The Fundamental Meaning Of Music (Deletion Hypothesis)

28 September, 2019
Music has one fundamental meaning: it motivates the listener to imagine that certain considerations can be completely ignored, as if they did not exist at all.



Given the following:


The "as if" implies that there is no requirement for person L to consciously assume the non-existence or irrelevance of T – it is sufficient that L thinks about situation S in such a manner that it can in principle be deduced that T has been deemed non-existent or irrelevant.

I will call this hypothesis the Deletion Hypothesis, because the basic hypothesis is that music motivates a listener thinking about a situation to delete certain considerations from their thoughts about that situation.

Altered Reality

This meaning of music can be construed as the ability of music to define, in the listener's imagination, a slightly altered version of reality.

Without the music, situation S is real, or at least realistic.

But, with the music, S is thought about by L in the context of a reality which has been altered by completing deleting T as a relevant consideration.

The Determination of S

The musical content of a musical item M does not by itself specify what the situation S actually is. However M may accompany something, or be accompanied by something, where that something suggests the nature of both S and T.

The details of the situation S can be specified, or at least suggested, by:

  1. Song lyrics
  2. Video content, such as a scene in a film, or a music video
  3. Whatever the listener L happens to be thinking about.

A special case of item 3 is where listener L is a maladaptive day-dreamer, and S is the content of the daydream. However, not being a maladaptive day-dreamer myself, I can only speculate about what the specifics of T might be for any such example of S.

A special case of item 2 is that a character in the film or video is the one thinking about situation S, and the viewer can reasonably surmise what the character is thinking about. In this case the viewer – who is the actual listener L – is also thinking about situation S as a result of their empathy with the character.


In my previous article What Is The Meaning of Music, I ended with a list of possible musical meanings.

The following examples are based on some of the general themes that can be abstracted from the items in that list.

(Probably) Irreversible Change

Situations involving irreversible change fall into two major categories:

  1. The change has already happened, and the situation S is about how the present is different from the past.
  2. The change will happen in the future, and the situation S is about how the future will be different from the present. The actual outcome of the change may be uncertain, possibly good or bad, but there is a reasonable certainty that either way the future will not be like the present.

In both cases, T is the state of the world prior to the change, and the effect of the music is to motivate the listener to consider that the change is indeed irreversible, and that there is no point even thinking of the possibility that things will go back to how they were before the change.

A specific example might be where a relationship has ended – the past situation is that the relationship existed, the current sitation is that the relationship no longer exists. Thinking about this, while listening to a suitable item of music, motivates the listener to imagine that the end of the relationship is very definite, and to ignore even the possibility that the relationship might be revived somehow.


An example of "attitude" is where the singer of a song might be "telling it like it is", and in this situation T is any concern that the singer might have that the receiver of the message doesn't like hearing it.

"Attitude" is often a feature of music videos, where various participants in the video simply sit or stand around, staring somewhat assertively or aggressively at the viewer, expressing an attitude of something like: "Here I am, and what are you going to do about it?"

"Telling it like it is" can be combined with "the relationship has definitely ended", ie "I am telling it to you like it is, which is that our relationship has definitely ended, and I live my life now as if you are just an undesirable stranger" etc etc.

Enjoying the Party

A very common trope in music videos is that there is a party going on, and the only thing that matters is to enjoy the party.

In this situation T consists of basically anything else that might distract one from the enjoyment of the party, such as worries about life, or getting hung over, or things on your to-do list that you should be doing instead of being at the party.

Variations on this theme can involve enjoyable situations other than parties, such as a couple enjoying a walk along the beach, or a group of people dancing through long grass in the countryside.

(In another example of combination, enjoying the party can be combined with "attitude", ie "We are enjoying this party like it's the only thing that matters, and also don't be thinking that you can do anything to stop us")

Intentional Action

Another situation associated with music is that of intentional action, where there is something that some person or some group of people is doing, or perhaps should be doing, with the expectation of achieving a worthwhile result.

There may or may not be some expectation of resistance from other people, which may range from social disapproval to more full-on physical resistance.

