Saturday, January 21, 2012

Music and Meaning

Music can mean a lot to us. Certain pieces or songs remind us of a particular time in our lives, a particular emotional content. But the kind of meaning we find in music is not the kind we find in language. Musical meaning doesn't signify the way language does. Of course, some music has text and the text has linguistic meaning. A song can tell a story. But music without text can also have meaning. Without semantic content, though. You can't say in music "the ball is red"

But on the other hand, you can't say in words
Music notation is both a set of instructions "put tab A in slot B" and a description of a soundscape. The illustration above, converted into instructions, might be something like "play three eighth note Gs followed by an E flat; the length of each eighth note is 0.14 seconds; play the notes loud, etc..." The cumbersomeness of this is why prose does not make for useful music notation. With training, you can read a musical score and "hear" it in your head; that is, you can estimate the resulting sound. As proof of this, a typical test in ear-training is to hand someone musical notation as in the illustration and have them sing it.

Some instrumental music almost seems to have semantic content. I once performed an experiment with the cooperation of a class I was teaching. There were about 100 students, so a good-sized sample. The experiment was I played a movement from an orchestral work and asked everyone to write down a few sentences describing what was going on. I suppose it was like asking them to imagine the movie this was the soundtrack for. I did not tell them anything whatever about the piece and I doubt if any of them had heard it before. If you want to perform the experiment yourself, just listen to the following clip without looking at it.

The vast majority of the students, at least 90%, wrote some variant of the following: "there is a great conflict or battle between two opposing forces, one good, one evil and the battle ends with good triumphing". This is the third movement from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 12, "The Year 1917" and it represents in some way the events of the Russian Revolution. The third movement is titled "Aurora" after the battleship that fired on the Winter Palace signalling the beginning of the conflict. Here is Wikipedia on the symphony.

Music can communicate very powerfully. What it can't do is communicate specifics: "meet me at 7" or "property is theft". What it can do is express how we feel in general, not specific terms. Now that raises some interesting possibilities. Can we use music as a kind of time machine to get a sense of how people felt in the 18th, or 16th or 14th century? Well, possibly. But we have to take into account that we can only hear from our perspective and the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic techniques of music have changed radically over time. The depiction of a battle in a piece from the 16th century is not going to sound much like the depiction of a battle in a piece from the 20th century.

One last thought. Beethoven titled his Symphony No. 3 the Eroica, and dedicated it to Napoleon. But, as the story goes, later on he scratched out that dedication and made it merely to "the memory of a great man". Here is the Wikipedia article with the story. Here is the title page with the scratched out original dedication:

Now here is what is interesting: when he changed his mind about Napoleon after he made himself emperor, Beethoven had to change the dedication but he didn't have to change a single note in the symphony! The expressiveness of music is non-specific, which is ofttimes a good thing. Because of this, Shostakovich was able to write symphonies that were both acceptable to the authorities under Stalin and expressive of the torment and oppression felt by the people. Here is the first movement of the Eroica:

And here is the slow movement of the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich:

All this makes one recall a letter Mendelssohn wrote in which he said:
A piece of music that I love expresses thoughts to me that are not too imprecise to be framed in words, but too precise.
This is saying the opposite to what I have been saying here! But oddly enough, I think there is truth in both. What Mendelssohn is saying, as is clear from the context of the passage, is that while most people find language precise and music imprecise, for him it is the opposite. He finds language very imprecise with the meaning often unclear and easily misunderstood. Music on the other hand, to Mendelssohn, is perfectly clear even though inexpressible in words. Just as, for me, I know exactly what the meaning (significance? import?) is of the short theme by Beethoven I quoted at the very beginning of this post. But I really have no idea what someone might mean by saying "the ball is red". Unless we are playing billiards. It might all be some murky metaphor...


RG said...

Good. I hope you come back to this question in the future. RG

Bryan Townsend said...

I certainly would like to! It would help a lot to get some comments on the specifics...

The philosophical nature of a post like this means that a lot of people won't read it, but I find these kind of ideas fascinating.

RG said...

Well, some cultural realities or entities are completely intentional(driving on one side of the road). Others are fundamentally intentional but experientially given (reindeer in the clouds ). That is how musical meaning comes to be - by our application to non-intentional phenomena of culturally-supported paradigms of interpretation of intentions. I suspect, however, that there are some musical tropes that are embedded stably enough in cultural rules that they actually do present an authorial intention. (I can think only of that bit from Wagner that "means" the bride is coming all dressed in white.) By the way, a musical trope, just as a verbal one, need not be properly understood by everyone to have an objective meaning - "chat" has objectively particular meaning in both French and English.

Bryan Townsend said...

I thing the basic intention of composers is to write something that is expressive and musically satisfying. There is a huge range of musical expression and beauty--but it is hard if not impossible to tie it down to specifics in language. For example, I watched a very gifted teacher engage a student playing a piece by Bach by proposing a dramatic metaphor. The next year, I saw him teach the same piece to a different student using an entirely different metaphor. Even a suggestive title coming from the composer, like Debussy's La Mer, or Beethoven's Pathetique, is still just a metaphor. These metaphors may open a door for the listener to the music, but they don't really capture what's going on--just point to it!

becky said...

Thank you so much for this helpful blog. I am getting ready to teach ten weeks of music appreciation to high schoolers, and this is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for to lay some foundations. Also, as a Christian, I have been in many discussions about what types of music are appropriate for Christian ideas. I think that many types of rock, classical, etc. can be appropriate, for the very reason that music conveys general meaning but not specific. So thanks again.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Becky,

Welcome to the blog and thanks for the kind comment. I have taught a little music appreciation myself and I think there might be lots of posts that might help here. Just use the search engine in the right hand column.

I think music can definitely have a moral force, though how it does that is rather difficult to explain. But I certainly sense it with Bach, Beethoven and Shostakovich.

You're welcome!