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Friday, March 23, 2018

A theory of musical meaning

I think I have to articulate what my theory of musical meaning is. In the first place, some meanings are tautological. Slow means slow. Loud means loud, soft means soft. Regular beat means dance; singable melody means cantabile. Upward lines can sound uplifting. Melodies that stick to a few notes close together will sound constricted. Simple ones are coded as childlike.

A lot of the basic emotions in music has to do with these kinds of tautological meanings as well.

Structurally, tension and release is basic. That is also tautological, but we can overlay other meanings on top of that tension-release dynamic. 

Musical meaning has a lot to do with setting up expectations and then either fulfilling them or frustrating them.  

Musical meaning is indefinite, as many have pointed out. It seems to be saying something, but we don't know what, exactly. So the meaning can be defined in verbal terms in order to guide listeners to the right meanings. 

Styles of music can stand in metonymically from the place for which they come. So I can evoke Mexico but writing a pseudo-mariachi melody. There are musical clich├ęs associated with particular things, like a trumpet fanfare to announce the entrance of someone important. 

Music can directly imitate other sounds in the human or natural world. Most musical meaning, though, is not mimetic in this case. You have to know the "program" in order to hear program music correctly.   

An example, I keep listening to Ellington / Strayhorn "Such Sweet Thunder." I cannot make any connections between the music and the Shakespearian characters that each part of the suite is supposed to represent. I know the music pretty well but I don't know the titles if I don't look, and I don't relate to it as Shakespearian in the least.

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