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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.

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 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.

53 Responses to Is musical meaning subjective?

  1. There seems to be a parallel to hermeneutics: we all may understand a text subjectively differently, yet the meaning is not relative. When we say a text means something objectively, we are saying that if we apply rules of interpretation (that we supposedly can agree on) then we should all come to the same understanding. This implies:
    a) the existence of rules of hermeneutics which can be applied to a given text
    b) the knowledge of such rules, i.e. a learning exercise

    There is, then, a need to research and discover rules of hermeneutics, and to apply them consistently. If we all used the same methodology of interpretation, we should all come to the same conclusions. If ‘objective’ is defined as that what is in the object (as opposed to what we subjectively perceive) then hermeneutics is the discipline that teaches us how to overcome subjective interpretations, maximizing objectivity. To achieve a universal understanding, we need to be as objective as possible, leaving cultural and personal differences aside. Of course, we can never completely do away with presuppositions, since one of the rules of hermeneutics is that a single passage must agree with the wider teachings of the Bible. I think the main problem is that we take some of those presuppositions as given although they themselves may be based on a subjective interpretation of other passages. So complete objectivity (and hence, a universal understanding) remains elusive, yet applying the same rules will undoubtedly take us closer and closer to where we need to get.

    Applied to music, we need to
    a) research the ways in which music communicates and shapes lyrics, and
    b) learn to apply these findings to any given musical artwork.

    If we deny that a) is possible, universal meanings are also rejected and we cannot come to an objective understanding of what the object (the musical artwork) means.

    Although I sympathize with Kevin’s suggestion to abandon ‘objective’ altogether, maybe we need to seek something objective in how the interaction between object (music) and subject (hearer) occurs. So the ‘objectivity’ does not lie with the object itself but includes the rules of human perception, which are presumed to be universal. The question then is not, what message is in the music but, what do certain musical clues mean to humans?

    The problem here is to presuppose such universals, but I think you did a good job defending that concept biblically in your Feb 3, 2014 post on rap, and there is also ample empiric evidence that such universals exist. It is, however, counterintuitive to say that music communicates universally and yet, to understand this communication, we need to be aware of the rules first (i.e., understanding musical communication is a lost art). This then leads to the discussion as to why it is that we cannot agree easily on these issues: did musicians simply forget about musicology, choosing a musical style that appeals to them to communicate a wide range of concepts without giving heed to (and without noticing) intrinsic meanings of musical styles? Are some of us in denial about universals because of other issues, such as personal identification with certain musical styles? Have natural mechanisms of musical perception been distorted through frequent exposure to certain musical styles and not others? Is this an issue of post-modern indoctrination? Can universals be recovered with musical training or would that be just indoctrination of another kind? Where is the borderline between universals and cultural associations of musical meanings?

    I guess there is lots of room for more doctoral theses in this area…

  2. This defining of terminology really helps me to get a grasp on the argument. A lot of the controversy is in the interpretation of terms used by different individuals. One might think they understand what another is saying, when he/she is saying something different entirely.

    In this post-modern world, the term “relative” is thrown around almost carelessly when what is really trying to come through is “subjectivity”. This relates to the fact that people (such as myself) hate to admit that they are wrong in their presupposed opinions.

    I really like Martin’s reformation of the question when he says, “The question then is not, what message is in the music but, what do certain musical clues mean to humans?” Maybe we have been putting the cart before the horse in our dialog for a good amount of time. When approached this way, it is easy to see universals in how humans relate to music. As a smile is universally seen as happy, thus a major chord is seen as more happy than a minor chord.

    Terminology is very important to communication, and only when everyone communicates with uniformity will this argument reach higher ground.

  3. Thanks for the clarification of these terms. In order to engage in the healthy and meaningful discussion, we have to avoid confusion by using some of these terms interchangeably. The terms “subjective” and “relative” are frequently used interchangeably, and it creates a lot of problems in the discussions or debates over the issues of whether music has musical meaning, whether it is subjective or relative, objective or universal. Often times, when I state musical meaning is subjective, I mean to say that individual’s musical interpretation is influenced by his or her own experiences, knowledge by either formal trainings or exposure to that particular music, and understanding of it. However, for some reasons, people tend to interpret my statement in the discussion as something “relative”. This maybe the result of my poor articulation on the subject matter or lack of precision in applying those terms.

