I grew up in Michigan. I now live in Texas.
Texas is hot. Really hot. And it stays hot for a long, long time.
However, as I was working on some yard projects Monday, I noticed that after four years of living in Texas, I’ve grown accustomed to the heat. I found myself observing that although it was 101 degrees and I was working hard outside, I really didn’t feel hot.
Yet it was hot. Sweat was literally pouring off my body, and my clothes were drenched, but it really didn’t feel hot to me.
Imagine if, since I had grown accustomed to the heat and didn’t feel hot, that I simply ignored the thermostat and operated as if it were 70 outside instead of 101. Regardless of whether I felt hot or not, the reality would have affected me quite negatively. So, in spite of the fact that I didn’t really feel hot, I continuously drank lots of water throughout the day and took occasional breaks from my work.
Meaning in music is a lot like Texas heat. What music means is not based on whether or not a listener feels like he or she is affected by the music in a certain way. It is certainly possible that a person could be so accustomed to a particular kind of music that he or she is really not affected by it.
But the music means what it means, regardless of the effects (or lack thereof) it has on a given listener.
The questions we must ask when evaluating musical meaning is not, “What does that mean to me,” “How does that make me feel?” or “How does that affect me.”
Instead, we must simply ask, “What does that music mean in and of itself?”