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How Music Naturally Carries Meaning

It is important in any discussions about music to understand how music carries meaning naturally. I highly recommend Stephen Davies’ Musical Meaning and Expression, which clearly articulates where the most basic meaning does and does not lie:

  1. It is not a system of conventional symbols, like a language.
  2. It is not depictive, like representational paintings.
  3. It is not based on the feelings or intent of the composer or performer.
  4. It is not based on its power to move the listener.

All of these things can be true, but they do not describe the most basic, naturally meaning in music. Instead, Davies explains music’s expressive power with the fact that it resembles “emotion characteristics” in human behavior. He describes what he means by “emotion characteristics in appearance”:

The character of a person’s appearance, bearing, face, or voice sometimes is described by using emotion terms. We might say “He is a sad-looking person” . . . In such cases we do not mean that the person feels sad; neither do we mean that he frequently feels sad, or that we make believe that he feels sad. The reference is not to any emotion, in fact, but to the look of him. (222-223)

He summarizes his position this way:

Music presents emotion characteristics. Just as a willow can be sad-looking, or a person’s face happy-looking, music can present an expressive appearance in its sound (without regard to anyone’s felt emotions). This is because we experience the dynamic character of music as like the actions of a person; movement is heard in music, and that movement is heard as purposive and as rationally organized. (277)

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Davies even goes so far as to deny cultural deviation in this level of communication:

I think that the behaviors in question are grounded in our common humanity rather than in arbitrary cultural differences; that is, I believe that Chinese sad-lookingness is much the same as French sad-lookingness. (243)

Because I hold that expressive behaviors owe as much to our common humanity as to our various cultures and that music is expressive in being experienced as like human action, I think that there is a common expressive element found in the musics of different cultures. I know of no culture that consistently expresses sadness with jaunty, fast, sprightly music, nor of any that expresses happiness with slow, dragging music. To take one example, Westerners formerly unacquainted with Japanese music are very unlikely to take the gamelan music that accompanies the weeping of puppet characters in wayang kulit for happy music, or to mistake battle pieces for funeral music. (244)

Davies helpfully explains what I’ve been articulating all along: music’s expressive power is in the music itself, not in any person’s interpretation of its meaning. Furthermore, this position strengthens the view that intrinsic meaning in music is universal, actually rooted in the fabric of humanity.

This way of explaining the most fundamental meaning in music is the consensus of other modern philosophers and theorists such as Susan Langer (Feeling and Form), John Hospers (Artistic Expression), Leonard Meyer (Emotion and Meaning in Music), Peter Kivy (Introduction to a Philosophy of Music), and Bennett Reimer (A Philosophy of Music Education). It is also the consensus of thousands of years of philosophical discourse. Despite their differences in many matters, including some of the specifics of musical value, most of the significant philosophers, musicians, and Christian leaders of the past agreed with this basic understanding of meaning in music, including Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Asahel Nettleton, and many others.

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In summary, because music is human action, particularly “emotion characteristics in appearance,” music may be either morally good or evil, not based on the intent of the composer or performer, or on the interpretation of the listener, but based on how the music itself corresponds to universal human experience.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, 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 three children.

3 Responses to How Music Naturally Carries Meaning

  1. I’m curious—are you saying, first, that music universally communicates universal emotions (many researchers say those are joy, fear/anger, surprise/disgust, and sadness); and second, that these universal emotions are intrinsically moral, therefore the music that communicates them is intrinsically moral?

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