  4. When trying to formulate my own philosophy of music, I find myself using these terms and not accurately defining them. We cannot deny that musical interpretation is affected by one’s preconceived ideas and experiences. Because of this, the term “objective” is hardly of any use when discussing musical communication. But, like the article said, “subjective” does not mean “relative”. I believe the reason that most people do not separate the meanings of theses terms in regards to music is because they do not realize that there is a distinction in the first place. In my opinion, there are some “gray areas” when it comes to music being subjectively universal, because the underlying idea behind something being “subjective” is ones OWN knowledge, experience, and understanding. Defining “subjective”, “relative”, and “objective” is necessary in order understand musical meaning and helps lead one toward a conclusion of musical communication being “subjectively universal”.

  5. Interesting discussion this week…

    I agree with Dr. Aniol’s definition on the common terms that we use to discuss the philosophy of music. I also agree with the conclusion that it is impossible for anything to be objective. During my twentieth century music history seminar today, my professor played an excerpt from the Adagio of Mahler’s 10th Symphony and describe it as “grotesque” while I felt the music was rather “mysterious.” I could see how my situation relates to Dr. Aniol’s view that even though the musical communication is subjectively universal, the interpretation of the music itself remains subjective.

  6. Good afternoon everyone!

    I agree with Dr Aniol with his definitions of the terms. I also agree to his conclusion that music can’t be objective but only subjective. As I read over the article I started to agree with Brandon that I think the reason people aide the words incorrectly is because they don’t actually know the real definition of the terms. I am also thinking that people try to attach a significant object to the piece of music instead of thinking about it the other way around. We attach a song to an object because of the subject matter of the song.

  7. “Something that is universal is not always necessarily objective”. This is so true.
    We, human, are all creations of God. We are created in God’s image. We all have mind, will, and emotion. This is universal. But this absolutely cannot be objective. Think of this, if this statement is objective, that means we all look alike. Then this world will be a mess.
    According to Dr. Aniol, the purpose of church is to nurture believers’ mind, will, and emotion. Mind and will can be nurtured through words. However, emotion cannot be nurtured by words, but music. As I mentioned above, if mind, will, and emotion are objective, that means all human feel either happy or sad together at the same time. Again this world will be a mess if everyone feels sad at the same time. Since emotion can be only be nurtured through music, then music cannot be objective. Music must be subjective because each one of us has different feelings.

  8. The explanations you provide along with the lecture on the layers of musical meaning yesterday, especially the conventional and natural associations, helps me to distinguish these terms more precisely. It is very likely that when people say musical meaning is subject, they simply refer to the conventional association, which is related to their personal knowledge or experience. They actually don’t realize that there are layers of meaning besides the association they have with a particular piece of music. In other words, they often take the association they have as the only meaning in the music they’re feel associated with, and thus, musical meaning becomes subjective since everyone (subject) doesn’t have the same association with the same piece of music! Understanding these terms (conventional and natural associations, subject, relative, objective,and universal) would be a great starting point for Christians who participate in music ministry to know that musical meaning is not just one-dimensional but multifaceted.

  9. This was an incredibly insightful article to read. I for one have been guilty of misusing these terms before. I agree with Dr. Anoil that there is obviously confusion over these terms. I can’t even begin to count to number of times I have heard people interchange the above words. I think we a Christians need to be very clear of what we are trying to communicate. I agree with the premise of avoiding the use of the word “objective.” Even we are relying on the least amount of our own presuppositions, it is impossible for us to be 100% objective. Our thinking is molded by our experiences and it impossible to our presuppositions out of the equation. Since there is so much confusion with the terminology, I think it is vital to always explain what we mean when we begin to use such terms as “subjective,” “universal,” or relative.

  10. Vocabulary, terminology, and definitions can go a long way when explained at the beginning of any discussion. The terms discussed in the article direct the discussion in a specific direction.

