Music Tells Us To Look For Meaning

26 August, 2018
The meaning of music is not about music – it is about the meaning of everything else.

What is the Meaning of Music?

Music does not have any obvious meaning, yet, if feels meaningful.

One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to assume that music is something that creates a feeling of meaninfulness in the listener, such that the effect of a performed item of music is to tell the listener that something is meaningful.

The "something" that is meaningful is not the music. Indeed it can be anything else that the listener is seeing, or hearing, or thinking about.

To put it more precisely:

Music motivates the listener to find and think about possible meanings of something that the listener is paying attention to.


Music can have an emotional quality, such as sadness, or happiness.

A traditional interpretation of the observed emotional qualities of different musical items is that the purpose of music is to communicate emotion, somehow.

One problem with the idea that music communicates emotions is that the actual emotional qualities of specific musical items are often very ill-defined.

The observed but not necessarily well-defined emotional qualities of music can more easily be incorporated into the theory I am proposing here, by assuming that the emotional content of music is secondary to the primary purpose of the music. In particular, we can assume that the emotional quality, whether it be well-defined, or vaguely defined, or not defined at all, applies to the meaning that the listener should be searching for.

So, for example:

Sad music motivates the listener to find and think about possible sad meanings of something that the listener is paying attention to.

But, in the case where the musical item does not have any specific emotional quality, then the music is something that motivates the listener to find and think about possible meanings of something, without qualifying in any way what the emotional implication of those meanings should be.

Is Music a Form of Communication?

If, as I have hypothesized, the primary function of music is to motivate the search for the meaning of something, we can ask if this can be a form of communication, in particular communication from one individual to another.

If this was the case, the performer of a musical item would perform the music for the purpose of motivating the listener to find a meaning in something that the listener was paying attention to, and the performer would be directly concerned about the response of the listener to the music.

There are two basic limitations of this as a form of communication:

It will follow that this form of communication might sometimes successfully communicate the intention of the performer to the listener. But not always, and maybe not even most of the time. So it would be a very inefficient form communication, precisely because it lacks any specificity, other than the already mentioned emotional qualification.

A very non-specific type of communication like this would be completely pointless if the individuals involved had the option of using spoken language, because with spoken language, a speaker can communicate about a possible meaning of something to a listener quite specifically and straightforwardly, by directly stating:

In particular, there is no need to motivate a search for meaning on the part of the listener – it is sufficient to simply state what the possible meaning is.

The only way that a non-specific communicative system for motivating the search for meaning could be useful (to the individuals involved), is if spoken language did not yet exist.

Communicational Music and Spoken Language

There was of course a time when the ancestors of modern humans did not have spoken language.

So, perhaps, music originally existed as a one-to-one system of communication, and because spoken language did not yet exist, music provided a limited yet useful ability to communicate information about possible meanings of things that might have meanings.

The origin of spoken language is itself a major unsolved problem in the study of human evolution.

The learning of spoken language, as we know it, involves the assignment of specific meanings to large numbers of apparently arbitrary symbols.

I cannot at this point give a detailed plausible account of how modern spoken language might have evolved (and indeed no one else can either).

But, it is plausible that the existence of a communicative system where individuals could motivate other individuals to search for meaning in specific situations could have played a role in the development of systems of symbolic communication. In particular, learning a system of symbolic communication requires a degree of motivation and willingness to find the meanings of things, in this case the meanings of all the symbols in the system of communication.

Evolution of Music to Non-Communication

So if music as system of motivating the search for meaning once existed as a useful form of one-to-one communication, this system had to exist before the development of spoken language.

This communicative version of music may or may not have played a major role in the subsequent development of spoken language.

But, once human spoken language had developed to its modern form, there would be no reason for communicative music to continue to exist, and we might have expected music as such to fade away.

But, music does exist.

This leads to my second major hypothesis about the relationship between music and meaning:

Music originally evolved as a one-to-one system of communication where the performer would intentionally motivate the listener to search for meaning in something. But, after the development of spoken language, music changed into a non-communicative system for motivating search for meaning.

In the modern form of music, there is no longer a direct connection between the performer's intention when performing the music, and the listener's response when listening to the music.

The performer of music in its modern form can be a single performer, or a group of performers. The listener can be one individual, or a member of a group audience. The set of performers can be one and the same as the audience. The performer or the performers of the music will perform the music for the benefit of the listener or listeners, and the listeners will listen in order to achieve the altered state of mind induced by the music.

But any connection between what any performer is thinking about and what any listener is thinking about is now much weaker. Music now exists more as an opportunity for listeners to search for meanings of whatever things they happen to feel like searching for meanings of.