In this type of situation, T will include any doubts or reasons to be pessimistic about the chance of success.

A variation on this theme is the "I know what I want" situation. Here there may be no action specified, but there is an underlying confidence that the protagonist has whatever it takes or whatever is required to satisfy their desires.

The World Is Different From How We Thought It Was

In this situation, the notion of altered reality applies directly, and T consists of whatever aspect of our supposed existing knowledge or understanding of the world is contradicted by the newly provided information.

The Emotional Effects of Music

So far I haven't said anything about the emotional effects of music.

We normally think of music as relating to emotions, somehow.

Also we normally think of specific items of music as expressing specific types of emotion.

Most of the examples above have some type of associated emotion or feeling, such as:

In general, emotions are responses to unexpected changes (or, in some cases, unexpected non-changes).

For example, happiness is a response to an unexpected improvement in how things are, and sadness is a response to an unexpected worsening of how things are.

In the situational examples given above, the emotions we expect are consistent in each case with the emotions that would be felt as a result of a change from experiencing the situation in the context of pre-musical reality to experiencing the situation in the context of the altered version of reality motivated by the music.

I will explain this in more detail by looking at one example.

Example: Enjoying the Party

In the "Enjoying the Party" example, S was a party that we could enjoying, and T was all the real world worries that might prevent us from fully enjoying the party.

The before state is where we are at the party, enjoying it somewhat, but our enjoyment is spoiled by all the other things in life that we have to worry about.

The after state is where we are at the party, and we are fully enjoying it, because all worries about things outside the party have been expunged.

The emotion we feel, from listening to the music, is similar to the emotion that we would feel in real life, if, while at such a party, we somehow transitioned from the "before" state to the "after" state.

Music, Emotion and Film Scenes

One interpretation of how music relates to film scenes involves annotation:

A more radical hypothesis, which is a consequence of the current hypothesis about the fundamental meaning of music, is that music adds emotion to a film scene because music alters the viewer's perception of reality while watching the scene.

The scene contains a situation S, and thing or things T that would normally be taken into consideration in such a situation, and the music alters perceived reality so that T either no longer exists, or is no longer of any relevance.

This alteration of perceived reality is what increases the viewer's emotional response to the film.

This hypothesis explains why music can be used more freely in fictional films than in documentaries – viewers of documentaries will naturally reject attempts to alter their perception of reality, given the presumption that the documentary is presenting reality and not fantasy, and overuse of music will feel like a contrived and laboured way of adding emotion to a documentary.

The Specific Emotional Qualities of Specific Musical Items

We do normally consider musical items to have specific emotional qualities, such as happiness and sadness.

Under the current hypothesis, the specific emotion resulting from a specific musical item is a function of the choice of situation S and thing or things T to be deleted from consideration.

If a specific musical item M is identified as being "sad", this must be because the change in the perception of situation S resulting from the alteration of imagined reality by deletion of T results in an emotional response of sadness.

There are two slightly different ways the specific "sad" quality of item M could be accounted for:

  1. Musical item M motivates the listener to choose certain types of situation S and things T to be deleted from consideration. Those respective choices of S and T always result in a change which causes a sad emotional response.
  2. Musical item M motivates the listener to choose any situation S and things T to be deleted from consideration, if the result of this choice will be a sad emotional response.

The difference between these two explanations is rather subtle, and at this point I can't say whether one is more likely than the other, and further research is required.

The Fundamental Property of Music

If music does have a meaning, then we can naturally ask how music expresses this meaning, and we can ask what are the characteristics of music involved in the expression of its meaning.

As it happens, music has a fundamental property:

This is a hypothesis that I developed quite a while ago, as written in my article Music is Things that Happen and Things that Don't Happen, and also included in section 14.2.5 Constant Activity Patterns of Chapter 14 of my book What is Music? (Solving a Scientific Mystery).

One example of things that don't exist in music are all the pitch values that are not the pitch values of the notes in the scale that a musical item is in.