    In regards to the question, I believe that the “big picture view” of a composition would have a universal or absolute meaning and not be subjective. This big picture view would need to be a general meaning and not a specific meaning. If you begin to interpret more specifically, then that’s where you will find more subjectivity. For example, play a piece of music for children and they will give you a general meaning without any deep thought or assumptions.

    On the other hand with adults (people who have more life experience) the layers of associations would possibly have to be peeled away to be able to see the “big picture view” of the music. Life experiences can change the way we feel about the piece, but I think the core meaning of the music never changes. It is our experiences, upbringing, and cultural dialects that can coat layers of belief systems over the intrinsic meaning of music.

  11. First, the above definition are helping me to understand these terms accurately. Second, I agree with “it is impossible to be completely objective about anything.” No one can be absolute objective about anything. We human beings are not perfect, we turn to interpret things in our ways. Third, when people have the same understanding/ definition of terminology, they can then start the real and meaningful discussion.

  12. I think that it is safe to assume the terms mentioned in this article are used interchangeably most of the time. This article was very useful in breaking down the differences because it truly is impossible to be completely objective about anything, including music. We are subject to our own knowledge and experiences and view everything through that frame of reference. If we begin to educate people on the subtle differences of these terms, more people will begin to realize all people listen to music with some subjectivity.

  13. I agree fully with the definition of subjectivity given, but I would also like to give a second definition from subjectivity can be defined as “placing excessive emphasis on one’s own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc.; unduly egocentric.” I believe that ones view of music is subjective by both definitions. It is based upon opinion. We can agree that ones view of music is not objective. Opinion can be defined as “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty,” or “a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.” Absolute can be defined as “free from imperfection; complete; perfect: absolute liberty.” I do believe that musics purpose is absolute (The word of God is also absolute). It’s purpose is to glorify a Holy God. Man’s fleshly desires is always sin. Man’s purpose of music (while in a state of total depravity) is based upon who he is being led by (the Holy Spirit or the flesh). This does not change the absolute purpose of music. So man’s purpose for music is relative. God’s purpose (like his word) is absolute. Our subjective views (emphasis on opinions) are not absolute. This means we will have musical preferences. The question is, can music be depraved or evil, or is it just the person behind it that is depraved? My belief is that all music is made to glorify God, and that man messes it up. I would argue that Our dislike of certain Genres is built on an emphasized opinion (built by our past experiences) instead of the absolute nature of all music’s purpose to glorify God.

  14. Dr. Aniol’s explanation about four terms is really helpful for me. I agree that “Music communication is subjectively universal.” Our experience and knowledge impacts on our interpretation of meaning of music. I think that these explanation are related to yesterday lecture, conventional association and natural association. Those two association are related to what people experienced in their lives. As two associations, music communication is related to people’s experience and knowledge. Based on their experience and knowledge, music is interpreted subjectively and universally for people.

  15. It seems to me that we may be at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I agree with Dr. Aniol’s proposition that the term “objective” be replaced with “absolute” or “universal” in order to be more precise in communication. After considering Dr. Aniol’s thoughts though, I really appreciate what Martin added to the discussion by saying that there is still opportunity to pursue what is objective in music. I have noticed, however, a general progression (or digression) from Scott’s suggestion that we exchange terminology to increase accuracy to a general attitude that it is pointless to seek to be objective as we consider music. Dr. Aniol’s words cause me to think that there are definitely absolutes and universals that are worth seeking out while the development of the conversation today seems to say “It’s impossible to be objective so why even try? Let’s get rid of the word ‘objective’ and let’s also not try to be objective when we listen to music.” Forgive me for any over-generalizations, but I know that I want to guard myself against finding another excuse to be lazy with my thoughts. I appreciate Martin’s appeal to hermeneutics and the parallel that they hold for the opportunity to seek to train ourselves to think more objectively than subjectively. It seems that for me there should be a balance of precision of language combined with a diligence to seek to think hard and think well.

  16. I agree on saying that terminology do really define the correct understanding of philosophy. I agree with saying that using the word choice of “absolute” and “universal” is more effective and clearer than the word, “objective”. it is necessary for one to use the clear terminology to describe something in detail.

