other hand, if music is too situational, too culturally predetermined, then it could almost lead the scholar (or music lover) to a sort of benighted resignation. Mark is right: we are all “outsiders” insofar as we cannot be Masai tribesmen, medieval monarchs, virtuoso Indian sitarists, and fin-de-siecle salon goers all in one lifetime. One individual can only occupy a handful of cultures/times at once (Alex Ross’s discussion of Richard Strauss shows the inherent weirdness of experiencing too much time on musical earth). If one can’t be an insider, and one must be an insider in order to get the meaning of the music, then why bother? It’s a lost cause.

Taruskin seems to be aiming at a middle path. I’m itching to follow this theme throughout, for it’s not terribly clear how it’s going to be accomplished.


  1. Interesting ideas here. The musical relationship between different cultures is a subject that features heavily in what I write, particularly a recent post on Indian music (

    I’ll be sure to follow your findings. Obviously I don’t go into anywhere near as much depth but I try and highlight amazing music from different cultures and let people decide how they want to approach it. Feel free to have a listen!

  2. Nathan Baker says:

    It seems to me that, to understand universality vs. cultural specificity in music, we might begin by making an analogy to language (spoken, written, gestural, symbolic, etc.). Language is a universal human trait–even humans long living in isolation have come up with ways to communicate their inner thoughts and desires to the outside world. Specific languages, such as Spanish, English, Japanese, etc. are specific to certain cultures, and even the “same” language may find different meanings in different (sub)cultures that speak it. I would posit that music, as another form of human communication, acts in the same way. Certain gestures and tones have similar linguistic meanings across many cultures (threatening body language combined with a loud voice, to use an example), and certain musical aspects do as well (such as the link between rhythm and body movement Mark mentioned over in the other post’s thread). More specific musical styles will have rather more complex meanings specific to the culture in which they originated, and an outsider will have to learn about the culture to catch many nuances of the style. On the other hand, the outsider may certainly find new meaning in the music based on his/her own cultural background.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      Good insight, Nathan (and congratulations on your teaching appointment!). Language is an interesting lens through which to view musical communication. I wonder, however, if the universality you mention – speaking in a loud, threatening voice, for instance – is more an aspect of universal physical cues than it is a linguistic issue. When gesture, facial expression, amplitude, body language, and other physical factors are taken away, I’m not that a language communicates at all to the people who don’t speak it. For instance, someone could be telling me they want me dead or they want to marry me in Arabic and I would have no idea which is which. Linguistically speaking (again, as you say, it’s different when other factors are included), it’s totally meaningless in a way that Middle Eastern music is not.

      Don’t be a stranger on the blog – you have a lot of ideas to share.

  3. Nathan Baker says:

    I would pose the following question in response: is language strictly limited to the linguistic element? I think defining/delimiting the various categories of human interexpression is (if slightly tangential to the Taruskin) an interesting topic to ponder.

  4. Zach Wallmark says:

    Good point. I would argue that “language” pertains only to vocabulary, syntax, etymology, morphology, etc. – in other words, the elements of formal linguistics. While there are many other behaviors that communicate something, both within a specific culture and universally, I don’t think I would consider them to be “language” per se. It could be semantic. Or I could have a limited understanding of the concept of “language”… interesting to ponder indeed.

    1. Nathan Baker says:

      We might, then, set up a taxonomy of “human communication” with the following subcategories (not intended to be an exclusive list by any means):

      —Formal linguistic

      Having done so, it would be interesting to explore not only similarities between any of these categories, but links and cross-categorical influences.

  5. Mark Samples says:

    Just a thought: I tend to think that trying to isolate language from context (gestures and other types of nonverbal communication) is somewhat artificial. So much of what we communicate is through those extra-verbal avenues. It makes me wonder about the parallels in music, and how isolation of sound in recorded form takes away so much of the context, and therefore the significance and communicative meaning.

    This is why, as teachers, it is so important to get our students to go to live music performances (or have them perform in class). If they come out of their music history sequence thinking that symphonies, operas, and madrigals are just a bunch of pretty sounds coming through their earbuds, we have failed in a serious way.

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