Finding Meaning Where There Is None

Finding Meaning Where There Is None

I’ve always maintained the stance that music doesn’t mean anything. I still stand by the notion, with the caveat that, well, there is some sort of idea transmitted through music, just nothing specific—meaning is in the ear of the beholder. As Ned Rorem once told NewMusicBox, “Music doesn’t mean things like ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Jonathan’ or ‘pineapple.’ ” I think this is something we can all agree upon. In fact, this is what makes music so interesting in the first place. Music’s ambiguity is intriguing, artistically speaking.

When I write music, the last thing on my mind is communication simply because even if something winds up transmitting—be it mathematical logic, visceral toe tapping, or whatever—I can’t think of an instance where a composer wanted to communicate X and achieved such exact results. I’ve secretly laden my music with sappy emotional sentiments, none of which, I think, immediately surface in the sonic din of intervals and rhythm. In a way, music is a handicapped language—it has texture and rhyme, maybe even syntax, but no concrete meaning. So whatever sappy sentiment I choose to load in won’t necessarily come out on the other end.

What if a modern-day Schoenberg came up with a so-called method to meaning in music? Total bummer, right? Who among us would want to keep committing notes to manuscript if our veiled murmurings actually “made sense” via analysis. How mundane music would become if filled with symphonic Dear John letters and happy holiday wishes. Fiction writers would takeover our musical canon, creating counterpoint exercises worthy of scrutiny.

Nah. No way this could happen. We composers are going to keep creating our utter nonsense for a few more centuries. And when one of us manages to interlace some sort of universal sentiment, sprung from our personal musical life, onto the written page, we’ll have to chalk it up to luck—finding that elusive combination of pitches that sparks the imagination of the masses. Keep on writing.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Finding Meaning Where There Is None

  1. danielgilliam

    Communication and meaning are two different things. “When I write music, the last thing on my mind is communication…” I hope not! Even if your ideas don’t mean “apple” or “blue sky,” you can still communicate something. Composing, for me, means taking musical ideas that occur in our minds (somehow) and translating them to a medium that can, if you will, re-convey them to an audience (of some kind). Whether your medium is a string quartet or four laptops, someone or something else will have to interpret your composition…otherwise you just have notes on a page or bytes on a computer.

    Music is abstract, and unless there is a text, should remain that way. It can still communicate. The listener is free to process music however they want, so if they hear a blue sky through an abstract work for four laptops, that’s fine with me.

  2. Leos

    Forgive me, but this sounds suspiciously like someone trying to sound too cool to care. If I haven’t communicated something to someone—regardless of the difficulties of defining what that “something” is—I find writing music to be a hollow experience.

  3. curioman

    If music doesn’t mean anything, then why do it? Why listen to it? Why write it? Why give it attention? Why not play video games instead? Of course music has meaning, and significance. It has value and speaks to people. It changes people. Why did you choose to become a composer? Isn’t it because music meant something to you, something very important? The beauty of music is that meaning is unique to each individual. What you mean to say or do in writing a piece will be interpreted uniquely by me as I listen to it. And uniquely by the listener sitting next to me. But you most certainly intended *something* when you wrote the piece, otherwise why did you write it? That meaning might be very personal… maybe you just wanted to learn more about yourself, stretch your skills, find something in you that you didn’t realize was there. Maybe you meant to express an idea (“what happens when I put this timbre against that timbre with this rhythm?”) Maybe you meant to make me as a listener get in touch with a feeling, to laugh or cry or whatever. But I believe that meaning is there, whether or not you say it is. The form is following some function.

  4. CM Zimmermann

    Several questions:

    If meaning is ‘in the ear of the beholder’ how can you claim that there is no meaning?

    If music’s interest resides in the fact that it is ‘ambiguous’ (meaning that it does not mean ‘Tuesday’ or…) what differentiates music from poetry, for example, or from any of the other arts in which the aesthetic experience resides in the receiver? It seems that you are conflating, if not confusing, two senses of ‘meaning’, i.e. music’s abstract characteristics and the precision of what is expressed in everyday speech. My point is this: poetry also does not mean ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Jonathan’ or… There is a distinction to be made between the sorts of meanings produced and received in everyday communicational contexts and those in the aesthetic realm. Is it not the case that all art is ambiguous in the sense of providing to occasion for the free play of the imagination and understanding?

  5. pgblu

    Personally, I cannot get the tapping of visceral toes out of my mind. Where exactly are they located? The duodenum?

  6. bluecee

    say what?
    For my “keepers”, I write music because either it comes to mind (random inspiration) or I want to put my own stamp on someone else’s work (arrangement.) In those odd occasions where I want to say something, the music festers for months or years until the simple muse of finding something that moves me takes over, and the original purpose is forgotten, replaced by music. Touchy feely, vague, but a very real “process” for me. Howzabout y’all?

  7. JWJ

    Those who create music take many forms. Plenty have no intention of communicating anything or putting any meaning into it. These people tend to stop creating if they don’t find an immediate personal pay off in some form other than the joy of the creation. Others have a passion for the art and continue creating and fulfilling, or trying to fulfill, their passion for the sake of the passion. This passion isn’t born spontaneously. You were driven, somewhere in you life, toward this passion. Driven strongly enough that you decided to make this a part of your life instead of just a passing fancy. Anything within you that drives you that strongly, I feel, has meaning in and of itself, whatever form it may take. The meaning of this passion that drove you to take this road is, intrinsically, a part of your creation. Some people have a grasp on why they were driven and try to express their passion through music. Many people may not be able to explain the meaning right now. You may not even know what it is that drove you in the first place. But, when you find that moment when it all seems to make sense, it didn’t just happen by chance. I believe it’s the result of sticking with your passion and searching for the meaning of what has driven you so strongly, but eluded you for so long. It’s true that meaning is in the ear of the beholder, to be interpreted differently by each. But there’s also meaning behind the expression of the creator, otherwise it wouldn’t even be worth doing.

  8. Babbitthead

    Who Cares if You Read
    Right, it means absolutely nothing, and who cares if anyone listens. Or reads your column, because it also means absolutely nothing.


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