The Separation of Music and Meaning

I sort of laugh when I ponder the whole “intelligent design” diatribe, which ascribes to the notion that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher intelligence. Applying this theory to music would make me an intelligent designer. Whatever. Sure, I create musical universes all the time, but at the end of the day, I’m just a guy who likes to scribble notes on manuscript paper. I’d argue my actions aren’t very intelligent, or designed to act as some kind of conduit to find any deeper meaning. Composing music is quite different from the let-there-be-light modus operandi, yet with both byproducts—a musical composition or the Garden of Eden—meaning is in the eye of the beholder/believer.

I’m attracted to music, in part, due to its meaninglessness. We have many words to describe how music sounds and a vast assortment of theories useful to describe the ways in which music is structured. But really, music isn’t a language in which we can declare fluency. I certainly don’t claim to understand music. It just doesn’t function as a syntactical language, and it’s by no means a reliable mode of communication. In the end, even when converted to mathematical relationships, a certain pitch, sonority, or rhythm conveys no meaning other than societal clichés assigned to whatever the aural phenomena. But even this minor-chord-equals-sad paradigm is unreliable at best.

I realize that many folks out there don’t buy the whole music-is-meaningless argument, and I agree to a certain extent. Music does have meaning, however it doesn’t literally communicate anything distinctly. It’s impossible. Music is a wonderful un-language with the ability to convey many different things, depending on who is listening. As someone who creates music, I don’t mind a bit being left in the dark about the mysteries of music. Maybe it’s just the wails and cries, or the background filler, of an evolved species. Unfortunately, this planet isn’t populated by too many able to keep so Zen about such great unknowns.

6 thoughts on “The Separation of Music and Meaning

  1. jbunch

    “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is Meaningless!”

    – Ecclesiastes 12:8 (really!)

    A number of my composer friends and I are having these same struggles. From my perspective, appealing to some received language such as modal systems (à la Messaien), dodecaphony, or even (non) functional tonality seems rather arbitrary. Do our materialistic and stylistic allegiances; our formal schemes and schematic tricks have some value in themselves, or is it that we invest them with a kind of value by choosing them (and what seperates that from meaninglessness)?
    The message by some seems to be that intuition cannot convince the listener strongly enough of intentionality. But what is intuition other than someone speaking their own vernacular language?
    I happen to think that the closest we can get is to connect ourselves to the physical body of sounds. We’re all too familiar with the hollywood-esque notions of minor=sad, high-pitched clusters=someone’s about to get axed. Perhaps though – as spectral composers have attempted to tap into the physical by modeling the harmonic aspects of their music from FFT’s and whatnot – one could focus upon other models in the physical world: weight, density, compression/rarefaction, velocity, etc.
    While modeling music after physical notions is certainly nothing new, a more or less “poetic” or intuitive usage of these phenomena – more close to the dynamic nature of language than the rigorous systematics of mathematics could be for some a helpful tool in the toolbox. Salvatore Sciarrino is a good example of this way of thinking. He sports a “naturalism” that is characteristic and, despite appearances, unique from the Romantic concept (for those who care).
    Anyway, I appreciate the post – I think it’s pretty timely.

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  2. marknowakowski

    Meaningless music? I must opine that to begin with the assertion that “music is meaningless” is to in the end submit to writing intelligent nonsense. Music may indeed not be able to express anything that we can describe acurately in words. I will suggest that it strikes deeper, in some area of the soul which we simply are not able to document, much as myths and fable resonate on a more primal level than the daily newspaper. There are legions of composers past who would balk at the notion of meaingless music… It is unfortunate that many subscribe to such thoughts, and may serve as a partial explanation as to why so much meaingless music has been used to alienate otherwise open minded listeners.

    And on a side note: While I personally don’t subscribe to intelligent design, I also question the intellectual health, scientific knowledge (as well as imagination) of anyone who can dismiss the perfect complexity of the Universe and think that it explains itself.

    So now that I’ve taken my return philosophical swipe, I will suggest that cheapshots at worldviews and political positions opposing our own shouldn’t enter into musical commentaries on this website.

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  3. dalgas

    jbunch writes: Do our materialistic and stylistic allegiances; our formal schemes and schematic tricks have some value in themselves, or is it that we invest them with a kind of value by choosing them (and what seperates that from meaninglessness)?

    Well, meaning is choosing and investing. There might be the simple fact of existence without us, but there’s certainly no meaning apart from what we bring to the table.

    marknowakowski writes: I must opine that to begin with the assertion that “music is meaningless” is to in the end submit to writing intelligent nonsense …. I will suggest that it strikes deeper, in some area of the soul which we simply are not able to document …. It is unfortunate that many subscribe to such thoughts, and may serve as a partial explanation as to why so much meaningless music has been used to alienate otherwise open minded listeners.

    You already lost me when you needed to bring in a “soul” for your definition. But what really gets me is that you first say that there’s no meaningless music, yet go on to accuse some certain class of musicians of apparently alienating listeners with (supposedly-impossible) “meaningless music”! Which is it?

    Steve Layton

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  4. marknowakowski

    Dalgas wrote:
    You already lost me when you needed to bring in a “soul” for your definition. But what really gets me is that you first say that there’s no meaningless music, yet go on to accuse some certain class of musicians of apparently alienating listeners with (supposedly-impossible) “meaningless music”! Which is it?

    Never in this statement do I claim that there is no meaningless music. I said that the assertion we begin with defines whether or not our music even has a chance to attain some sort of meaning. Please do not invent self-contradictions where they do not exist.

    As to the “soul” part, I stand firmly by it, along with most of the Western musical tradition.

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  5. dalgas

    Mark, your words: “It is unfortunate that many subscribe to such thoughts, and may serve as a partial explanation as to why so much meaningless music has been used to alienate otherwise open minded listeners.” [my emphasis] … I didn’t twist a thing, it’s right there.

    Now you say: “I said that the assertion we begin with defines whether or not our music even has a chance to attain some sort of meaning.” … Envisioning “a chance to attain some sort of meaning” can’t happen without the complimentary chance to not attain meaning, so once again you’re classifying some music as meaningless.

    I actually almost agree with this last-quoted statement of yours, except:

    “Assertion” should be “assumption”, since we always assume even if we don’t always make it cross over into assertion;

    The word “personal” should be inserted before the word “meaning”, since in music (like religion) the only over-arching universals are only as “universal” as the faith the individual has in them.

    The only universal that I can see is that music always both has and creates meaning; any aesthetic act can’t happen without it. But precisely what meaning it creates can never be universally answered, except inasmuch as each of us submits to a single faith or world-view. And while all music has meaning, on a personal level some music can have no meaning for some individual or group.

    Steve Layton

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  6. marknowakowski

    I think that in one sense you misread what I wrote, and in the other we agree.

    Once again, I never said that music does or does not have meaning. Both forms clearly exist. I merely reacted to the notion of willingly writing music without meaning.

    In terms of meaning, I think we are engaging in a semantic misunderstanding, so I will not pursue it further.

    -Mark

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