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Music and Meaning

Can music have meaning? Certainly, meaning can always be found in music – one piece of music and the traveler hears home, the lover hears the beloved, the believer hears God – but can a piece of music bear meaning as an act of communication?

Keys, intervals, and chords are often thought of as ideas in themselves. Major is happy, minor is sad. The second menaces, the sixth regrets. The suspension promises, the dominant delivers. But the rules hold only for the simplest examples. A composer can always make the key serve the occasion; a performer can do the same for the composer. When we hear a familiar piece in an unfamiliar key – say, when an aging singer changes the key of a song to ease their voice – it troubles us at first; but we get used to it, and after a few hearings all our original associations pass over into the new key intact.

Time and use have made certain pieces of music the bearers of specific meanings; but if we listen naively, the meanings disappear. The motive of Beethoven’s 5th has come to represent strength, right, V for victory; but if we say that Beethoven put all that into four notes, then we must say that Samuel Morse put it into three dots and a dash.

Yet it is absurd to say that music is without meaning – that it is mere surface – that what we see in it are only reflections on its polish. Music comes to you without message or meaning; but once you have supplied the message, there should be no room for others. A piece of music should work on its message like a table of derivations works on a root in a Semitic language. We are not told what the deed is; we are told: here is the doer, here is the manner, the means, here is the beginning of it, the end, the reasoning, the result, here is the place the thing was done, and who it was done to. (A strange analogy, yes; but consider the sometimes almost musical ambiguity of the ancient Semitic languages.)

No human being can experience every emotion equally; yet any competent musician can play a piece of music with any emotion, even one the musician has never experienced. The lack of experience can even make for a better performance, if it keeps the performer out of the way. How, then, can we call playing music the expression of emotion? It is first a means of experiencing emotions. The same can be true for listeners. A sad song can sadden you without matching your own experiences. Why listen to sad songs when you are sad? Because the sadness you feel from sad music is not your own sadness, but a borrowed sadness that covers your own.

Music is not the only means of emotional education and exercise, but it is the most effective, being the most efficient and the most accessible. Music goes ahead of the other arts, the lullaby that greets us almost as soon as we enter the world. The other arts reach the mind later, and rely on the capacities that music has formed.

And I suspect that among the arts, music serves to absorb the extreme of aestheticism. In the unmusical aestheticism can become immoderate and paralyzing, as if they do not know where to stop in their attempt to imitate or rival musical sophistication, even to the injury of what is particularly their art’s own.

As music became easier to hear, all the arts adopted simplicity as their goal: as if the desire for the pleasures of sophistication were limited, and as it finds sophistication in music, it finds satiety.

Consider music in movies. I do not know how much I am ruled by habit in finding it natural. Perhaps in a hundred years a scene ending in swelling music while lovers kiss will seem as artificial as a scene ending with a rhyming couplet and a falling curtain. Exeunt audience. But to me it seems that the movie depends more on the music than the music depends on the movie. Silent film, of course, was never silent, only voiceless. Music videos are watchable without plot or character. Many movies – especially if they propose to represent real life – have plots that would, told over a dinner table, only provoke laughter; characters, if they were real, we would prefer not to know. Far from being ennobled by their projected stature, it is only by the artifice of music that such stories gain watchable significance. As literature, movies are less flexible than narrative: the stories of superheroes and salesmen must be told alike by one camera at a time in one place at a time following one act at a time in a box of the same size over the same amount of time. Music smooths out the disparities when a salesman fills the screen like a superhero and a superhero declaims like a salesman.

Information theory defines the unit of communication as a single decision: a bit of information is exactly enough to decide one Yes or No. In this sense, music is meaningless. It contains no information except itself. Yet it has something very close to meaning: it cannot tell you how to answer, but it can force you to come to an answer. The screen tells you the man is a villain; the music makes you hate him. The song tells you how he did her wrong; the music puts you on her side. Judgment can be withheld only in silence; music decides nothing, but it forces the decision.