I have talked a lot about the meaning of music, but it is a very big subject, so I'm sure there's lots more to say. This is a post from a philosophical point of view. But right now I want to look at it from a more everyday perspective.
Most music has a pretty clear social or cultural function or meaning, even if it is not the specific kind of meaning that can say "meet me for coffee tomorrow at 4 pm." It is an aesthetic or musical meaning that enhances or sometimes undermines the events it might accompany. That's a little abstract, isn't it? What I mean is that music often has a role in social events. Sometimes that role is quite powerful. We can't really imagine a wedding without music and certain music in particular:
But a lot of music has a kind of functional meaning that we don't think about too much as we encounter it detached from the original context. The work of musicology is often to reconnect a piece of music with its context. This piece of music, for example, was composed for the dedication of the Duomo in Florence in 1436:
There are some interesting theories about the unusual structure of the music that attempt to relate it to either the architectural proportions of the cathedral or to the passage in the Bible describing the Temple of Solomon.
But often the meaning or function of music is neither established by long custom, as in the Mendelssohn march, nor by internal features of the music itself, as in the DuFay piece, but rather by the context. For example, the minuet and trio, of which we have innumerable examples from the 17th and 18th centuries, was the inevitable accompaniment to social events of the nobility. It has an ancien régime feel to it. It surrounds and supports and burnishes the aristocracy.
The Viennese waltz replaced it and it has more of a haut bourgeois feel and reigned through the 19th century.
The function of this music is to accompany dance (though a lot of minuets and trios are just heard in concert), but the character of it also serves to flatter the dancers themselves.
My mother was an old time fiddler who played for Friday night dances her whole life. This was music for country people and this is what it sounded like:
Now that's just unpretentious and fun. The dancers probably didn't think their lives needed burnishing (or maybe they just didn't think that was the job of music).
As the last clip illustrates, alongside the music of the upper classes, there has always been music of the lower classes. For much of history it didn't get written down, though it certainly existed. Oddly, during the 20th century, for a lot of complex reasons, only some of which I am probably aware of, popular music became both more concrete in recorded and written versions, and by the 50s, started to replace classical music as the dominant musical form in society. It presented new kinds of meaning to suit the new kinds of listeners. Were they actually new kinds of listeners? That I'm not sure of. But the post-war baby boom seems to have been some kind of big event and those listeners were certainly new. Both Elvis and the Beatles benefitted from the huge bulge of young listeners with some discretionary cash to spend. The result was fabulous wealth (compared to previous musicians) and a new aesthetic of musical meaning.
Just to take a couple of kinds of example, the early rock and roll music was just about enjoying the thrill of being young and sexy:
Of course, when John Lennon got rolling, he used the music to describe and express more complex and personal emotions:
Now this was rather a new thing: popular music that delved into territory that previously might only have been the domain of classical lieder like this one:
But I think that the fact that, while both these are intimate personal expressions, in the realm of popular music, there are pressures and incentives that a lieder singer or composer, neither in 1840 or now, would experience. I don't want to say anything simplistic about big business, but the fact is that ever since the Beatles, popular music has become a very big business indeed. It would be a very good project to look at how the pressures of commercial competition, the competition for eyeballs and downloads, impacts on songwriters, singers and marketers. What sorts of dialogues go on behind the scenes.
In the case of Schumann and even Lennon, it is not so hard to discern what is going on. Schumann is expressing things having to do with romantic love and Lennon is talking about existential isolation:
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me
But when we look at recent pop music, it is hard to claim that what we hear is the simple and direct expression of the thoughts and feelings of the composer/singer:
It is hard not to get the impression that popular music now seems to be more and more about the lifestyles of the wealthy pop stars. We are back in "minuet and trio" territory, but instead of the music being for the aristocracy, it is sold to the masses. I'm not sure what to say about this exactly, but isn't there something aesthetically dishonest about it all?
If we ask what the function of current pop music is, wouldn't we get a couple of answers: a) to burnish the lifestyles of wealthy pop stars by making them seem cool with a soundtrack and b) to keep them wealthy with lots of sales. But why would this be of any interest to the average buyer? It really can't be the stupendous quality of the music, can it?