A second example is that of regular beat patterns with beat frequencies that are not equal to simple multiples of the inverse bar length.

(For both of these examples music can be compared to normal speech. In normal speech pitch varies continuously, and there are no pitch values that "don't exist". Similarly, considering the rhythm of normal speech, if we graph the result of a fourier analysis of the timings of syllables, the spectrum will be continuous rather than discrete.)

If we assume that this property of things that happen and things that don't happen is the fundamental property of music, then almost certainly there are other such "things" that happen and don't happen in music, but to understand what those things are, we will have to develop a more complete understanding of how the human brain perceives and process information about sound, and in particular, speech sounds.

(We know that one can't produce great music just by playing random notes from a fixed scale in time to a fixed time signature. So there has to be more to music than just the existence of scales and regular metre.)

If this property of things that exist and don't exist is the fundamental property of music, and, if the hypothesis about the fundamental meaning of music given above is correct, then there is nothing particularly mysterious about how the brain expresses that fundamental meaning:

Given this logic, it is quite possible that, initially, music did not evolve genetically, because the required connection between the fundamental property of music and fundamental meaning of music already existed.

Rather, music was originally invented by our human ancestors, to express certain meanings that they wished to express to each other, taking advantage of the brain's pre-existing tendency to respond to the characteristics of music.

Of course, even if music originated in this manner, genetic evolution has very likely played a role in tweaking the relationship between the properties of music and the meaning of music, and in particular the human brain has evolved to be more selective and specific about which "missing things" in the properties of specific musical items correspond to which types of "considerations" musical listeners are motivated to pretend they could ignore, as a result of listening to said musical items.

To formulate a more specific hypothesis about how and why this combination of invention and evolution happened, we need to consider the hypothesis that music is a vestigial trait.

The Vestigiality Hypothesis

In Music is a Vestigial Trait and Music: A Vestigial Innate Language Extension, I have already developed two different theories of how music originally evolved to perform an important biological function which it no longer performs.

In both cases I hypothesise that music served a communicative function, and that this function has now been subsumed by the functions of spoken word-based language.

It is the second of these two hypotheses that fits best with the hypothesis developed in this article.

The Vestigial Innate Language Extension Hypothesis

That second hypothesis, that music is a vestigial innate language extension, assumes that certain meanings were difficult to incorporate into an earlier form of human spoken language, in particular those meanings related to things beyond the "here and now".

Beyond-the-here-and-now meanings were difficult to incorporate into spoken language, because spoken language is arbitrary. Spoken language has to be acquired by the language learner, and the listening language learner has difficulty guessing what a speaker is speaking about if the things being spoken about do not exist at the time and place of speaking.

Music evolved as a means of innately expressing meanings relating to beyond the here-and-now.

I propose that the fundamental meaning of music applied to these meanings in a simple but indirect manner, whereby the thing to be ignored (ie T) consisted of everything in the immediate "here and now".

In other words:

Final Note

In this article I have presented a hypothesis about the fundamental meaning of music, and I have related that to an earlier hypothesis about the fundamental property of music, and finally I have related both of those hypotheses to the hypothesis that music is a vestigial trait, in particular it is a vestigial innate extension to spoken word-based language.

However it should be noted that none of these hypotheses depend on each other – each of them could be individually confirmed or refuted.

My discovery of what I believe to be the fundamental meaning of music came from my own subjective investigations, ie listening to music, watching music videos, thinking about how the lyrics related (or didn't) to the feeling of the music. Also I spent some time improvising my own music, while thinking at the same time about what I thought my own music was about, or could be about.

Given the current limitations on our ability to measure and understand what is happening inside the human brain, I don't think there is any better way to discover what music actually means – if indeed we are prepared to assume that music means something.

The best way to confirm or refute this hypothesis is for other people, be they musicians, composers, or neither of those two things, to do exactly the same kind of subjective research that I have done.

So, dear reader, if you have got this far – please go away, listen to music, with or without lyrics, with or without accompanying film or video content, and decide for yourself if this hypothesis accurately describes your own response to music.