The Meaning of Music

David Cowles

May 31, 2022

We pray the Psalms hoping to conform our minds, our values, our wills to God’s. Remember, God is his essence; we, on the other hand, are each free to create our own essences. Unfortunately, most of us are making a hash of it! Music elucidates the pre-verbal, non-phenomenal structures of the real world. Its meaning is not subject to logical analysis, scientific verification, or mathematical proof. The only test of music’s validity is its beauty.

(This essay is dedicated to Gary Crispell, who taught me everything I know about music.)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Hamlet)


Shakespeare doesn’t give us many details, but we may infer from the context that Horatio was a naïve realist. Were he alive today, his vanity license plate might read ‘WYSIWYG:’ What you see is what you get!

The ‘linearity’ of Horatio’s world view is undoubtedly a product of the vocabulary and syntax of his native language: objects, qualities, and actions, i.e., nouns, adjectives, and active/passive voice verbs.

Combining these elements allows Horatio to say a whole lot. In Horatio’s mind (like A. J. Ayer’s), by ‘using his words’ he can say anything that there is to say.

Anything he can’t say that way isn’t worth saying: it’s either meaningless, trivial, or false. Horatio lives his entire life between the initial capital letter and the final period of every sentence.

Does that make Horatio the first Logical Positivist? The first Ordinary Language Philosopher? Perhaps it does, although Horatio doesn’t claim this title for himself; Hamlet awards it to him!

Hamlet, of course, knows better! He knows that there are ‘more things in heaven and earth’ than Horatio has dreamt of.

Verbal language, while it enables meaning, also functions as a kind of intellectual and emotional straight jacket; it severely limits Horatio’s universe of discourse. (Of course, he doesn’t realize that…but Hamlet does!)

All that has been said, is being said, will be said or could be said in ‘ordinary language’ only scratches the surface of what might be said if we somehow had access to ‘a broader palette.’

Music is just such a palette. It is a window on exactly those things that are not dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy – things that are non-linear by nature, things that cannot be expressed easily, if at all, using nouns, adjectives, and verbs.

Meaning is the relationship between a set of ‘signifiers’ and a set of "signifieds." We say that the signifier means what it signifies.

The signifier and the signified are mutually exclusive; they cannot have any elements in common. Each must utterly transcend the other. Of course, the same item may be a signifier in one context and signified in another, but it cannot properly be both in the same context.

Therefore, nothing can ‘be its own meaning’ (nothing can ‘mean itself’). To suggest otherwise would be to misuse the word ‘meaning.’ ‘To Mean,’ by definition, refers to something beyond the signifier itself. Otherwise, it would not be ‘meaning’ but ‘being.’

Archibald MacLeish famously wrote, “A poem should not mean but be.”

Taking MacLeish at his word, poems, at least his poems, do not refer to anything outside themselves. They are ‘self-referential;’ therefore, they mean nothing, but they are something: they are what they are, period!

But this is not the case with most uses of language. When we speak, we usually want our speech to refer to something in real life (IRL) and, perhaps, influence it.

“Take out the trash” has a clear ‘meaning,’ but its ‘being’ is trivial.


A set of signifiers ‘means’ a set of “signifieds.” Language is a set of signifiers; it is often used to describe patterns that occur IRL. We say that such language is meaningful to the extent that it elucidates real-world patterns in a way that resonates with us as true.

(If a particular sentence appears to refer to something IRL but does not resonate with us as ‘true,’ it has no meaning beyond itself. Without a ‘truth function,’ it cannot refer to anything IRL. Following MacLeish, it ‘is,’ but it does not ‘mean.’)


Le degree zero of meaning is denotation: words strung together in well-formed formulae (WFF), such as sentences, to indicate some specific real-world feature. Sadly, for most of us, this is all we ‘mean’ when we talk about ‘meaning.’

Fortunately, however, such spare communication is the exception rather than the rule IRL, at least outside the realm of science and engineering.

In ordinary speech, the connotation of words and phrases is often at least as important as their denotation, but even that only scratches the surface of how words can mean what we mean them to mean.


