Music and meaning (contd.)

Ghadi asked:

Music — pure music — is abstract, in this case is it an abstract stimulation of another abstract?

Although music has meaning, it seems harder to catch than the meaning of a word, the language in general, so what is the difference between music and language? both transfer something, but the level of clarity differs! That the transference is from an abstract to an abstract and here the issue relies, in determining the meaning, how does it happen? If this considered as an issue in the first place…

All of a sudden, the idea came to my mind and now I really want to know about it.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You wouldn’t want to believe it, but so many wise men and women across 2500 years have wanted answers to your question! There is obviously a capital mystery about music, so don’t mind me if I start by saying that your use of the term “meaning” is far too indiscriminate to serve here. However, I can hardly do more than suggest a few aspects that you can pursue further, on your own, without expecting a definitive solution to the problem.

First, consider that music-as-such is not a fact in the world — it exists solely because some creatures have the capacity to mould and resolve streams of molecules floating in the air into a form of communication. E.g. crickets, birds, fish, mammals make sounds which other creatures can discern and interpret. Thus humans intuit very well the menace of a dog’s growl or the love song of a nightingale. But to extract meaning from a growl, we must put it into words, such as “this dog is warning me that it will bite if I make moves to take away its bone”. That’s a lot of words to denote a simple sound! So for convenience let me define the growl as carrying an import and my words as denoting. It is an all-important differentiation.

These two disparate forms of communication are handled by different cortices. When speech is transmitted, the audio cortex recognises the form of molecular transport as an explicit message and refers it to the conceptual faculty, whose memory stores the denotations of all verbal signals known to me. The forms of musical signals, however, are recognised as an implicit communication and referred to the aesthetic faculty, which is concerned with feelings, emotions, imagination and the like. Hence the differentiation between “meaning” (explicit) and “import” (implicit); and the upshot is that two different kinds of reaction are involved.

How then can we explain a song with words? This is in fact the crucial component in the meaning vs import debate. Let’s say a girl’s lover died in a war and she sings “I will treasure the memory of our love forever.” Try to work out in how many different ways she could say this. Maybe five or ten, no more. Yet this motive recurs in music hundreds of times over centuries and each time, the same sentiment provokes different kinds of musical articulation from composers. This is because vocabulary and syntax are a limited resource for the expression of emotional states — so many times we are “lost for words” to bring out our inner turmoil — whereas music has an almost infinite repertoire. More music has been written for Romeo and Juliet than Shakespeare could ever have dreamed of!

I cannot resist another example. Millions of people around the world express their faith by mumbling the same words day after day in their prayers, presumably expecting God to be listening. But is it not more likely that sincere emotion must sooner or later be corrupted to an habitual performance? I suggest it is inevitable; and this was precisely the motivation for Pope Gregory I to encourage singing these texts, which in due course encouraged innumerable musicians to supply a steady stream of new music for singing the same words. It must have sunk into the consciousness of religious authorities that not the words, but the tone of voice wafts up into the divine realm. Communications with God do not need words; God can discern the emotions of faith plainly enough. And so, in principle, the musical phrases articulating the various parts of the text of prayers could be sounded while lips and tongue remain mute, as the words automatically cling to the minds of the faithful through constant association.

What I have just described is the inception of music as an autonomous representation of the human soul. The most suggestive way of understanding the import of music is therefore, that it produces in our aesthetic consciousness a kind of mirror image of the relevant emotional states that are lodged in memory and that our perceptual faculties take this up as a trigger for retrieving analogous states of feeling from memory.

I must stop here, as my point was to clear up the error of thinking about music in terms of meaning. I could add, the soul needs no meanings either; it needs “soul food”; and this is really the heart of the matter. We are creatures of feeling and emotion, imagination and creativity. Intellect is another issue, but scarcely ever in touch with the inner self. Music, however, has that power — the capacity of connecting you with, and igniting, your authentic self.

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