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    Dear Musician - The Meaning of Music

    By Dendy Jarrett |

    Dear Musician - What's the Meaning of Music?

    The answer is...there is no answer


    by Dendy Jarrett



    “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” - Aldous Huxley 


    Music can bring people tears of joy or touch the kind of profound sadness that causes tears of a different kind. Music can start a peace movement or create martial music that accompanies the drums of war.


    Music can express the pain of Trent Reznor trying to make his way through a complex and frightening world or the joy of Johann Sebastian Bach trying to transcend the physical world and touch God. It can manipulate the emotions of the audience watching a movie or heal people in ways that science still doesn’t quite understand.


    So what exactly is the meaning of music? The answer is simple: there isn’t any inherent meaning. None. Music is a shape-shifter, and that shape depends totally on the musician creating the shape.


    The dictionary would have you believe that music does have a definition,  and by their standards, it sounds so simple. Wouldn’t it be easy to dismiss music as something so simple if it yook only one shape?



    This was brought home to me recently by a friend who’d written a very dark song with a theme about gaining independence from a relationship that had come to feel like a prison. But then he decided there were better and deeper ways to shape the music. He changed the theme to reflect how good it would be for the people involved to become independent from each other—how they could pursue their own dreams and their own lives. He didn’t really change the music much; even the lyrics weren’t all that different. But it felt different. Music, the shape-shifter, had flipped its shape.


    The significance here isn’t changing from negative to positive. Sure, positive attitudes are great, but the world isn’t all a bed of roses. Music needs to be able to look harsh truths straight in the eye, as well as celebrate joy. No, the significance here is that music is here to serve you, and, like creating a sculpture, you determine its shape. 


    Because music itself means nothing, you can have it mean anything. You can exorcise your demons like John Lennon, celebrate a higher force like John Coltrane, use music to raise money for philanthropic causes like John Legend, or tell stories like Johnny Cash. Music has power. Music will do your bidding and shift its shape to whatever you want.


    So, in truth, the question isn't "what is the meaning of music?" 


    The real question is this: how will you shape your music?   -HC-







    Dendy Jarrett is the Publisher and Executive Director of Harmony Central. He has been heavily involved at the executive level in many aspects of the drum and percussion industry for over 25 years and has been a professional player since he was 16. His articles and product reviews have been featured in InTune Monthly, Gig Magazine, DRUM! and Modern Drummer Magazines.


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    I realize that HC's writing staff needs to come up with new articles each month, but "What's the meaning of music? ... there is no answer"?

    It is unclear if the author is conflating 'meaning' with 'definition'. The article is titled "Dear Musician - What's the 'Meaning' of Music?" but in the course of examining this question, the author inserts dictionary definitions. Therefore, I address both definition and meaning, below. 

    The Definition of Music.

    One characteristic that distinguishes human beings from (most?) other life forms on this planet and allows us to shape the world is our ability to process symbols. Languages are sets of symbols and meta-symbols. For comprehension, we need straight-forward, simple definitions for all words, including music. If you need to express something more specific, one does as you did above; add more information. 

    'Music' is a name used to describe anything aural that is listened to, with the exception of language. Note that I am not saying languages cannot be musical, as is Chinese or Swedish, or that language cannot be combined with music, as in songs. Your argument hinges on the fact that the gamut of musical expression is extremely broad and can elicit many types of emotion. Keeping the definition of music general is exactly why it works so well. If we had to incorporate every nuance of music into it's definition, it would become unwieldy and would have to be updated every time an new genre emerged. The only other alternative, not defining a word for music is clearly be irrational. We need a word  broad enough to encompass the theory, composition, performance, etc., of sound collectively.

    The Meaning of Music.

    Ironically, the author chose a title with such broad semantics, that the intended meaning of the title is unclear. If we interpret "The Meaning of Music" to be the reason that music even exists, there is none. Music has no meaning outside of our minds. Sounds are just physical vibrations of matter in time. 

    Humans, over time, have developed 'works' for each of the senses. For example, seasoning in cooking, and colored media for art. "The Meaning of Music" for humankind as a whole, has been an activity in which we express ourselves and engage, entertain and elicit emotional responses from others. 

    For an individual, "The Meaning of Music" is undefinable except by the respective individual. Perhaps this is the actual question that you intended? Our brains learn by two main methods, induction and deduction. Induction is where our brain is exposed to 'patterns' (music) and learns to distinguish and develop positive or negative reactions based on prior learned music.  That means that each of us grows with exposure to widely different types of music, as well as the emotional connections to them. However, this meaning of music must not be confused with the definition of the word music! 

    Final Thoughts and Questions.

    * "Music can bring people tears of joy ..."- Wouldn't it would be more accurate to say that 'Musical performances can bring people tears of joy ..."? 

    * "Wouldn't it be easy to dismiss music as something so simple if it took only one shape?"- How does a broad definition of music constrain composition or performance of music in any way? 

    * "He didn't really change the music much; even the lyrics weren't all that different. But it felt different. Music, the shape-shifter, had flipped its shape."- Here you are conflating music and text. Yes, we combine them in songs, but if all that changed is the text, music has not flipped, but rather the interpretation of the language symbols, which can have just as strong an emotional effect. I understand that in this context, you are bundling text and music as a single entity. While I would accept that in many instances, I can't when the subject itself is the meaning and/or definition of music itself.

    * "So, in truth, the question isn't 'what is the meaning of music?'  The real question is this: how will you shape your music?"- This is a philosophical conundrum, no? Everything we do is a constant mix of everything we've experienced up until the present moment interacting with our current environment.

    I personally disagree with the dictionary's qualifications "... beauty of form ..." and "... pleasingly harmonious".  Some aspects of contemporary music are acquired tastes, and I find the definitions as is too restrictive. Music consists of a collection of sounds that we want to listen to, otherwise it's noise, and no, not noise in the scientific sense of random frequencies, since that can also be an integral part of music! 

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    The above definition is behind the times. Music is an artful rendition of ordered sounds and sometimes words which are sung or spoken. Unlike speech however, which would be a prosaic form of  communication, music is an expressive form of aural communication governed by meter and pitched tones at a set standard range of intervals.


    I feel it is necessary to take out the subjective qualifiers of "beauty" and "pleasingly harmonious", although I myself would prefer those to be universal.


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