Music Is Not Communication

20 September, 2014
Music is not communication, and the content of music has no meaning.

"Music Is Communication"

A common theme in discussions about the nature of music is that music is some form of communication.

There are a number of reasons why this is a plausible statement about music:

Despite the plausibility of this assertion that music is communication, there are a few reasons to doubt it:

"Music Communicates Feelings"

A variant of the "music is communication" idea is the idea that music communicates feelings.

After all, music does have some emotional effect on the audience, and those feelings aren't quite like the feelings that one gets from anything else. So it seems reasonable to conclude that music is both necessary and sufficient for the communication of the feelings that it communicates.

However, there is a slightly different way to look at music in relation to the feelings that it creates.

Consider, for instance, the "feeling" of hotness that you get when you eat a hot chicken curry.

One could claim that the chef in a restaurant who cooked the chicken curry has "communicated" the feeling of hotness to his customers.

But we could also just say that the chef created the curry, and curry happens to be something that feels hot when you eat it.

We could choose the same language to describe music, ie:

The "Meaning" of Music: Nothing?

If music is not communication, then the content of music does not have any meaning, any more than a chicken curry has meaning.

Of course chicken curry does serve a purpose other than creating feelings of hotness, since the chicken is food with nutritional value, which provides resources essential to the continued operation and survival of our bodies.

Unfortunately the purpose of music, if indeed it has a purpose, is not at all obvious.

The Purpose of Music: An Altered State of Mind?

If music itself has no meaning, and the performance and appreciation of music is not an act of communication, then the only thing we are left to consider, as a possible explanation for what music is, is the final effect of listening to music: those "feelings" that music generates.

Those studying music, be they scientists, or philosophers, or music "theorists", have struggled to describe exactly what the "feelings" are that music creates. Musical feelings never seem to be phenomenologically the same as feelings created by real-world perceptions.

One minor clue, in the search for the nature of musical "feelings", is that sometimes music alters feelings that come from somewhere else.

A primary example is the use of music in films, where music seems to enhance our emotional reaction to certain situations. The strongest effect, and the situation where music is most consistently added, at least to modern movies, is any situation where stuff has happened, and things have got unexpectedly worse, perhaps in a relationship, and the characters are left to ponder about the situation they are in, what they might have done different, what they might have to do to fix things up, whether they can now adapt to the new situation, etc.

In as much as music alters feelings (or at least alters some feelings), we can consider the effect generated by music not so much to be the feelings themselves, but rather an altered state of mind, which is an alteration in how the mind responds emotionally to certain things and how it processes those emotions.

This leads to a hypothesis that the purpose of music is to create this state of mind, temporarily, for the benefits that it gives to the mind's ability to process certain types of emotional information.

(Revisiting the comparison to hot chicken curry, music as an alterer of mind-state is less like curry and more like the beer that might be served with the curry, given that beer is something normally consumed for the express purpose of entering an altered state of mind.)

Music as a Speech-like Trigger

If we are to suppose that music has no intrinsic meaning, and is not communicative, we might still wonder why music is so similar to speech, which does have meaning and which does communicate.

The most plausible explanation here is an evolutionary accident: a component of speech perception, one which involves some alteration in the processing of emotional information in response to the occurrence of speech sounds, has evolved into music "perception", which involves a similar (and possibly stronger) alteration in the processing of emotional information in reponse to the occurrence of the musical trigger stimulus. (And the person learns to create or to expose themselves to this trigger, in as much as they have a desire to be in that altered state of mind.)

Under this evolutionary hypothesis, the similarities of music to speech are simply the result of the specific details of evolutionary accident that has caused music "perception" to appear. The nature of music can tell us something about what this evolutionary accident was, but any attempt to discover a deeper "meaning" of music (from an investigation into the detailed specifics of music) will fail, because there is no such meaning to be found.