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Meaning of Music

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This month we will enter the foreboding topic of The Meaning of Music! Foreboding…. because many have attempted to understand and describe what music means – some of the best minds in the world! – and yet we stumble and struggle with, what would seem to be, a most simple, necessary and obvious attribute of Music.

Let’s start with some definition of Music. There are many, and between them, there is much overlap. For obvious reasons, I do prefer my own, which itself conjoins several versions. I teach that Music is “aesthetically organized sounds and silences”.  Let’s unpack that a bit. Starting from the end, we clearly know that music is comprised of “sounds”. It is less obvious to many that the silences are also important – actually, equally important. Some philosophers have argued that Music is primarily unique silences, created and prompted by endlessly unique sounds. I would love to devote an entire article (no, an entire semester) to only this topic, but I would likely loose anyone reading these posts! An easy and accessible example of such important silence is the opening of Beethoven’s famous 5th symphony – with its infamous first 4 notes GGG Eb – the motive of “fate knocking”, with a “short short short long” rhythm. Notice that this fourth note is held long (with a fermata), followed by some silence. The next iteration of this motive one step lower repeats the process of fermata followed by a silence. Those silences are like no other: they could only exist having been prompted by those infamous four notes. Another example of the importance of silence (let’s simply remain with Beethoven) is that, at the end of some of his symphonic works, there is an extra bar… of nothing – everyone has rests. This bar of nothing follows that last note of the piece. What is this extra bar of nothing which Beethoven composed and has clearly written in his score? When I conduct this, I make a point to hold one hand in the air (so there is no applause following the “last” note) while making an extra downbeat with the baton, indicating the bar of nothing – of silence. THEN… the piece concludes. Both sounds and silences are integral to Music.

Returning to our definition, we note that these are not just “any” sounds or silences, but “aesthetically organized” sounds and silences. “Aesthetics” involves “rules of beauty” – namely compositional craft coupled with inspired and creative expression. Thus, humans are required to make art. This begs the question if AI (artificial intelligence) can “create” music. Another question I am often asked is whether the rustling of leaves on a tree is music. To both I always say “no”. There is no mathematical algorithm or utterance of Nature that, by itself, constitutes Music. These may be “potential” music, provided they are “organized” by a human, respectful of aesthetic values and disciplines.

Music has a sad history. For the longest time, the philosophy of Aesthetics did not consider Music one of the “Fine Arts”. It was a “lesser” art, perhaps at the level of a “craft”  (like basket weaving). The reason it was not allowed into the prestigious list of “Fine Arts” has to do with its lack of “form”. I do not mean form in the sense of “musical forms” (like fugue and sonata and aria), but form in the sense of “representation”.  You see, all of the Fine Arts (save for Music) actually “represent” something, be it a tree, a brook, the geometry of a triangle, etc. Music has no such representational features and was thus considered a lower art.

Recent scholarship in the area of the Philosophy of Aesthetics has not only successfully defended the inclusion of Music into the Fine Arts, but argues that it is THE supreme Fine Art, in that it “speaks” without the need of representation! Music surpasses the other Fine Arts in that it transcends any need of representation to express “meaning”. Yet, what IS the meaning of Music?

It is said that Music is a “universal language”. This would imply that people of different verbal languages and of different cultures and different times could all easily grasp the same experience of a performance of some music in the same way.  This is a debatable proposition. Yet, we intuitively appreciate that there is some truth to this. The experience may not be articulated exactly the same way, but different people would likely have at least a very similar experience, regardless how they expressed it.

Cutting to the chase, Music’s premier teacher and exponent, Leonard Bernstein, began his phenomenal career by asking the question “What does Music Mean?” in the very first of his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic (available on YouTube and also for purchase). Please look it up! In it he demonstrates that Music, through its many modes of expression, can easily possess and share “meaning”. But he is never satisfied. Having completed an entire musical career, he elects, at the end of his career, to return to his Alma Mater of Harvard to offer six lectures during which he returns to the first question of his public career: “What does music mean?”. These lectures are entitled “The Unanswered Question – Six Harvard Lectures”. This is not for the faint of heart – these are very serious and superbly brilliant lectures, attempting to open up the “meaning” of Music.

In these talks, Bernstein creatively explains his theory of Music’s meaning by analogically overlaying the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky upon the micro- and macro-structures of Music. These, too, may be viewed on YouTube and are available for purchase (along with a very useful transcript, sold separately).

Bernstein, seated at the piano (and later with baton and full symphony orchestra), demonstrates how music uses its “sounds” as nouns, adjectives and verbs and adverbs and how it especially uses figures of speech, especially the metaphor.  Yes, Music CAN and DOES mean “something”. But like any language, we need to be familiar with its sounds (phonology), its words, its grammar and its syntax in order to arrive at any possible “semantic” – namely, “meaning”. Human language begins with sounds (like “mah”) and then makes words with the sounds, and then puts the words into phrases in an ordered manner (syntax), and then, adds the craft and discipline of macro-linguistic structures (sentences and paragraphs) to yield “semantic” – meaning. Music similarly begins with sounds, then combines those sounds in an ordered manner, then groups such patterns into a macro structure to create “meaning”.

Since Music is a non-representational Fine Art, it will always disappoint those who require literal, representational meaning. But Bernstein advocates for Music’s meaning, ultimately suggesting that Music’s highest order of “meaning” is, in his words, “a sheerly Musical Meaning”, one which transcends any need of structural linguistic analogy or linguistic narrative. This Musical Meaning may incorporate such an analogy and narrative, but speaks most profoundly and most uniquely within the Fine Arts by means of its own “musical” manner.

Would that our ears all be attuned so well to the voice of Mother Music, as it speaks messages to us through the inspired pens of the great composers – messages which are ineffable, incapable of being shared by any other medium of human expression!  

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.