THE MEANING OF MUSIC

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)

Shakespeare doesn’t give us a lot of details about that philosophy, but we may infer from the context that Horatio was a naïve realist. His motto: “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). His world view: heavily influenced, if not fully formed, by the vocabulary and syntax of the late Indo-European language he spoke. The content of this thoughts: objects, actions and qualities (nouns, verbs and adjectives).

400 years later, James Joyce (Ulysses) reprised Horatio in the character of Buck Mulligan who was a foil for Dedalus in the same way that Horatio was for the Prince of Denmark.

Ok, but what does any of this have to do with “the meaning of music”? Broadly stated, music is a window on those things that are not dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy. But what do we ‘mean’ by ‘meaning’ anyway?

Meaning is the relationship between a set of ‘signifiers’ (A) and a set of ‘signifieds’ (B). We say, “A (signifier) means B (signified).”

A and B cannot intersect; they cannot have any common members. Each must utterly transcend the other. Of course, the same item may be a signifier in one context and a signified in another, but it cannot properly be both in the same context.

Therefore, nothing can ‘be its own meaning’ (or ‘mean itself’). That would be a misuse of the word ‘meaning’. ‘To Mean’, by definition, refers to something beyond. Otherwise, it is not ‘meaning’ but ‘being’.

A set of signifiers ‘means’ a set of signifieds to the extent that it resonates with and elucidates those signifieds. Language is a set of signifiers. Language is often used to define and describe patterns in the so-called ‘real world’. We say that such language is meaningful to the extent that it elucidates ‘real world’ patterns in a way that ‘resonates’ with us as true.

(What do we mean when we talk about ‘the real world’? That’s the subject of another essay, or book, or library. We will not approach it here. In this essay we will assume that there is an ‘external world’ (Bertrand Russell) and that we have at least a passing familiarity with that world.)

Le degree zero of meaning is the denotation of words strung together in well formed formulae known as sentences. Sadly, for most of us, this is all we ‘mean’ when we talk about ‘meaning’. Outrageously, some early 20th century philosophers (logical positivists and ordinary language philosophers) actually encouraged us to accept this narrow thought horizon.

Fortunately, however, such spare communication is the exception rather than the rule, at least outside the realm of science and engineering. In ordinary speech, the connotation of words is often as important as their denotation; but even that only scratches the surface of how words can convey meaning.

Metaphor is meaning, for example, and mythology is metaphor writ large.

In the hands of creative writers, especially poets, the sounds of words and the images they conjure up may be more meaningful than either their denotations or their connotations.

When combined with gesture in drama or with tone in song, words can be vehicles for meanings far beyond the scope of ordinary language.

But why stop here? Words are not the only ‘signifiers’; what about the visual image in a painting, for example? What about music?

Any pattern that resonates with and elucidates another pattern is a signifier. Therefore, I can say that ‘le livre’ (French) means ‘the book’ (English). In this case, depending on the context, either term may be the signifier, either term the signified; but French and English, for the most part at least, remain distinct.

We are immersed in a sea of signifiers and signifieds. You could make a case for the proposition that such immersion is what constitutes human life, or at least, human culture. Yet, one set of potential signifieds claims special status in our thinking, so special that we call this set ‘the real world’.

More than anything else these days, we want our signifiers to teach us about the world we live in and about our place in it.

Superficially, this looks easy. Our native language (whatever it may be) provides a ready-made grid (Derrida’s logos) for dividing up the welter of sensations, perceptions and experiences into manageable units. In the case of late Indo-European languages, we are mainly talking about objects, actions and qualities.

In our time, we even have the Scientific Method to help us verify that our language maps accurately conform to patterns in the real world. We look to language to help us decode our surroundings and function successfully within those surroundings; and for the most part, it does a pretty good job.

Yet, many of us are not satisfied. Like Hamlet, we feel that there is more to reality than ordinary language and scientific method can reveal. We sense deeper, more complex patterns, below the level of perception, but perhaps not always below the level of intuition or feeling.

Those of us who find ourselves in this dilemma look to satisfy our hunger outside the limits of ordinary language, in poetry for example, but also outside the confines of language itself. For us, an even more abstract medium – I have in mind music – may be required.

Of course, from pop tunes to operas, music often incorporates language and further extends the expressive power of that language. But I am concerned here with music that does not intersect with language, i.e. non-choral, instrumental music, and especially with that music we Westerners are used to calling “classical”.

Like language, music has a kind of vocabulary (tones) and a sort of syntax (keys). But most, and certainly the best, classical music does not use those tones to represent any object, action or quality in the ‘real world’. In music, non-choral music at least, there is no denotation at all. So then how can there be meaning?

When I say that a sentence has meaning, I mean that it refers to some state of affairs in the pre-verbal (‘real’) world and expresses that state of affairs as a pattern that in some way elucidates it and resonates with us as true.

This is exactly what music does! Music consists of patterns of sounds (melodies, harmonies, rhythms) and a musical composition is an uber-pattern of such patterns. Music reflects on the ‘real world’ (but usually not on the phenomenal world) and models that world using sound. Early we spoke of ‘language maps’; here we might speak of ‘tonal maps’.

Music, for the most part, is not about scientific theories, perceptions, experiences, and narratives. Rather, it is about the structure of Being that lies below what can be perceived with the senses.

Elements of this ‘deep structure’, not accessible to sense perception, may yet be accessible to intuition, to feeling. Some elements, however, may lie even more deeply buried. These elements can only be addressed through faith, hope and love.

Music may be compared to mythology (see above). Every major score attempts to tell the story of Being…but each tells it from a different perspective. Like a mythological system, every major musical work attempts to provide us with the musical equivalent of a TOE (a “theory of everything”).

Then why so many scores? When we approach Being, we are like blind monks approaching an elephant. Each of us touches a different part of the elephant (ear, trunk, leg, tail, etc.) and each of us comes away with a different image of the elephant – all correct…but all incomplete. There is always something new to be discovered about an elephant and, likewise, there is always something new to be discovered about Being.

We cannot translate music into philosophy. The best music utterly transcends the expressive power of language. Music penetrates beneath the phenomenal surface into the realm of the pre-verbal. Here we may approach, dare I say it, the mind of God.

Just exactly how do I dare say it? Earlier we said that meaning takes place when a set of signifiers resonates with and elucidates a set of signifieds. When does that happen? It happens when, and to the extent that, the signifier is beautiful (resonant) and true (elucidatory) with respect to the signified.

Now beauty and truth (along with justice) are the primary values of God in most Western theologies; and God’s values, i.e. his essence, constitutes what is often called “the mind of God”. Recall that self-proclaimed atheist, Jean-Paul Sartre, said, insightfully, that God is the being whose essence precedes his existence. In other words, God is his essence; God is beauty, truth and justice.

We pray the Psalms, for instance, in order to conform our minds, our values, our will to God’s. Remember, God is his essence; we are left to freely choose ours (Sartre).

Music elucidates the pre-verbal, non-phenomenal structures of the real world. Its ‘meaning’ is not subject to logical analysis, scientific verification or mathematical proof. The only test of music’s validity is its beauty and, as Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

When we listen to a gorgeous composition, we are not just entertained; we have a ‘meaning-full’ experience. And when the beauty of a particular performance or a particular score utterly overwhelms, it is not too much to hope that we are drawing near the mind of God.