In the hands of creative writers, especially poets, the sounds of words and the images they conjure up may be more meaningful than their denotations, or even their connotations.

Combined with gesture in drama or tone in song, words can convey meanings far beyond anything found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Of course, we’re still in the realm of words, but why stop there? Words are not the only ‘signifiers;’ what about the visual image in a painting? What about the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in a piece of polyphonic music?

Metaphor is meaning and mythology is metaphor writ large…but music is metaphor writ even larger. The patterns of sounds in a piece of music are metaphors for various internal states of mind (thoughts, emotions, etc.) and for various patterns that lie beneath the surface of what we call “real life.”

Any pattern that elucidates another pattern and resonates with us as true is a signifier. We are immersed in a sea of signifieds and signifiers. It has even been suggested that this state of immersion is what human life, or at least, human culture, is.

Yet, for most of us most of the time, language is simply a tool we use to get by in the world. We use it to convey how we feel and what we think; we use it to get done what we want done: “Take out the trash!” In our hands, language is just a species of technology.

Yet, many of us are not satisfied with this. Like Hamlet, we feel that there is more to life than ordinary language can uncover. In fact, the ancient Greek word usually translated as ‘truth’ (aletheia) literally means ‘uncovering.’

We sense that the vocabulary and syntax of our language only scrapes the surface of patterns IRL. We sense that there are deeper, more complex patterns at play in the world. For the most part, these deeper patterns lie below the level of sense perception – but not below the level of intuition or feeling.


Those of us who find ourselves in this dilemma look outside the limits of ordinary language to satisfy our hunger. Narrative, poetry, drama, song, all make use of language but strive to transcend language’s inherently linear structure to elucidate the non-linear patterns we experience IRL.

But we also need to look beyond verbal language entirely. I am reminded of the Beatles’ song “Yellow Submarine” and the eponymous movie that followed.

One of the song’s verses is particularly relevant to this article: “And we lived beneath the waves...”

At first encounter, nothing seems especially exciting about this line; but its true significance takes center stage in the movie. The world ‘beneath the waves’ is the noumenal world that underlies the phenomenal world of sense perception.

“Yellow Submarine”, the film, combines visual imagery, song lyrics, and a bit of dialog to make manifest this world beneath the waves, i.e., the deep structure of Being.

This is what the movie is about! The Beatles present the world as a hierarchy of ‘branes’ (or ‘seas’ as they call them) that connect the phenomenal world of Liverpool, England, with a utopian paradise called Pepperland.

Spoiler Alert: Toward the end of the movie, we realize that Pepperland and Liverpool are one and the same place, seen from different perspectives. (Check out Science and the Yellow Submarine, a feature article found elsewhere in this Issue of AT Magazine.)

But back to music!


Polyphonic music is inherently non-linear; it is ideally suited to the exploration and expression of those aspects of reality that, like the Nile in springtime, necessarily overflow their banks, in this case the banks of ordinary language.

Of course, from pop tunes to operas, music often incorporates language and further extends the expressive power of that language. But then there is music that does not intersect with language at all, non-choral, instrumental music, and especially that music we call ‘classical music.’


Like language, music has a kind of vocabulary (e.g., tones) and a sort of syntax (e.g., musical keys). But most, and certainly the best, classical music does not use those tones or keys to represent any object, action, or quality IRL.

In the best non-choral music, there is no denotation at all. So, then, how can there be meaning?


When I say that a sentence has meaning, I mean that it refers to some state-of-affairs IRL and expresses that state-of-affairs using a pattern that elucidates the ‘target pattern’ and resonates with it in a way that strikes me as ‘true.’

This is exactly what music does! Music consists of patterns of sounds (melodies, harmonies, rhythms); a musical composition is an uber-pattern, a pattern of such patterns.

Music reflects on the ‘real world’ (but not necessarily just on the phenomenal world) and makes a model of that world based purely on sound. For the most part, it is not about theory, perception, experience, or narrative. Rather, it is about the deep structure of Being, what lies below what can be perceived by the senses and expressed in ordinary language.

