Does music have meaning?
This is a big question about music, and there are many different views on the subject.
A review of philosophical discussion of this question can be found at The Philosophy of Music from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
(Ultimately I want to ask this question as a scientific question, but, for the moment, it seems to be question considered to be philosophical rather scientific, which is why most of what has been said on the subject counts as philosophy.)
Probably, Music Has Meaning
It is not that hard to determine that music, as most people know it, expresses some kind of meaning, as a result of two observations:
- Some music, some of the time, expresses emotions, such as happiness or sadness.
- Emotions have meaning.
Exactly how precisely music directly expresses individual emotions is a matter of some contention.
However, for the purpose of the current discussion, it is sufficient to observe that some music, under some circumstances, causes a listener to feel certain emotions differently to how they would have been felt in the absence of music.
Do emotions have meaning?
The easiest way to show that emotions have meaning is to state what the meaning of emotions is. For example:
- The meaning of happiness is that, in relation to the circumstances of the individual, something has happened or changed or been achieved which results in an unexpected improvement in the expectation that the individual will achieve their goals.
- The meaning of sadness is that, in relation to the circumstances of the individual, something has happened or changed or been achieved which results in an unexpected worsening of the expectation that the individual will achieve their goals.
- The meaning of angry is that, in relation to the circumstances of the individual, something has happened or changed suddenly, which makes the individual worse off, and the individual can attribute that change to some specific causative agent (to which the anger can be directed).
These meanings may not be precisely correct, but I think they are close enough to demonstrate that emotions do indeed have meaning.
Other Things That Have Meaning
Having determined that music has some kind of meaning, it would be useful to compare music to other things known to have meaning.
We will be most interested in things which are presented externally to the individual, in some manner, resulting in some change of mental state of the individual, said change corresponding to the "meaning" of the thing in question.
In other words, we want to consider things that have meanings about something else.
I will consider the following three examples of things that have meaning:
- A sentence in a spoken language
- A baby's cry
For each of these things, we can investigate how the meaning of that thing is determined.
Innate or Acquired
The first thing we want to know is whether the determination of meaning of the thing is innate.
The opposite of innate is "acquired".
It's not hard to answer the question for each of my three examples:
The meaning of a sentence in a spoken language is acquired. Every human individual has to learn the language of the society that they are born into.
The meaning of a baby's cry is innate. Most of the time, if you hear a baby's cry, it's because you are the baby's parent, or close relative, and the baby's cry means "I'm not happy about something and it's your job to do something about it, right now". The meaning does not have to be acquired – it is something that every parent just "knows" when they hear it.
Morphine is a pain-killer. The meaning of morphine is therefore a function of the meaning of pain.
Pain means something like: "Something is very wrong with your body, and you need to fix it, urgently.
The meaning of morphine is therefore something like "Nothing is wrong with your body, and you don't need to do anything about anything."
Of course this meaning is a false meaning, because administering morphine doesn't actually fix whatever is causing the pain.
But, under recommended clinical practice, one can re-interpret this false meaning as something like: "There is no urgent problem in your body that you need to fix, because there's a doctor here looking after you (or hopefully there will be soon), and any problem you have is one that requires a doctor and you can't fix it yourself anyway."
There isn't anything about the meaning of morphine that is acquired – its effect is a result of how it interacts directly with neurotransmitter receptors in the brain, so we can consider it to be innate.
The Innateness of Musical Meaning
There is some controversy about whether or not the meaning of music, if it has a meaning, is innate or acquired.
There seems to be a strong relationship between the music people have been exposed to, and the musical taste that people develop.
At the same time, there is a considerable observed universality of the meanings attribute to specific musical items, even when musical items come from foreign musical cultures, and more so when people from the same musical culture listen to the same musical items.
By the criterion of innateness, music is more like the examples of a baby's cry or morphine than it is like the example of a sentence.
Communication, or Drug?
The first two items in my list are forms of communication, whereas the third item would normally be classified as a drug.
We can also observe that the first two items involve sound and hearing, whereas the third item involves a chemical substance that has to be injected in order to take effect.
Given that music involves sound and hearing, it might seem obviously to be more like the first two items, and less like the third.
However, we can also attempt to classify all three items on the basis of "truthiness" and "falsity":
- Sentences can be false, but, by default we assume that they are true, or true to the best knowledge of the speaker. And we hold speakers accountable for the truthfulness or otherwise of the sentences that they speak.
- A baby's cry is almost always true. There may be some variation in how much different babies cry, and sometimes it's hard to understand exactly why a particular baby is crying, but babies are not capable of crying dishonestly.
