The Meaning of Music

1 December, 2008

Well, someone famously said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but we all talk about music, so it must be somewhat effective. Talk about music is ultimately informed by our emotional response to it. Indeed, without that emotional response there would be no need for anything like art; it would merely be pattern without function; it would be redundant.

As opposed to subtle arguments about whether music imitates, evokes, represents, communicates anything (I believe it can do all of these things), I am personally more interested in the difference between music and noise. I think John Cage raised interesting questions with his compositions, but ultimately the answer has to be that music is not random, and the parts of noise that appeal to us aesthetically do so because they produce relationships of tone and rhythm that we instinctively recognise as musical.

Now, to address something I should have addressed at the start, what do I mean by musical? I mean that tonal relationships, both horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic), affect us emotionally. This seems to me to be an obvious, prima facie fact. Certain cool theoreticians say that it is a useless banality to say that a major chord seems “happy” and a minor chord seems “sad”. Well, banal it may be, but it is a banality with which all but the most autistic or perversely technocratic would agree.

If a major chord seems “happy” and a minor chord seems “sad” to the listener, we must presume that they also seem that way to the composer. All the other tonal relations that are variously poignant to us are also poignant to the composer. So what a composer does is arrange tones horizontally and vertically to produce a complex (vertical) and sustained (horizontal) emotional experience in the listener.

Beyond this function, music is complicated by (i) technical and (ii) social factors, as well as (iii) the desire for novelty:

(i) Music theory is a way of keeping music “tidy” as it increases in scale and complexity, by confining tonal relations and rhythms within certain mutually-agreed bounds (the mutual agreement is necessary so that we can recognise the matrix over which the tonal and rhythmical elements are developed). It also adds an appeal to mathematical instinct: the urge to count, and to identify patterns.*
(ii) Through precedent, music can evoke social memories, e.g. the “martial” strains of military music; see also violins evoking Gypsies, horns evoking hunts, trumpets evoking military bugle calls (I would classify imitation of natural sounds as a sub-set of this). Arguably, both (i) and (ii) are a kind of extra-musical decadence, but I think they are unavoidable.
(iii) Unless we are obsessive-compulsive, we don’t want to listen to the same music repeatedly. Thus we are interested in music containing novel elements. At the same time, there is a tension, because we naturally distrust the unfamiliar. We particularly distrust innovation arising from (i) and (ii), as these sophistications are already a step removed from “pure” tonal relationships. This is why avant guarde developments of the 20th Century remain cultish.

* I have not addressed the issue of rhythm in detail. I think the rhythmic and tonal elements of music must have developed simultaneously, but, despite Reich’s Drumming, rhythm has not developed to the extent that tonal music has, in terms of structural complexity (theoretical relationships of parts), and emotional potential.

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