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Is musical meaning subjective?

One of the most difficult matters when engaging in a philosophy of music is the terms we employ. For example, the following terms often lack precision in discussion and thus cause confusion:

  1. relative
  2. subjective
  3. objective
  4. universal

MP5966The first two terms are often equated with each other, as are the final two terms. In other words, when someone says that musical meaning is “subjective,” often either they mean “relative” and/or others hear them as meaning “relative.” Likewise, when someone says that meaning in music is “universal,” that idea is often equated with “objective.”

However, these terms are actually not equivalent, and more precision with the use and definitions of these terms would go a long way to clarifying debates over these issues. With that in mind, let me offer what I believe to be more precise uses of these terms in such discussions and ask for your thoughts on one particular problem I’ve encountered on this matter.

“Subjective” does not necessarily imply “relative.” Subjective merely means that the subject’s presuppositions influence his understanding and interpretation of a matter. So, we may say that our interpretation of musical meaning is “subjective,” and by that we do not (necessarily) mean that musical meaning is relative, we merely mean that what one interprets music to mean is impacted by his own knowledge, experiences, and understandings..

The opposite of subjective is objective, which means that a given interpretation of a matter flows only from the object under consideration and is not impacted in any way by the subject’s presuppositions. Something, therefore, cannot be both subjective and objective.

“Relative” means that something is true only for one individual and not another, or for one time and not another, etc. In other words, the thing under consideration (a subject’s interpretation of meaning, for example) is not true for all people in all cases.

The opposite of relative is universal, which means that the meaning is true of all persons at all times. However, something that is universal is not always necessarily objective. In other words it is possible for something to be (in the language of Kant) “subjectively universal” when a subject’s interpretation of something (like musical meaning) is true of all persons in all times.

So the problem in discussions of musical meaning is that often when someone argues that a particular musical meaning is universal, many people hear him to say that musical communication is objective. Yet they know by experience that interpretation of musical meaning is influenced by the perceptions of the subject. Music means nothing without the perceptions of a subject. Thus, these things are not objective; they are subjective.

And they would be correct. When I say that musical communication is universal, I do not mean that it is purely objective. I readily affirm that these things are subjective.

The problem is that when people hear me say that musical communication is subjective, they assume I mean that it is relative. That is not what I mean.

Musical communication, in my view, is subjectively universal.

The question is, how do we avoid all the confusion over these terms?

One thing that I think is healthy (I have Kevin Bauder to thank for this) is to rid ourselves of the word “objective” almost entirely since it is impossible to be completely objective about anything. In truth, we only know by perceiving, and thus all knowledge in that sense is subjective. It would be better, in my view, to use terms like “absolute” or “universal” to describe things as such rather than the term “objective.”

But therein lies the rub. While we can get rid of the term “objective” and acknowledge that all knowledge is subjective, most will think we mean “relative” when at times we also mean universal.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.