  17. I agree that there are confusions when people using those terms. I particularly agree with a point that ” interpretation of musical meaning is influenced by the perceptions of the subject” and those interpretations are subjective.
    As it was mentioned in the lecture yesterday, the finale of the William Tell Overture is often associated with horses. For some people, it is because the finale was used as the theme music of The Lone Ranger. For Form two students (Grade 7) in Hong Kong (William Tell Overture is one of the repertoire of the music curriculum) , most of them think of horse racing when they hear the tune because the finale was used as the opening music of a horse racing TV program.
    Rossini intended to write the music as the march of the Swiss soldiers. The music is about battle. Many students were very disappointed when they learned about the intention of the composer. This example shows that “interpretation of musical meaning” is subjective. The interpretation is often associated or affected by the perceptions of people.

  18. Thanks Dr. Aniol’s for explaining the confusing terms (relative, subjective, objective, and universal). I agree with Dr. Aniol’s statement that “music means nothing without the perceptions of a subject.” Indeed, music is subjective. For instance, when I was an elementary school student, I heard Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” My teacher picked the Four Seasons randomly and students had to choose the right seasons. When I heard ‘Autumn’, I imagined the bright blue sky and the green grass, so I chose ‘Summer’. When I heard the answer, I couldn’t understand why the answer is ‘Autumn’. This is because, I had a subjective notion. Even though composers composed their music with accurate theme, it might sound different from the viewpoint of many audiences.

  19. This article clearly made me understand with each terms that could cause some confusion on understanding musical communication. According to what Dr. Aniol asserted, I totally agree that “musical communication is subjectively universal”.
    Human begins are imperfect. Anything comes out from humans, thus, imperfect. So to speak, there is no one who can perfectly communicate with anything on the earth but God. Thus, there is certainly limitation on each individuals on interpreting what they hear, feel, and think. The comprehensive consideration of each subject interpretation is what we call ‘universal’ nowadays. One’s mind before he accepts music should be that there will not be any of perfect interpretation from himself. Furthermore, one should be flexible on accepting other’s different way of interpretation and try to figure out the common and different way of interpretation in between.

  20. This clarification of terminology is very important to study musical communication but also it is important for any type of study in this new generation. I think those 4 terms are have been mentioned mostly by people who believe that there is no absolute truth or validity. When we define something, we really have to take care to use these words: subjective, relative, objective or universal. Because it sometimes sounds like “there is no answer”. People of this modern society are easy to put their perception in limited context and call it “relativism or subjectivism”. There always can be some degree of controversy when we use these terms but I think there is a common human sense that we all know and feel. It is undeniable truth.

  21. This article is so interesting about clarifying four terms of musical meaning. Even though there are the presuppose that “Subjective” is related with “relative” and “Objective” is related with “universal”, Dr. Aniol suggested the paradoxical idea, he said “Musical communication is subjectively universal. As Ai-Chin said, I agree with her opinion. God created the universal and human being. God gave us the emotions in his image. We can feel our subjectively emotion and thought about the music. That naturally happens to have a subjective feeling, because we are the creation in the universal, also he gave us the free will and emotion.

  22. I agree with Dr. Aniol that musical communication is subjectively universal. Instead of using the term “subject”, I will use “universal experience” to describe music communication. Experience includes perception and interpretation. Perception is more neutral (or ” objective”) since it is a biological process. Interpretation involves personal feeling and experience which is more “subjective”. However, if we relate music communication with emotions, the music itself will be able to convey universal experiences. in my opinion, the term “experience” is natural which can neutralize the bipolarity of “subjective” and “objective”.

  23. Music is subjectively universal… We can compare this one with our health condition. For example, according to difference of personal health condition, some one get cold more easily than others. However, if someone is revealed in cold weather very long time, no matter how healthy the person is, human being becomes to get cold and sick. Like this according to personal difference, the recognition of musical influence can be different. However, if someone is revealed in some music for a long time, anybody can be influenced by the music at last.

  24. As reading through the article, I strongly agree that musical meaning is subjective. As stated above, no knowledge can be fully objective that this concept applies the same to the musical meaning. Thanks for clarification of the terminology. People often confuse the proper meaning of these terms in their use.

