Music and meaning

Is there meaning in music? Certainly, any meaning whatsoever can be found in music—one piece of music and the businessman hears home, the lover hears the beloved, the believer hears God—but can a piece of music bear a single meaning, as a act of communication?

Keys and intervals are often treated of as ideas in themselves. The tritone threatens, A flat weeps, E flat creeps through every nerve; D major had a dying fall. Generally, that major keys are happy, and minor keys sad, stands agreed. But that can be proved only for a simplicity of examples. A composer can make any key serve any occasion; a performer can make any composer serve any occassion. And if we hear a familiar piece in an unfamiliar key—say, when an aging singer changes the key of a song to ease his voice—it troubles us at first; but we get used to it, and after a few hearings all our original associations pass over to it 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 empty of meaning—that it is mere play, that it is 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 a 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 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, the place the thing was done, who it was done to. (A strange metaphor, 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 that that 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? Rather, it is a means of experience. The same can be true for listeners. A sad song can sadden you without matching your own experiences. The sadness you feel from sad music may keep completely separate from your own sadnesses—an assumed, alien 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 is thus in advance of the other arts: the others 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 estheticism. In the unmusical estheticism 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 the art's own. Note that as music became easier to hear, all the arts adopted simplicity as their goal: as if the human desire for the satisfactions of sophistication were independent, and as it finds satisfaction in music, it loses its force in other arts.

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. But it seems to me 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 where they propose to represent real life—have plots that would, told over a dinner table, only provoke laughter; characters whom, were they real, we would prefer not to have heard of. Far from being ennobled by screen stature, it is by the reinforcement 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 absurd disparities when a salesman fills the screen like a superhero and a superhero jabbers 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.