How does music mean?

How can music mean anything? We all have a favorite song, and it can instantly transport us to a time and place where we felt good, or at least enjoyed feeling melancholic (I had a professor fond of calling music 'emotional chiropractics' for the way it re-aligns our insides.) But the meaning of that song isn't necessarily about the music itself, it is almost by association: you may have heard it in the climatic scene of some great movie, or whilst on a date, or at a perfect summer BBQ with mates. The point is, this meaning comes from 'without' the music, and the meaning I am talking about comes from 'within'. 

There is a quote that says, “A piece of music is forever generating its own context…it exists as a self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self-resolving form.” (Actually, John Ciardi was talking about poetry, but we are appropriating his idea!) What he is saying is that music only has meaning because of context: a single note is just a single note, it takes a chord to make it a harmony. And a chord progression is only that because it progresses from one harmony to the next. And a melody is only a tune because of its unique succession of notes. You get the picture. 

When we talk about Beethoven or Mahler or Shostakovich et al., what these guys did exceptionally well was to make the elements (melody, harmony, rhythm) relate to each other to tell a story. (More on this in future blogs…) Just think of the opening of Beethoven 5, the famous "Da, Da, Da, Dum!!!" These four notes are somehow filled with an indescribable energy: call it fate, call it struggle, whatever you label it, there is something phenomenally powerful about the 50 players in the string section bowing the hell out of these notes. The reason the piece is so famous, though, is because of what Beethoven does with the music after they are played. They are the opening line of a great and profound novel (check out this link

The point is that music isn’t just beautiful sounding (in fact sometimes it is intentionally ugly.) It is about how we interpret those sounds to tell a story.

Kirsten Hicks