We can do more than just suppose that music might have been more communicative in the past than it is now – we can identify specific features of music that appear to actively prevent music being used as a form of one-to-one communication. (This is a theme that I have previously written about.)

In particular:

All of this is at least consistent with a hypothesis that music used to be a form of one-to-one communication, and then evolved to not be a form of one-to-one communication.

But What, Then, Is Music Now Good For?

If indeed music was originally a system of communication by which the performer motivated the listener to search for meaning, and now it is not a system of communication, then what is it now?

I will restate my initial hypothesis:

Music motivates the listener to find and think about possible meanings of something that the listener is paying attention to.

Note that this initial hypothesis does not make any assumption about whether or not music is a form of one-to-one communication.

We can consider the state of mind that music induces. When music existed as a form of communication, music was motivating the listener to search for a meaning of something.

One side effect of this is that the listener would be motivated to consider possible meanings of different things, some of them quite distinct to whatever the performer of the music was considering.

Regardless of whether the listener was considering possible meanings intended by the performer, the listener may have benefited from entering a state of mind where there is a greater motivation to consider the meanings of things.

Thus, when music became obsolete as a form of one-to-one communication, it may then have continued to exist as a means of temporarily inducing an altered state of mind, a state of mind where meanings of things are considered in greater depth than is normally the case.

What is the Meaning of "Meaning"

I have proposed here a theory of music as a theory about "meanings", without going into specifics about what counts as a "meaning".

One form of "meaning" is the meaning of spoken language, where the sounds of words and sentences are translated into the meanings of those words and sentences in the brain of the listener.

One way to understand this form of meaning is to define "meaning" as:

A translation from a perception of a truth about one thing into the perception of a possible truth about something else.

So, for example, if someone ways "Dinner is served!", your perception of the sequence of sounds that make up the sentence is translated into a perception of the possibility that dinner is indeed served, and that presumably you should make some effort to go to the place where dinner is normally served, so that you can eat your dinner.

Meanings are never certain – just because someone says something, doesn't necessarily make it true. Of course, depending on the circumstances, we will tend to assign various probabilities as to the likely truth of any speech that we hear, depending on our estimate of the honesty and/or reliability of the speaker, and sometimes the assigned probility might be not too much less than 100%. But it will never be exactly 100% – there will never be absolute certainty. And quite often the degree of certainty will be much less than 100%.

We can generalise this definition of "meaning" to apply to situations that don't involve deliberate symbolic communication.

We can assert that something has meaning if it provides some clue as to the possible truth about something else.

To give a concrete example, suppose that I let my daughter have the family car for the day. When the car is returned to me, at the end of the day, I observe some sand on the seats. What is the meaning of this sand? There are various possible explanations for how the sand got there, but the most likely, especially if I live somewhere not too far from the seaside, is that she had a day at the beach. So I can say that the meaning of the sand is that, probably, or at least possibly, she enjoyed a day out at the beach.

This conforms to the above proposed definition of "meaning", because I have translated my perception of the presence of sand in the car into the perception of the possible truth of something else, ie that there was a trip to the beach.

Plausibility of the Evolutionary Scenario

The above gives us a definition of "meaning" which relates to a specify type of thought process with pragmatic benefits.

Let us assume that there exists some means by which one individual of a species can encourage a fellow member of the species to think harder about possible implications of something perceived in some particular circumstance. Then, by giving this encouragement, and directing the second individual's thought process, the first individual is providing them with some potentially useful information.

My hypothesis is that the early form of music was the means by which one individual could direct a second individual's thought process.

We can summarise the meaning of the performance of this early form of communicative "music" as follows, as an abstract message communicated from the performer to the listener:

There is something in the immediate environment, or something that you are possibly paying attention to, or thinking about, which I think provides a clue to the possible truth about something else, and you should consider this possibility, because it might be something important.

For this to make sense as a biological function, we have to suppose that the individuals involved are "friends, in the sense of having some form of on-going mutual self-interest sufficient to drive behaviours where individuals can benefit their friends, with expected reciprocity, but not necessarily in both directions at once.

This type of "friendship" is certainly found in various non-human primate species, where individuals may reciprocally groom each other. More advanced types of friendship are found in chimpanzee societies where individuals may form simple "political" alliances related to determining who is or isn't going to be the alpha male.

So it is plausible that a form of communication whereby one individual hints to another invididual how to direct their thoughts can evolve under natural selection within a primate species whose social structures allow the existince of such "friendships".