The Meaning of Music

July 29, 2010 at 3:44 PM

There is a purely formal “meaning to music” where notes, chords, rhythms, motifs, phrases, sentences, themes and forms are constructed according to a tradition or common practice. We can understand this meaning as we notice when Haydn surprises us by altering an expected recapitulation or Wagner alters our sense of place and time by moving in an ambiguous harmonic space or suspending the resolution of a cadence.

There is a traditional “meaning” as well when a composer will comment or modify musical material from a tradition. Mozart adding counterpoint to a sonata-allegro. Shostakovich quotes motifs from Rossini, Wagner, Glinka, Mahler and himself in his 15th Symphony. Boulez complete reworking of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” for his Piano Sonata No. 2.

Then we have associated meaning. Wagner provides the most complete example where musical material occurs in the context of a story and becomes associated with those events. Further occurrences relate and comment upon the meaning derived from those associations.

Finally we have the most mysterious of all, culturally derived meaning, the meaning that cultures has attributed to various musical ideas. Dance rhythms are the most straightforward but the association of minor scales with melancholy or sadness is less clear as are the elaborate and complex hierarchy of associations for the 84 Indian ragas in the Ragamala.

Then there are the meanings that we make by associating music with objects or events. Programmatic music may attempt to imitate the sound or feeling of something in the world as in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Smetana’s Moldau or Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux. And we can also change the meaning of music though repeated use in a particular context like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with United Airlines or Sousa’s Liberty Bell March with Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

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~ by severalfourmany on July 29, 2010.

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