As mentioned above, elements of this ‘deep structure,’ while inaccessible to sense perception, may yet be accessible to intuition, to feeling. This is the wellspring of the composer’s inspiration.


Compare music with mythology. Metaphor is meaning, and mythology is metaphor writ large. All great mythology aims to tell the complete story of Being, it aims to be a Theory of Everything (TOE).

Likewise, every major musical score attempts to tell the story of Being. Like a comprehensive myth, it, too, strives to be a TOE.

Why then so many scores (so many TOEs)?

Not all TOEs are created equal. Some TOEs seem accurate and comprehensive, but most fall far short. Yet, composers and performers never give up their pursuit of this Holy Grail.

A Theory of Everything has been the goal of science from Einstein on; it has been the goal of non-choral music from Bach on.

Plus, every TOE must model the real world from a particular perspective. When we approach Being, we are like the blind monks who touched an elephant. Each of us touches a different part of the elephant (ear, trunk, leg, tail, etc.) and each of us comes away with a different image of what an elephant is – all correct, all consistent with one another…but each is incomplete by itself.

Unlike us, God only needs one TOE (his sophia, his logos) to exhaustively comprehend Being and everything that exists or could exist through it. His sophia (wisdom), his logos (word), does nicely.

We’re not so lucky! We may need an unlimited number of TOEs and still not reach God’s level of comprehension.

Or maybe we are lucky after all! God doesn’t need Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms to comprehend the universe. Fortunately, we do. O happy fault! We need the entire canon of classical music, and then some, to get anywhere near God’s ‘uber, uber-pattern.’

There is always something new to be discovered about an elephant and, likewise, there is always something new to be discovered about Being.

We cannot translate music into philosophy. If we could, the music itself would be a superfluous diversion. Instead, the best music utterly transcends the expressive power of language.

So, what do I mean when I talk about patterns IRL that music may have the power to elucidate? One such pattern might be the nature of identity and diversity; another, the process of change. These are deep structures IRL that ordinary language has struggled to express. Music to the rescue!


When and how does one melodic theme become another, when does one rhythmic pattern morph into another? How far can something (i.e., a pattern) be stretched before it becomes something else?

How do musical patterns relate to one another within a single work? Sequentially as melody, hierarchically as harmony, cyclically as rhythm, all simultaneously. Music is perhaps the medium best suited to the exploration of the deeper dimensions of Being.

Through music, we may get a glimpse, dare I say it, of the mind of God.

Earlier, we said that ‘meaning’ occurs when a set of signifiers elucidates and resonates with a set of signifieds. When does that happen? It happens when, and to the extent that, the signifier is beautiful (resonant) and true (elucidatory) with respect to that which is signified.


Beauty and Truth (along with Justice) are God’s primary values (at least according to most Western theologies); and God’s values, i.e., his essence, constitute what we sometimes call “the mind of God.”

20th century British philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, had just such an understanding. He assigned God’s values to his Primordial (conceptual) Nature rather than to his Consequent (physical) Nature.


Recall that self-proclaimed atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, said insightfully: “God is the being whose essence precedes his existence.” In other words, God is his essence; God is Beauty, Truth, and Justice, even before (logically before, not temporally prior) God is.


We pray the Psalms hoping to conform our minds, our values, our wills to God’s. Remember, God is his essence; we, on the other hand, are each free to create our own essences. Unfortunately, most of us are making a hash of it! Music elucidates the pre-verbal, non-phenomenal structures of the real world. Its meaning is not subject to logical analysis, scientific verification, or mathematical proof. The only test of music’s validity is its beauty. As Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

When we listen to a gorgeous composition, we are not just entertained, we are enlightened. We have a ‘meaning-full’ experience. And when the beauty of a particular performance or a particular score utterly overwhelms us, is it too much to hope that we are experiencing the world as God experiences it, i.e., that we are glimpsing the mind of God?


*Editor's Note: For the role of music in the life of one artist, be sure to read Drumming to Inner Peace in this Issue of AT Magazine.


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.



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