  25. I agree with Dr. Aniol’s opinion that “Subjective” does not necessarily imply “relative.” Let’s define what is mean by “relative”?We all came from different cultures and background, we all have our own ways of thinking to make a decision. Though we try to think and decide with objectively.

  26. Sze Wang Ho introduced a great solution to this semantical issue: “universal experience.” Language changes and words take on new meanings as time goes by … so, if “subjective” basically means “relative” now, that’s its new meaning (in the same way “literally” now means “concretely” [or, in casual conversation, “figuratively”] as opposed to its old meaning of “literately”). It’s best not to fight the flow of language unless you intentionally want people to misunderstand you for no other reason than pride in the fact that you knew what a word used to mean (some words deserve to be fought for, of course. But in this case, I think there are good alternatives that do not compromise biblical truth of any sort). The best solution is to find new phrases that articulately express what you mean without the baggage of ambiguous meanings or conservative/liberal associations. So, what we’re getting at is that music is experienced universally by humanity, diversity of presuppositions considered.

  27. I also like the way that Sze Wang Ho changed the terminology entirely so as not to even encourage confusion. “Universal experience” is a great term to reference that which we all commonly experience in music.

    However, John, I think that the offering of a new definition is not so much what is needed for this conversation. From your provided definition, we are right back to seeing “subjective” as “relative.” I like what Jared said, “Language changes and words take on new meanings as time goes by … so, if ‘subjective’ basically means ‘relative’ now, that’s its new meaning.” This applies especially because the definition found was from a modern website that is updated using the general terminology used by the mass public today.

    Kaitlyn, I do agree that the term “objective” should not be done away with completely. However, for the sake of this conversation, no one is going to have a clear perspective on a musical piece (objectivity) because it is being performed by personal interpretation either by oneself or another performer (which adds subjectivity). That subjectivity can utilize the notes, dynamics, etc. to convey a universal emotion/felling to listeners cross culturally. Not to stop us from thinking on the subject, but keep us from wandering aimlessly through thoughts of objectivity. This was my take at least.

  28. I would like to provide an example of music is subjectively universal.
    There are many English worship songs are translated into mandarin since many decades ago. Many of them are well translated; the truth, emotion and feeling are all well carried out, these are mostly hymns. For example, when I first learned “This is my Father’s world” in sunday school, I really thought it was mandarin origin. Not until later, I learned that it his English origin.
    But some of them are just not feeling right, even though the truth and emotion are carried out. These are songs that are primary influenced by popular style. Likewise, any oriental style music (influenced by popular style), if it is sung in English, the feeling is wired. There is a group worship team, which produces mandarin worship songs, translate their lyrics into English, I guess their purpose is for the use of bilingual churches, Mandarin and English. When these mandarin songs are sung in English, again it just feel awkward. I wish I could provide some recording example. But choosing to respect the group, I will not provide any recording example.
    Universally, the truth and emotion are well carried out. Subjectively, the feeling is just not right.

    p/s. Can someone please give me suggestions why when hymns are translated into mandarin or any Asian language, the feeling is just right? I know this must be something to do with music theory. But I don’t know why.

  29. Ai-chin, as far as I understand, the “feeling” that a song or hymn gives MAY be subjective from the perception of the listener, but of course, all hymns that proclaim the glory of God do have a universal subjectivity……however, that subjectivity needs to be determined by the Word of God. I just looked up on youtube 2 different versions of “This is my Fathers World” in asian and one was very respectful and, for me, had a strong sense of reverence. The other was more of a rock version. To you, the second one may be fine, but through the eyes of Scripture, is not in the “beauty of Holiness”. This is just my input and I hope it helps even a little.

  30. I agree with Ben; John I feel like adding our own definitions we are only adding fuel to this problem. Even though it was a good suggestion. It’s just not productive to helping find the solution.