- The message of morphine is essentially false – when it has been administered in response to pain, you feel like there is no urgency to fix yourself, because the pain has gone away. But, actually, your body still has something seriously wrong with it.
In as much as music makes us feel emotions, such as sadness or happiness, these emotional feelings are created by the effect of the music, and they do not have any necessary relation to our actual circumstances.
And just because a singer sings a happy song or a sad song, this doesn't necessarily mean that the singer is communicating to us that our own personal circumstances justify us feeling happy or sad. (Often we are listening to music as a form of entertainment, and there is no presumption that the performers are communicating any information that the listeners are expected to believe in.)
On a scale, with truthiness of baby's cry at one end, and the falsiness of morphine at the other end, music seems to be very close to the false end of the scale.
In other words, music is more like a drug, and less like a form of communication.
If Music is a Drug, is it Harmful?
If music is like a drug, then the meaning of music is false. And false meanings are, presumably, harmful.
When administered correctly by medical professionals, morphine can be of overall benefit to the patient.
But if a person is able to freely administer morphine to themselves, for whatever reason, then once such administration starts, it is likely to end badly, with the person ending up as an addict. (And this can happen even as a result of well-meaning medical treatment by qualified professionals.)
Of course not all drugs are dangerously addictive.
A lot people drink and enjoy coffee, and there isn't really such as thing as coffee addiction.
We can also consider the example of alcohol, which is stronger than coffee, but not as strong as morphine.
Alcohol does have a net negative effect on health. And a significant percentage of regular consumers will become addicts (eg ~9% even when consumption doesn't start until aged twenty or older).
But it can be argued that alcohol has social benefits, where people who drink together get to know each other better, and these social benefits can outweigh the health negatives.
This example of the possible social benefits of alcohol suggests the possibility that things with "false" meanings can sometimes be beneficial.
Does Music Addiction Exist?
If we think that music might be like a drug, then we can reasonably ask whether there is such a thing as music addiction.
As it happens, there are people who are in some sense addicted to music.
In particular, maladaptive daydreamers are people who consider themselves strongly addicted to daydreaming. For many maladaptive daydreamers, their daydreaming is strongly tied to listening to music – in effect, their addiction is an addiction to the combination of daydreams and music, and without the music there wouldn't be any addiction at all.
(There may also exist cases of music addiction that don't specifically involve daydreaming, but no scientific research seems to have been done on this, and unlike the case of maladaptive daydreaming, there don't seem to be any online self-help groups for people with non-daydreaming music addiction.)
A second question that we can reasonably ask, if we assume that music has "false" meanings, is: Are there people who develop false beliefs about reality, as a result of listening to music?
As far as anyone knows, no such group of people exists.
Of course many of us believe in things that are possibly not true, and most of us listen to music, but there is no known specific delusional syndrome attributable to the effects of music listening.
The phenomenon of maladaptive daydreaming may provide a vital clue about why this doesn't happen – how music can provide false meanings, without at the same time being harmful.
Music-associated maladaptive daydreaming is the association of music with daydreams, and daydreams are themselves false. People already know that their daydreams are false, in the sense of being fictional, and even maladaptive daydreamers retain the ability to distinguish their fictional daydreams from actual reality.
This leads to the hypothesis that the primary effect of music is to modify meanings which are already false, and where the listener knows that those meanings are false.
As a result of this constraint, music never directly alters any meaning which represents what the listener knows about things that are real, and the falsity of musical meaning is therefore not directly harmful.
The Function of Music
So far I have developed the following hypotheses about the meaning of music:
- Music has meaning.
- Music does not communicate true meanings.
- The meanings expressed by music are false, but they act as modifications to other existing false meanings which are already known by the music listener to be false.
These hypotheses explain how music can express false meanings without being overly harmful.
However they do not tell us much about what biological function music has, if indeed it has any actual biological function.
A naive judgement would be that anything to do with false meanings must be dysfunctional, and therefore music cannot be functional.
However, independently of the existence or occurrence of music, we know that people daydream and engage in other forms of imagination, which involve the generation of false meanings.
Success in life does appear to depend strongly on one's ability to imagine things.
At the same time we know that there is always a need to balance the benefits of imagining things that are not true against the downside of wasting time on imagining things that are not true and will never be true and are not relevant in any way to one's success in life.
Any full evaluation of the possible biological functionality of music would have to consider:
- Which types of false meaning are the most biologically beneficial? (ie what should we imagine and what should we daydream about in order to maximize long-term reproductive success?)
- How exactly does music alter the false meanings of our imaginations and our daydreams?
- Do the alterations to false meaning cause by listening to music increase the biological usefulness of those false meanings?