By Rod Dav4is
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Does Music Have Intrinsic Meaning?

Just as visual art can be classified as representational (figurative, realistic, mimetic) or non-representational (abstractionist, nonfigurative), so is music usually similarly classified as (program) or (absolute, abstract).

I will begin with a brief discussion of the analogous forms in the field of visual art (meaning: sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, etc.), then move to the main topic of music.


Art is fundamentally metaphorical in the sense that this canvas with smears of colored pigments has additional meaning beyond its physical aspect. It represents something else. It is the connection between the work and what it represents that is my chief interest here.

Representational art has intrinsic meaning. That is, the connection between the work and its source -- its meaning -- is so easily apprehended as to seem "obvious" and not easily recognized for the metaphor that it is. Look at a Frederick Church painting. You will immediately recognize various objects: rivers, mountains, trees, icebergs, clouds, sky. Those paintings are, or intend to be, more or less realistic representations of recognizable objects.

Representational art seems to be the earlier form, as far as we can tell. The Lascaux caves are decorated with quite astonishing ancient images of large animals, some now extinct. (But who is to say that those squiggles in the corner are not the work of a Paleolithic Jackson Pollack?)

Non-representational art, on the other hand, claims to depict either that which has no physical form -- an emotion, perhaps -- or depicts physical objects in metaphorical ways. I say claims because without clues from the artist -- the title of the work, perhaps -- the meaning of the work is necessarily obscure.

Abstract art is not a new development. The origin of the totally abstract traditional Navajo sandpainting (iikaah) is lost in prehistory, for example.

The art landscape is not sharply delineated. There is a gradient on the representionality dimension, and a particular work can fall anywhere on this line. Van Gogh's The Starry Night contains elements of both representational and abstract art, while Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase is barely recognizable as such and lies much farther to the abstract end of the scale.

Also, a work of art may have additional allegorical meaning beyond its obvious representational components. Edward Hicks's many renditions of the Peaceable Kingdom are easily recognized as being something more than an unusual collection of animals and a little child. We may not know that these paintings represent a particular verse from The Bible, but we are pretty sure that they mean something!


Now we come to the main question: Does music have intrinsic meaning?

I contend that, mostly, it does not. Only to the extent that music is imitative of real sounds of nature is music representational, with intrinsic meaning. Otherwise it is abstract, as Jackson Pollack's Galaxy is abstract, and conveys no meaning of itself.

This is not to say that music cannot have beauty -- or its antonym, ugliness. Such impressions are entirely subjective, however. One person may find a particular passage exquisitely beautiful, while another does not. Some folks claim an appreciation for atonal music, for example, but I do not. I find such works physically painful, and wonder how anyone could compose such rubbish on purpose! I think of a chocolatier mixing mud into his creations for people to experience the grit.

Without clues from the composer, such as the title, or from Music Appreciation classes and such, I maintain that Debussey's La Mer, for example, would convey no image of the sea. Its meaning is entirely subjective and learned -- scholarly opinion notwithstanding. It is described as It is a masterpiece of suggestion and subtlety in its rich depiction of the ocean, which combines unusual orchestration with daring impressionistic harmonies. Not to detract from the beauty of the piece, but this is pure hokum.

It is only by education that we come to associate particular keys, rhythms or instruments with certain moods, feelings or other abstractions. This is why we often find music of another culture entirely opaque and meaningless -- i.e. without intrinsic meaning.

There are numerous examples to support my case. Take Smetana's tone poem collection, Má vlast, especially the second movement, Vltava, better known by its German name, The Moldau, certainly one of the most beautiful pieces in the literature. In his own words, Smetana describes the movement:

The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the cold and warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer's wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night's moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St. John's Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then magestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Elbe.
I'm sure that this image is not presented in any listener's mind without having read the composer's words.

Is all music abstract, then?

In a word: No.

Some music is representational to an extent, if it is successful in evoking a particular image on its own. Here are some examples:

  1. Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee, an orchestral interlude from his opera, Tsar Saltan.
    Rimsky-Korsakov does a pretty good job in this short piece (100 seconds, give or take) of presenting an image of a busy bee fossicking around some blossoms.
  2. Grofé: Grand Canyon Suite, final movement, "Cloudburst".
    This whole work, of five movements, is loaded with images, some more successful than others. But none is as successful as the storm of the last movement. Anyone who has experienced an intense thunderstorm will be taken back there by this music.
  3. Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre
    It's hard to say how much of the success of this piece in evoking an image of bizarre revelry is due solely to the music and how much is due to Disney! Certainly the image of dancing obtains, and there is a measure of weirdness in the unconventional tuning of the violin.
  4. Mussorgsky: St John's Night on the Bare Mountain (commonly known in English as "A Night on Bald Mountain")
    The piece presents an excellent image of a violent storm, but cannot go so far as to evoke a mountain, bare or otherwise, and, of course, St John is nowhere to be found. But the tempest -- in arrival, maelstrom, and the calm after -- are very well done.
  5. Marais: Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris (in English "The Bells of St. Genevieve")
    Here is an astonishing evocationation of church bells tolling -- played entirely on a stringed instrument, the viol (a/k/a viola da gamba).

See this related article on tone poems.

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