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How does music mean?

One of the most difficult matters to explain when dealing with issues of music in worship is how music communicates. I think most people intuitively understand that music communicates, but they have a hard time understanding how it does.

Here is an excerpt from Sound Worship that succinctly summarizes how I explain it:

rose_music_sheet_music_paper_art_artistic_metaphor_mood-cd2899acc256b6f07748056c563c13b9_hMusic is a medium of communication. In particular, music communicates by means of emotional metaphor. In other words, by using symbols, music can communicate various moods and emotions. Symbols are essentially associations. X is like Y, so X can represent Y. My love is like a red, red rose because my love reminds me of the beauty and delicacy of a rose, and therefore, I associate my beautiful, delicate love with a rose. In this sense, all musical communication is based on association. The music is not emotion; it is merely symbols of emotion. It does not create emotion; it expresses ideas of emotion. Music communicates certain moods and emotions to us because we associate its symbols with various emotional states.

Conventional Association

Some symbolism is purely association with man-made conventions. The colors red, white, and blue possess no inherent association with American patriotism, but since they are the colors of our flag, such colors possess symbolic representation of pride in our nation. Raising your arm at a straight, 45° angle in front of your body does not possess inherent association with fascism and tyranny, but because such a bodily gesture was the Nazi salute to Hitler, it carries with it symbolic representation of terrible times.

Some musical communication occurs because of these kinds of conventional associations. Sometimes these associations are true for particular individuals or small groups; other times these associations exist for entire cultures or time periods. Sometimes such associations eventually fade away, while in some few cases they last for a long period of time. This is the “Honey, they’re playing our song” phenomenon.

For instance, the final section of Rossini’s overture to the opera William Tell is often associated with a masked “Lone Ranger” riding his horse Silver. There is nothing, of course, inherent in this music without lyrics to automatically suggest such a picture, but because those musical phrases were used as the theme for the Lone Ranger show, we associate those musical symbols with such images.

I once heard of an American missionary in Great Britain who used “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” one Sunday in a service. As soon as the hymn began, an older British gentlemen stood up in a huff and stormed out of the room. Later, the missionary discovered that the man was a World War II veteran who associated the tune of that song, which was the tune of the German national anthem, with the Nazis who had ruthlessly bombed his country. There was nothing inherent in the tune to offend the gentleman; he simply associated it with terrible times from his past.

Natural Association

On the other hand, some symbolism is natural association. Dark clouds naturally signify a storm because they naturally accompany a storm. A symbol of a lightning bolt naturally signifies electricity because it is the shape naturally associated with electricity. A frown naturally signifies sadness because it naturally accompanies the feeling of sadness. In order for symbolic meaning to be natural, the association between the symbol and the object must occur naturally in human experience.

Some musical communication occurs because of these kinds of natural associations. Combinations of dynamics, tone colors, rhythms, and tempos can combine to mimic the natural way we feel inwardly or physically respond outwardly when we experience certain emotional states.

For instance, there is a reason Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major is played on peaceful, serene occasions like the prelude to a wedding and not before a football game; the musical symbols naturally communicate peace and serenity — not pep and excitement — because they mimic how we feel when we are peaceful. There is a reason Sousa marches are played at football games and not at weddings; the musical symbols naturally communicate rousing enthusiasm appropriate for a sporting event and not a marriage ceremony. There is a reason a Pink Floyd song is going to be played at a strip club and not Pachelbel’s Canon or a Sousa march; the musical symbols naturally communicate the kinds of feelings occurring there.

Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of natural symbolic communication in music is with film scores. Certain musical scores are composed for movie scenes based on the kinds of moods and emotions the producers want to enhance with the given scene, and they know that such communication will occur with any audience regardless of age, demographic, nationality, gender or culture because all humans share basic emotional and physical makeup. When movies are shown in different countries, the spoken language changes, but the music doesn’t.

Music is often referred to as “heightened speech.” Musical forms evolved over time as more complex forms of natural emotional intonation. In other words, there is a natural connection between musical communication and what naturally occurs with our voices as we experience certain emotional states. In this way natural symbols are transcultural, because every man shares a culture of humanity.

So how does this help us with our musical choices? Specific musical styles or individual songs always possess some natural meanings and often possess various conventional meanings, both by way of symbolic association. At the very heart of all musical meaning is the natural meaning it communicates by way of its association with universal, common human experience. But built upon that natural meaning are various conventional associations. Often such conventional associations will correspond to the natural meaning, as with the natural expressions of peacefulness communicated by Pachelbel’s Canon that give rise to the conventional association of that particular piece with weddings, or such as the natural expressions of sexuality communicated by Pink Floyd that give rise to the conventional associations of that music to immoral living.

Sometimes, however, conventional associations can contradict and override natural associations. For instance, although the tune of “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” naturally communicates noble moods because of its natural association with how we feel when we are proud or stately, its conventional association with Nazi Germany created new meaning during WWII that overpowered the positive meaning with that was quite negative.

In summary, music communicates through symbolic associations, and such associations can be either conventional or natural depending upon whether or not they correspond to something that occurs naturally in all human experience.

Add a lyric to a musical selection, and we now have two additional layers of meaning: the obvious content of the text and the poetic “mood.” What must be remembered here is that symbolic meaning (in this case, music), if it is natural, always trumps the text. For instance, if I were to approach my wife with a frown, furrowed brow, and loud tone of voice (natural symbols of anger) and say to her, “I love you,” my negative body language and tone of voice would surely overpower the potential positive meaning of the statement. At very least she would think I was making some kind of joke.

For very practical purposes of making musical choices in our lives, it really doesn’t matter whether musical communication is conventional or natural. The important question to ask as you make musical choices is, “What does that music communicate on an emotional level? Does it sound sad? Does it sound happy? Does it sound chaotic? Does it sound sexual?”

But even in asking questions like these, we need to be careful not to limit emotional meaning to only the broad categories signified by words like joy, love, or aggression. Remember, mere words are inadequate to perfectly express the nuances of emotions since even within a category like “joy,” there are lots of different kinds of joy. We must not only ask, “What does that music communicate?” We must also ask, “What kind of joy or love or aggression does it communicate?”

Related: Did you know Sound Worship has a teacher’s edition that integrates with Worship in Song?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

3 Responses to How does music mean?

  1. Lori Danielson says:

    The illustration used about the German national anthem is interesting to me in that the anthem was adopted in 1848. Because the Nazis used the anthem, the association makes the tune not a good option in many circles. Each of us has personal associations with any music that others do not share which makes musical choice so much more difficult. The association issue clouds the universal standard in a way that makes it difficult to have a universal standard.

  2. […] the relationship between culture and race (they are not the same thing), further explanation of how music communicates and shapes a message, the nature of biblical authority in these kinds of discussions, and more. My point in this post […]

  3. […] a particular context or content, but that doesn’t mean it is sinful. Furthermore, I agree that much of what music communicates is culturally conditioned. I obviously do not believe this is always the case, but I’d like to set this issue aside for a […]

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