The question of ‘the meaning of music’ arose in a recent discussion. I enjoy discussions in which there is an opportunity to be provocative, yet this was far less a deliberate philosophical manoeuvre than an apparent matter of fact. A related statement very frequently thrown out in discussion is that ‘music is an international language, knowing no boundaries’. Both statements give rise to deeper enquiry. The OED gives the definition of language as ‘the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in an agreed way’. The definition of meaning is vague: ‘what is meant by a word, action, idea etc.’. From those descriptions it would seem apparent that music is not a language, and therefore is incapable of conveying any specific meaning.
If it were a language, then surely translation would be possible. There would be another system in which it could be presented in order to convey a meaning just as clearly for the benefit of those unfamiliar with its initial form. Therefore it might be presumed that without words – the basic components that would allow translation – it cannot have any specific meaning.
However, sounds can convey a meaning of sorts, though I would prefer to use the word impression. That I suppose is the major problem with music. The impressions it creates are suggested generally by titles or background information. Vivaldi tried to create the impression of seasonal changes in his set of violin concertos, The Seasons, and the short poems he wrote to introduce each concerto (not particularly fine verse, but better in Italian!) steer the listeners’ consciousness in such a way that his ideas easily turn into a meaning of sorts. The birdsong celebrates the return of spring,interrupted by thunder, which again intrudes on summer’s relentless heat. Autumnal drunkenness and the chattering of teeth in mid-winter are incidents marked in the score. Had Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave (or Hebrides Overture) just been called Overture in B minor, speculation as to its inspired origin might be as far from Scotland as another composer’s Symphony in C or Concerto in F, any of which could be a geographical location, a tragic love affair or the death of a favourite uncle.
It is only that the composer suggests an interpretation, or there is already one derived from an operatic libretto or the story of a ballet or musical, that the illusion of meaning occurs. The composer Arthur Honegger created a musical impression of a huge Pacific steam locomotive, known in France by its arrangement of 2-3-1 axles rather than the number of wheels, which became hugely popular, and yet an American critic praised his ability to evoke the smells of the open sea, confusing it with the Pacific Ocean. Honegger advised young composers against providing listeners with any easy interpretation; it could always either be misinterpreted or found faulty!
To make assumptions about the motivation of musical creation based on a composer’s private life is also to build on generally unsustainable foundations. The expression of great melancholy in the music could well be a composer’s skill rather than a reflection of circumstances attributed to personal loss or illness. Elation expressed in the music could be the pleasure of obtaining the commission rather than it being ‘evidence of an especially pleasing period in the composer’s life’ as historians might say. Musical biographers are capable of inventing entertaining stories to support their interpretation of the way in which life’s vagaries might enter the creative flow. Minor keys may suggest sadness and major keys delight. But there is no reason that composers might not explore the opposites, and like Mozart in the opening of his G minor Quintet (K516) express great happiness in G minor, or devastating sadness in the Countess’s C major aria in his opera The Marriage of Figaro. A composer’s expertise in creating the music far outweighs any easy popular association attributed to the mode of a key; those skillful keyboard improvisers in church or cinema can turn emotion on or off like a tap.
While only some visual art is abstraction, challenging ‘interpretation’ – or simply there to fascinate the eye – most classical music is abstract, and has to be if it is to remain free to be interpreted in any way the listener’s personality and mood pleases to adopt. It is a pity if too much direction is given to force the listener into an interpretive corner.