    Also with Ben I agree with what Jared said when he said, “Language changes and words take on new meanings as time goes by … so, if ‘subjective’ basically means ‘relative’ now, that’s its new meaning.” I didn’t really think about that before but definitely had my gears turning in my head after reading. Thanks for the post Jared

  31. Ai Chin and Jesse, as far as I know, most Asian languages are tonal, and this fact alone may contribute to the awkward feeling that you mentioned when translating some mandarin lyrics to English. Oriental music, in general, are very much melodic-driven, while Western music are more interested in the complexity of harmony, African and Hispanic music are more like rhythmic-driven. I still remember taking listening diagnostic test in orchestration class when we had to listen to a great piece in which the composer put some oriental sounding instances, some rhythmic driven sections with rich harmony.

  32. Aichin, I think Asian language have more tones than English, so it is doable to translate English hymn texts into Chinese and still keep the poetic meter. However, if people trying to translate an originally Chinese hymn text into English, it is hard to keep the same poetic meter, so people will feel uncomfortable to sing it

  33. Kaitlyn makes very valid points. It is possible for us to overgeneralize these terms. Also, a lot of people would ask, “Why try to be objective because it is not possible?” However, as Christians we should continue to search for the universal and objective truths in music that exist.

  34. Ai-Chin, I could relate with your comment on English origin worship songs being translated to mandarin and how “some of them are just not feeling right, even though the truth and emotion are carried out.” Two months ago, I went to a Cantonese church service and part of the worship set included “Amazing Grace.” I have heard “Amazing Grace in cantonese many times before but when the congregation began singing “my chains are gone, I’ve been set free…” I felt weird hearing Chris Tomlin’s refrain of the hymn in Cantonese. I agree with your comment that the truth and emotion is still in the translated text but whoa… was I feeling out of place when I heard Chris Tomlin at a Cantonese service sung by a bunch of middle-aged parents.

    I tried to find a Cantonese version on Youtube but found a mandarin version instead so I guess this link will have to do:

  35. I also think we can apply the concept of “subjectively universal” communication to our understanding and application of biblical truth. God communicates his mind and thoughts to us through Scripture, and we are able to gain a closest meaning of what He intends us to know through studying the text, i.e. the words, sentences, and grammar, etc., and the cultural background of scriptural context. Through this process we draw out a universal truth, and the universality in God’s truth is one of the reasons that we claim God’s truth is absolute. However, each person might experience God’s universal truth in different context/setting, so their association to and application of a certain passage might differ and, therefore, is subjective. Nevertheless, this subjectivity does not mean that we can apply God’s word whatever we like. If we do not understand the Bible correctly, we might end up with wrong application. Correct understanding of Scripture always comes before right application.

  36. I like the point that Brandon brought up earlier that the reason people keep using these terms interchangeably because they don’t know their meaning. They simply use these terms without thinking and before long confusion is bound to ensue. I think we need to be very careful as well before we start adding definitions of our own to certain words. While adding a new definition is not inherently bad, it is an issue when the original meaning of the word is in question. If people use terms like “subjective” and “relative” interchangeably, without knowing their definition, adding another one makes things much more complicated down the road. That seems to be that cause for the state of confusion, like Jared points out. Language can change over time (or people can begin their own interpretation or definition to the mix) and before long what a word/term meant at one time, simply is not the case anymore. As we further our studies and come in contact with people and share our views, we must be consistent in our use of such terms as “subjective,” “relative,” or “universal” and begin informing others of the proper use of such terms in order to clarification to the conversation. We should steer clear of adding our interpretation or definition to such terms, since it has the potential to add further confusion down the road.

  37. Ai-chin, I totally understand what you mean. Yes, it sounds awkward when you hear a song in your language which was originally in English or any other language. I think it happens not only with Asian language but with other languages or cultures. For instance when I hear an originally Korean song translated in English, It’s just doesn’t sound to me the same. I think it’s because your ears feel better what you are used to hear.

  38. In response to Kaitlin’s post about the term “objective” and the tendency to do away with it completely, it is important that we stress the meaning of “objective” and seek to understand what is objective and universal in music. From what we have been learning in class, it is becoming more and more clear that there are universals in music. When we say that music is “subjectively universal”, we have to explain what that means. So should we get rid of the term “objective”? I think that if explain what “objective” and “universal” means in the context of our discussion about music, it is appropriate to use that term, but caution must be taken.

