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Meaning in Music

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Meaning in music is a tricky thing.

Most people think it’s tricky because music is so abstract and lacks specificity such that describing its meaning with words is nearly impossible. On the contrary, meaning in music is tricky for exactly the opposite reason. As Felix Mendelssohn once noted, “What music expresses its not too indefinite to put into words; on the contrary, it is too definite.” In other words, we often have difficulty describing what music means with words because words lack the specificity that music has. Let me explain further.

Meaning in music is a tricky thing. (tweet this)

Most people acknowledge that music, at its most basic level, expresses emotional content. However, articulating what that emotional content is can often be a challenge, Yet as Mendelssohn correctly observed, this is due to the fact that words often lack the nuance to accurately identify a particular emotion. We often use single words to describe very different kinds of emotions. Let’s use “joy” as an example. We use that one word to describe what a sports fan feels when his team wins the game, what a father experiences while playing with his children, and what a cancer patient feels when he learns that his cancer is gone. Yet these “feelings” are each quite different from each other internally, and they express themselves externally in often very different ways as well. A sport’s fan’s “joy” usually expresses itself with exuberance, wild gestures, and yelling. A father’s “joy” is warm and peaceful. The cancer patient’s “joy” often results in tears. Each of these may rightly be called “joy,” but that word doesn’t quite capture the nuance of difference between them. Music doesn’t have that problem.

Unlike words, music is able to express nuanced emotional content. We think music is abstract because we can’t put it into words, but that’s not the fault of the music; it’s the words that are lacking. This is why music is often called the language of emotion. Music mimics what emotions feel like and how they express themselves, and in this way music is able to express what words alone cannot.

This is also why music is so powerful both as a tool for expressing what cannot be put into words and for teaching and shaping the heart. I can say “I have joy in God,” but unless I go on to more thoroughly elaborate what kind of joy I mean, the term alone is inadequate. Music allows me to specific what kind of joy I mean. Likewise, I can tell someone to “Rejoice in the Lord,” but using music allows me to further specify what that feels like and helps to shape the person’s heart toward an appropriate expression of joy.

There are two additional implications from this understanding: first, meaning in music is discernible. Contrary to what many evangelicals believe today, we can determine what music means. We may find difficulty in putting that into words, but that doesn’t mean it is not possible. Discerning meaning in music is just as possible as discerning what another person is feeling by observing his behavior. We can tell when another person is sad or happy, elated or depressed, by watching their posture, facial expressions, and bearing or by listening to their tone of voice. We can also tell the difference between a sports fan kind of joy and a cancer patient kind of joy in the same way, though we might not be able to express it perfectly in words.

Christians must not fall into the trap of ignoring or even denying universal meaning in music because there are many different kinds of emotion, and not all of them are appropriate for expressing biblical truth or worshiping God. (tweet this)

Second, musical meaning on this level is universal. There are all kinds of other meanings in music that are not universal but limited to particular people, times, cultures, and experiences. But to acknowledge non-universal meaning on an association level does not deny universal meaning as well. Meaning on the level I’ve been describing is universal because all people–regardless of gender, ethnicity, culture, or time–are part of the “culture of humanity.” We all share similar physiological, biological, and emotional characteristics such that when music expresses emotion on that level, its meaning is universal.

Christians must not fall into the trap of ignoring or even denying universal meaning in music because, as I’ve already pointed out, there are many different kinds of emotion, and not all of them are appropriate for expressing biblical truth or worshiping God. Some kinds of joy, love, grief, fear, and delight are fitting for God and his truth; others are not. Thus not every example of “happy” music is appropriate for expressing the words “Rejoice in the Lord,” nor is every kind of “love” music appropriate for expressing love to God.

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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.

10 Responses to Meaning in Music

  1. Martin says:

    Very helpful, Scott – thanks for that.

  2. James Lowery says:

    Excellently expressed – even without music. (SMILE)
    For what it’s worth, here’s the context of the Mendelssohn quotation.

    Die Leute beklagen sich gewöhnlich, die Musik sei so vieldeutig; es sei so zweifelhaft, was sie sich dabei zu denken hätten, und die Worte verstände doch ein Jeder. Mir geht es aber gerade umgekehrt. Und nicht blos mit ganzen Reden, auch mit einzelnen Worten, auch die scheinen mir so vieldeutig, so unbestimmt, so mißverständlich im Vergleich zu einer rechten Musik, die einem die Seele erfüllt mit tausend besseren Dingen als Worten. Das, was mir eine Musik ausspricht, die ich liebe, sind mir nicht zu unbestimmte Gedanken, um sie in Worte zu fassen, sondern zu bestimmte.
    “People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”
    Letter to Marc-André Souchay, October 15, 1842, cited from Briefe aus den Jahren 1830 bis 1847 (Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn, 1878) p. 221; translation from Felix Mendelssohn (ed. Gisella Selden-Goth) Letters (New York: Pantheon, 1945) pp. 313-14.
    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Felix_Mendelssohn

    Songs Without Words (Lieder ohne Worte) is a series of short lyrical piano pieces by the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn, written between 1829 and 1845. Mendelssohn himself resisted attempts to interpret the Songs too literally, and objected when his friend Marc-André Souchay sought to put words to them to make them literal songs: “What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. (Mendelssohn’s own italics on ‘indefinite’ and ‘definite’). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songs_Without_Words#cite_ref-2

  3. Jesse B. says:

    Thank you James. Very helpful

  4. Todd H. says:

    I would rather point out that music elicits emotion just as much as it expresses emotion, and one extent that it elicits emotion depends upon how the music is produced, which can often depend upon how the music is broadcast per the settings on the soundboard. I reckon soundboards have 200, 300, 500, or 10,000 knobs — or perhaps even more — for which the sound producer/engineer can set according to that which he/she thinks is best for the recording. Each of those knobs has different settings which vary according to type of sound: pitch, distortion, resonance, reverberation, instrument, loudness, audio environment, speed, fuzziness, voice, vibrato, “color”, addition of extra layers of sound, etc. And I would suggest that how we define a piece of music largely depends upon the various different settings on the engineer’s soundboard and how they culminate to form a certain piece of music.

  5. David Haddon says:

    Another stroke in support of the correct understanding of music: that it has objective content that can be evaluated for its suitability for worship or any other purpose. Rock music, for example, is suitable for stimulating sexual desire and, historically, became the battering ram for destroying the traditional sexual ethic linking sexual satisfaction to marriage in America, the West and much of the rest of the world.

  6. […] Study Finds Humans Have Dozens of Universal Expressions | Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics – Religious Affections Ministries on Meaning in Music […]

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