The Meaning of Music
Does music have meaning?
Do individual items of music have specific meanings?
What do we even mean by "meaning"?
The Definition of Meaning
A basic definition:
- Something has meaning if it represents information about something else.
For example, the colour of a traffic light has meaning, because the choice of colour tells drivers whether or not to stop at an intersection.
Usually meaning comes with a second criterion:
- There is an intent to communicate
In the case of music, its effect appears to be that of altering "mood", and it is not particularly a means of communication (although I do hypothesize that music has evolved from an earlier form in which was communicative).
Hypothesis: Meaning, and Nothing Else
There are many hypotheses about what music is for.
And these different hypotheses come with different assumptions about whether music has meaning, or not, and, if it has any meaning, what that meaning might be.
I propose a radical hypothesis:
- Music has meaning, and that is the only thing that it has.
Music does not represent any physical or chemical resource – it is not food, or drink, or heat, or energy.
Music contains only information, and the only reason for the brain to process information is if that information is information about something, ie if the information has meaning.
However, the problem with the hypothesis that music has meaning is that, as listeners to music, we are not directly and consciously aware of what the specific meaning of any specific musical item is.
There is a certain awareness that some musical items have attributes such as "sad", or "happy", or "excited" or "relaxed". But in practice these attributes seem both vague and ill-defined.
If music has meaning, and nothing else, then we have to explain how it can be that we never seem to actually know what that meaning is, even when we are listening to the music.
The Indirectness of Musical Meaning
The solution I propose to this problem is that the meaning of music is very indirect.
Music has meaning because it provides motivation to alter the meanings of existing thoughts in certain ways.
This relates to the incomplete nature of musical expression:
- Music expresses incomplete information about a certain type of situation, but something else has to provide the missing details
- That something else can be song lyrics, or a scene from a film, or the private thoughts inside the listener's head.
An Empirical Procedure to Observe the Motivational Meanings of Musical Items
To empirically determine that music motivates the alteration of thoughts in a certain manner, it is necessary to perform a procedure similar to the following:
- In the absence of any music, think thought X.
- In the absence of music, alter thought X to be a variant f(X), for some function f that transforms thoughts.
- While listening to musical item Y, think thought X.
- While listening to musical item Y, alter thought X to be the variant f(X).
- Observer whether listening to musical item Y increased the motivation to transform thought X to f(X).
This procedure is very subjective – the actions taken involve one's own thoughts, and the only measurement made is how much one finds oneself musically enjoying the procedure.
Also, any one particular instance of the procedure does not tell us very much about the full meaning of musical item Y. It would be necessary to repeat the same procedure applying function f to many other thoughts X2, X3, X4 etc. It would also be necesary to repeat the same procedure with all other candidate transformation functions f2, f3, f4 etc.
Any particular transformation f will only be applicable to some thoughts. The assumption is that a musical item creates a double motivation:
- To think a thought X, to which f is applicable
- To apply the transformation f to the thought X, resulting in thought f(X).
For example, f might be something like "X happened yesterday, and now there is no going back". This transformation only makes sense when applied to certain possible X's.
One practical difficult has to do with existing song lyrics. If musical item Y happens to be an existing song where you are very familiar with lyrics, it may be impossible to hear the music without also thinking of the lyrics, and it may be impossible to understand the lyrics as if they had never been part of the song.
It could be best to choose examples of purely instrumental music, or songs in a foreign language that one has no understanding of.
In some cases the existing lyrics may be a very poor "fit" to the music, in which case those existing lyrics might not interfere too much.
In other cases the existing lyrics might be an extremely good fit. The effect of those lyrics can perhaps only be observed "after the fact", however they will provide strong clues as to what sort of meanings can be contained in musical items, and what one should be looking for.
Overall, this procedure is subjective, it is potentially laborious, it is subject to interference from one's existing knowldedge of song lyrics, and even after applying multiple candidates for f, any results are likely to be an incomplete measure of the full schedule of motivation provided by even one single musical item Y.
However, given existing limitations on our ability to observe the internal workings of the human brain, I think this is currently the best option we have to determine what the actual meanings of musical items are.
Tentatively Observed Meanings of Musical Items
Below I give a list of types of meanings that I have observed from my own limited attempts, so far, to discover what the meanings of musical items might be, based on the hypotheses outlined above.
Firstly I have observed which types of thoughts are most strongly affected by musical motivation, which is hypothetical thoughts, ie thinking about the possibility of something, as opposed to thinking about something which one already knows or believes to be true.
With the use of music in films, the thoughts are often real thoughts inside the mind of one of the characters, where we in the audience have enough clues to surmise what those thoughts are about. In those cases, the hypotheticalness arises from the nature of the character, where the individual is hypothetical, as far as the audience listening to the music is concerned, because the character is appearing in a film which is fictional. (Also, most of the time, the character is not listening to the music in the movie, ie only the audience hears the music.)
A List of Possible Musical Meanings
- The difference between how things were, and, after some change or event (which is usually irreversible), how they are now.
- The difference between how things are now, and after some change, or event, or action on the part of the protagonist, how they will be in the future. The future outcome, good or bad, may be uncertain to some degree.
- I am telling you what I think, whether you want to hear it or not.
- I/we don't care what you or anyone thinks about us (because we have enough status or power that we don't need to care).
- Committed, concentrated and deliberate action is required to achieve a good outcome (and possibly the outcome will be very bad if we do it wrong).
- I am saying that I/we/you should do something (ie something specific) – I am very optimistic about the outcome.
- Possibilities exist, and it is worth taking some action to take advantage of them.
- We are in a strange place and/or a strange time.
- I know what I want, and also I know that I have what it takes to get it.
- Someone (possibly me) is doing something impressive that accords status.
- This is how we should all do something.
- We have the power to finish doing the thing that we set out to do, even if other people are acting against us.
- We can just relax and enjoy the moment, having a good time, not worrying about the future or the past.
- We are learning something significant and important.
- I am telling you something significant and important – the world is very different to what you think it is (the "world" could be the physical universe, or it could be the society that we live in).
- There are things about my life that I like, and I would be sad to lose them.
This list is almost certainly incomplete.
Also, some of the items in this list may not be fundamental, ie they may be composed from a smaller set of more basic abstract components of meanings, and this smaller set of fundamental components is the set of building blocks from which all musical meanings are constructed.