  39. In response to Ai-Chin (and after watching the link that Jessica posted), I think the naturalness of translated traditional hymns versus the awkwardness of translated P&W/CCM choruses may have to do with the rhythmic structure of the songs. Most traditional hymns have steady, repetitive, on-the-beat rhythmic patterns (half, quarter, and eighth notes). This lends itself to easy translation because, even if syllables are added in the new language, the rhythmic patterns will remain simple and on-the-beat. On the other hand, Western CCM/P&W vocal rhythms are highly syncopated and varied. This makes natural sounding translations more difficult because the rhythms were fashioned around the English language, not a rhythmic pattern per se. In other words, hymns have simple, universally easy to understand rhythms that are easy to sing in any language; P&W/CCM choruses have complex rhythms based on the English language and all of the idiosyncrasies included therein … it is hard to translate for these songs in a natural way.

  40. Ai-chin! I have a similar experience, just as you said. Interestingly, when I also was young, I thought “This is my Father’s world” was Korean origin. After few years later, I heard English version, but the lyrics was partly different. Some lyrics did not translate in detail. However, the theme was the same and of course, the melody music was the same. However, in my case, although, the song was not translated 100% equally, I didn’t feel weird when I first heard this song. There may be a variety of reasons for your question, but I want to say one thing. I don’t know mandarin, but in the case of Korean, I think Korean lyrics have rich implications and English lyrics express words directly. In my opinion, when translating from one language to another, one has to think about his country’s culture. That is why when you sing the accurate translation without any change of lyrics, it may feel awkward.

  41. Every language contains its own culture. That is why two different languages convey totally different feeling and emotion.
    As a Korean, I have similar experiences whenever I sing translated versions of worship songs. It feels totally different from each other even though the melody of the song is exactly same. Ultimately, I prefer to sing with its origin language. (not translated version)
    For me, it means that there is a deep relation between language and culture. There are inexplicable things on each language itself. Maybe this can be explained by the concept of “subjectively universal”.

  42. I do find it interesting how definitions change over time. Words that once were totally appropriate now carry a vulgar meaning. Wisdom must be used. I am thankful for the input by Ben and Vaden. My argument was not mainly against the articles definitions (I believe they are helpful), but was sharing a philosophy of the subjectivity of music (and I defined what I meant). Language can be an amazing tool, but it can also be difficult. We must try to find the intent of the speaker. Music is similar. We must see the heart of the musician using the tool (because scripture does not speak to what genres of music are appropriate in the worship service). We must look at what is being communicated by Lacrae and Shai Lin, not what our passions say about the tool/art to carry that message. Language truly is an amazing and confusing thing.

  43. Bora I agree with what you are saying. In terms of text or language, the original version may express far more clearly than the translated ones. perhaps it may be caused due to the composer’s background. when one is translating one language to another, it is important to know the culture for sure.

  44. In responding to Ai Chin and Jessica’s comments, I think the problem is about we tend to agree with/get used to what we learned first about the music/hymns. I think it is similar to the example that I mentioned. My students were disappointed with the fact that Rossini wrote the Finale of the William Tell Overture for a battle/revolution in mind instead of horse racing. It is because they heard that first on the TV program and associated the music with horse racing first. As we learned the hymns in our languages first, then it might not feel right when we hear different versions.
    However, I have a little different experience about singing the hymns in my language (Cantonese) and with other languages (Mandarin and English). Hymnals were translated in different languages or dialects when the missionaries came to China at the end of 18th or the early 19th centuries. There are many different versions/translations according to different denominations, even Baptist churches may adopt different hymnals. For some good translations, I mean in literature and musically, the words can fit in the notes perfectly. I think it doesn’t really associate with languages with tones or not. It depends on the musical knowledge or techniques of the person who chose the translation and fit the words into the music. I visited different churches and sung some versions that were not good and didn’t “feel” right at all.
    So I don’t think this is the problem of the language. I think for a main reason, people get used to the version that we learned first. From my experience, I learned the hymns in Cantonese when I was a child. Then I learned hymns in English when I was in Secondary school and university. I always think English SOUNDS RIGHT because it is the original version and the words do fit the notes (For some good written hymns). It sounds better for projection, compare with the Cantonese lyrics. In fact, Mandarin sounds better than Cantonese because it has 4 notes (Cantonese has 9 tones), so it’s easier to write music for Mandarin than Cantonese and it sounds better than Cantonese most of the time.
    So for the problem of whether the words sound right with the music, I think it’s about the techniques of the composer or translator or the person who put the translation into notes. Our experience of learning the hymns may also affect our preference of the version as well.

