MUS202 music appreciation


Six or seven ways music might have or create meaning


1- music as meaning only itself, self-contained (“music-ways-of-knowing”)

2- non-verbal communication cues (paralinguistic qualities)

3- associations [uses, functions]

4- referential

5- contextual:  words-about-music [titles, programs, contexts such as history]

6- words-in-music [sung texts]

7- emotional response


1.  Music as meaning only itself; a piece of music means itself.  The elements of music (timbre, volume, rhythm, pitch)    considered as only have meaning in relation to each other.  All examples of music have this type of meaning.  We hear a piece of music . . . some notes are higher and lower, some shorter, some longer . . . structures & patterns emerge . . . these structures are repeated, varied, contrasted with other structures.  Musical meaning emerges.  An example is the first movement of a Haydn Piano Sonata, No. 50 in C major.  What does it mean? It means itself –– a structure full of contrasts of short and long, chords of significance relative to one another, repetition of motives, variation of motives, etc.  Music theorist Leonard Meyer suggested that our experience of emotion in music comes from patterns of expectations that are satisfied, delayed, or frustrated.  These patterns exist within our purely musical, music-as-self-signifying, knowledge and experience.  This could also be called structural musical meaning.

2.  Non-verbal communication cues (paralinguistic qualities) -- Music may not be a language, much less a universal language, but subtle emotional meanings can be communicated across cultures even with unfamiliar music.  This sort of communication is often considered to be paralinguistic, and often relies on clues relating to timbre, register, and bending of pitch.  This is not language, but the things that go along with language: tone-of-voice, cries, whispers, shouts, murmurs, screams.

3.  Individual pieces and types of music can acquire meaning through associations with particular uses, functions and contexts.  The “Star Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem, for example, "means” or symbolizes the United States of America in ritual occasions.  Another example of association would be film music.  There is no reason why a half step interval repeated in the low strings would cause one to think "shark," but within one viewing of Jaws, the association is permanent.

4.  Musical references, such as bugle calls, point to specific musical calls or signals.  More generally, music can refer to an idea, often another piece of music, through musical quotation (Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique quoting the Dies irae chant, therefore referring to death).  More subtly and more importantly, a piece of music may refer to other types of music through dissimulation or evocation.  An example would be Chopin's Nocturne Opus 55 No. 1.  This piece would be hard to dance to, but it seems to be a memory of a dance, so there is a sort of referential meaning – it refers to the idea of music for dance.  A sense of genre and especially mixing of genres might be referential meaning.

5.  Words about music can significantly alter our perception of what the music means.  For example, recognizing the triple subdivision in Perotin'sViderunt omnes” might initially be only a structural musical meaning (as in #1) of the music.  However, after learning some history –– some words –– about medieval theological attitudes, we can hear that that triple subdivision can be interpreted to have much more significance.  These words about history provide an additional context for interpretation.  Similarly, a title can radically change what we might think a piece is "about."  The title provides an interpretive context.

Structural meanings such as sonata form may be explained with words and this can stay as simply word-based knowledge if not experienced frequently or meaningfully enough. 

The persona of pop stars often overwhelms mere structural musical meanings.  We may know more about the relationships, legal difficulties, and life stories of singers than musical facts about their performances.  I consider this to be the supplemental context around pop songs, but part of that text is visual images, particularly from music videos.  Thus this type of meaning might shade into #3, Associations. 

Program music,” in which a composer provides some words, usually a narrative story that is implicit in the actual music, tries to use this type of meaning.  Berlioz's text telling the storyline of his Symphonie Fantastique is a good example of this attempt at forging this type of meaning with words-about-music.

6.  Sung texts can have enormous impact on the "meaning" of a piece of music, but they do not entirely determine or encompass that meaning.  What is the relative contribution of a lyric to the meaning of a song? The national anthem functions perfectly well, meaning exactly the same thing, with the lyrics left out entirely.  Some texts could be easily changed without significantly shifting the identity or meaning of a song.  On the other hand, some near-nonsense texts, because of their timbral and rhythmic qualities, seem to have implicit musical structural qualities.  (Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” for example.) Text painting, also known as word painting, is an interesting special case in which the sense of the sung words is mimicked in the musical gesture.  (Note that the term "sung text" is a slightly more broad term than "lyrics."  For example, one does not refer to the text of a mass, a religious ceremony, as "lyrics," but it is certainly a text that is sung.)

7.  Perhaps our individual emotional response to a piece of music is its meaning.  Philosopher Suzanne Langer described music as 'the tonal analog of the emotions.'  Our own individual response of course changes as our own emotional state changes, and it varies strongly from person to person.  Can something so unstable be considered “meaning”?  As mentioned in number one, Leonard Meyer suggested that our experience of emotion in music comes from patterns of expectations that are satisfied, delayed, or frustrated.  It is interesting to note that the emotional response that the listener is having is probably quite different than what the performer or composer is feeling at the time of creation, so it is not as if music is a channel for the transmission of an emotional state.  Additionally, and most problematically, a single individual’s emotional response can vary remarkably from hearing to hearing; can meaning be so unstable and still be meaning?



David Meckler

rev. March 2009


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