Music and Meaning


Most of us would agree that music means something to us, but does music have objective ‘meaning’ of its own?


As much as we discuss music being ‘a universal language’, there are so many different musical cultures and traditions with their own sets of rules and behaviours, that misunderstandings are bound to occur. Take, for example the basic convention we teach children in western music of major key = happy, minor key = sad. How does that sit with traditions which don’t use the same key structures as western traditions do? Would this ‘meaning’ translate across to listeners more embedded within these other musical cultures? And even when we deal with music that does use the same basic western theoretical concepts, how do we explain the fact that bouncy, joyous, infectious salsa music is often in a minor key?

  So then, perhaps musical meaning is culture-specific? When you are enculturated within a particular tradition, you recognise its language and therefore its meaning? Well maybe, but then how do we explain different people’s reactions to the same piece of music? Say, for example, that a composer has set out to describe in music a woodland scene. On hearing this piece, half of the audience agree that the music describes a woodland, but the rest think it is describing a moonscape. Who in this scenario, is ‘right’? And what happens if the entire audience think the piece is about a shopping centre? Has the composer ‘failed’? Has the audience ‘failed’? Is the meaning of the piece now altered? Is it indeed now about a shopping centre, despite what the composer may think?

  Some people find Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries exhilarating and transcending - I find it irritating and discomforting. Perhaps this is because I used to work in a theatre where the management team decided to use the first phrase of it on repeat as our fire alarm because they thought it was less disturbing for members of the public than hearing an actual alarm. (Yes, they thought it was less disturbing!) The context in which I most regularly interacted with this piece (not that the theatre was always on fire!) has changed my relationship with it, and therefore it ‘means’ something different to me.

  I can find this context-specific meaning in many pieces of music. My best friend and her girl-gang will take over a dance floor as soon as they hear Take That’s Never Forget, as it represents the soundtrack from their university years. I prefer to sit that one out, as it was played at my husband’s best friend’s funeral. Same piece of music, different contexts, therefore different meanings. And, no offence to Gary Barlow, but this can hardly be accounted for by the song being a multi-layered musical masterpiece open to unlimited musical interpretations! The fact is that in this instance the context of the piece in effect matters more - or gives more meaning - than the intent of the composer.

  Taking this idea further, I recently went on holiday to Northumberland, and visited Lindisfarne. Over 20 years ago whilst a student at Durham University I sang in a performance of Will Todd’s ‘St Cuthbert’ Oratorio, one movement of which was entitled ‘Lindisfarne.’ In preparation for our trip, every time I thought about Lindisfarne, the main melody from this movement came to mind, so much so that I even texted Will to compliment and complain that his tune was still stuck in my head over 2 decades later! I found the piece deeply evocative of a tidal landscape, and on visiting Lindisfarne I was even more struck by how perfect a musical metaphor it was. It just sounds exactly like the tide ebbing and flowing in a misty landscape. Then Will sent me a link to the audio of the movement, which you can listen to here and….. I had remembered it entirely wrong! I got the words and most of the rhythms correct, but only 50% of the pitches were right. This got me to thinking, was the ‘meaning’ of the music diminished by my not remembering it right? Did my version ‘mean’ more because I had created it from the combination of my musical memory and my knowledge of the landscape of Lindisfarne? Did this then diminish the ‘meaning’ of the original, correct version? I suppose this may be a moot point, I thought my remembered version was the original version, and therefore one might suggest the ‘meaning’ still stands. But assuming that the hundreds of other people involved in that performance of St Cuthbert back in 1997 would all remember this movement to varying different degrees of correctness, that some of them have been to Lindisfarne and some haven’t, what does this say about the idea of music having ‘intrinsic’ meaning?

  Of course we have been talking so far about music that actively tries to represent an idea or concept, but there are plenty of pieces of music that are just ‘pure’ rather than ‘programmatic’ music. Do these pieces have meaning? They can move us, they follow conventions which we may well associate with certain feelings or ideas, so therefore there is the possibility of projecting ‘meaning’ onto them, and again here it seems that culture and context would be key to making connections and consensus as to what the music would ‘mean.’ How much would we need to know about the style of music, its rules and conventions, and the composer’s intentions before we could ascribe a definite meaning to a piece like this with which the majority of us would agree? Would it be possible to skip this stage and still find consensus on the meaning of the music? Does it matter? Which is more important, a consensus of meaning based on cultural context, or an individual meaning derived from personal context?

  What does this all this musing about meaning in music mean for music teachers? Well, one might see the purpose of education as giving meaning to the world in which children find themselves, and therefore the meaning of things might be seen as education’s central concept. As John Finney recently highlighted on Twitter ‘If there can be no knowledge without meaning and if human existence rests on acts of meaning making then attention to music and the making of meaning might well underpin our thoughts and actions in the cause of educating musically.’ However, as we have seen above, musical meaning is a tricky and fluid concept in which context and culture are key.

  For music teachers, then, perhaps it is more pertinent to approach music from the standpoint that it can mean different things to different people. Indeed, doesn’t the fact that different meanings can be assigned to pieces of music by individuals make music more significant, since it transcends itself and becomes an integral part of our personal journey through the world? Perhaps alongside teaching children about the conventions of particular musical styles, the compositional devices used to create certain effects, and the cultural and societal context of the pieces we listen to, we should teach children that musical meaning is flexible and ever-changing. We can try to create music that tells a particular story, evokes a mood, and affects the audience but we ultimately cannot control the meanings that each audience member will draw from our music. This is what gives music its richness and importance, it isn’t a problem to be solved, there is no need to come to a consensus. Each of us can take our own meanings from the music that we engage with, informed by our cultural understanding, and the contexts in which we encounter it.  After all, what is music if not the personal soundtrack to our lives?