    I had sung both bad and good English or Chinese hymns. I had also learned some excellent Chinese translations that are written more beautifully than the original English version. ( I am not judging the literature or the language, just from the point of view that I know both languages in the context of the lyrics of the hymns.)

    So, for me, I don’t think language is the main problem. I would say the hymn sounds right if the words (no matter what languages) fit the music well.

  45. I am sorry for the mistake, Christianity was once popular in China around
    AD 781.
    Due to the trade and business with Western countries, a lot of missionaries came to China at the end of 17th cent and the early 18th cent, not 18th to 19th centuries.

  46. I like Sze Wing Ho’s description of music communication, “universal experience,” because I agree that experience has perception and interpretation. Music is related with experience and culture. I realized that experience and culture are important factors to interpret meaning of music in our lives. Also, music becomes strong when it has strong lyrics that perceives and interprets experiences. In addition, music becomes strong when its lyrics perceives and interprets culture.

  47. In response to Ai-chin’s question: “why when hymns are translated into mandarin or any Asian language, the feeling is just right?”, I would like to first clarify the phrase “feeling is just right”. I think “feeling right” means that the translator is capable of bringing out the characteristics of a certain language and at the same time the words can convey the original meaning effectively. In my opinion, it is an issue that related to the use of language instead of music theory. Every language has their own characteristics. For instance, a single Chinese character can always convey multiple emotions or actions. A good grasp of a certain language characteristics will result in “feeling right”. Of course “feeling right” is closely related to the universal meaning of both the words and the music. In music, for instance, higher pitches are more effective to uplift peoples’ emotion since we need to use more energy to sing. When the universality of music match with the biblical truth (e.g. using a higher pitch to express the greatness of God), a hymn will have a higher chance to convey the meaning and emotion is a right way.

  48. I have thought if music can be objective for a week since last discussion. My answer is music can not be objective. Objective should not include personal perspective or taste. In math, when we study function, those things that have subjective judgement such as, pretty girl or tall men, or sad movies are not proper to be elements that form a function. What is the reason? Pretty, tall, and sad all include subjective judgement. The condition for being objective should exclude personal judgement. In this point, music can not be objective. However, music can be universal. For example, the rhythms, melody lines and musical flowing used in heavy metal music make listeners more violent and excited than before the person listens to that. There can be somehow difference according to individual quality. However, the influence and result is universal. Universal quality of music can be proved by statistics through research data analysis.

  49. – The Tower of Babel –
    In the time of Babylon (Genesis 11), the tower of Babel, the language of mankind was confused and destructed because of their sinful pride, “Come let us build ourselves a city that reaches to the heavens…so that we make a name for ourselves…”(Gen 11:4). The Lord intended to confuse their language so they will not understand and build their own kingdom (Gen 11:8).
    This gives perfect picture how we have all different tongues, cultures and narrow perspectives with selfish mind. It completely blinded objective understanding of other tongues and tribes.

    Because of our self egos and pride.
    The pride brings close mind, self center and think only for themselves(individual).

  50. I really enjoyed popping in on this discussion after several days of being away and seeing how it has developed and how many people are building off each other’s thoughts and ideas. I’m glad that this quiestion was brought up because it helps me to conisider more of the meaning behind the words that I use. Especially in regards to objectivity and universality I know I will think twice before I throw either of those words around in conversation.

  51. And Ben (as well as the many others who contributed), thanks for your continued thoughts and even willingness to differ in opinions while obviously still considering mine with equal weight. The thoughts here in this discussion have sharpened mine and given me new mental material for assembling my perspective on the matter.

  52. No matter where we at, we start from our Relative and Subjective way of mind/life. Then we start to see other people’s cultures and see different perspectives, We will never be able to see objectively until we try to communicate with other people and see the lens of the Bible.

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