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.

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.