Notes Toward A Discussion

One of the purposes of this blog is to dicuss how music can carry meaning. Applied to Church Music, this discussion should be useful to inform discussions involving questions like "what is our worship music saying? what should it be saying?"

This particular cookie crumbles in several places, so I'm going to break the discussion into parts:

  • Textual Meaning
  • Musical Meaning

The second part (Musical Meaning) is the more challenging topic, and will form the basis for the bulk of our discussion henceforth.

Textual Meaning

I consider textual analysis to fairly straightforward, in that our ideas in that field are well-defined through centuries of scholarship and of course, Holy Writ. The text may be read aloud (without music) and judged based on its merits.

The Theologically trained among us should be well equipped to discuss the various meanings present in specific song texts. If a pastor evaluates a hymn and finds heretical statements in it, it is right for him to reject its use. His basis for doing so? Scripture itself, but also the innumerable books in libraries around the world detailing various doctrines.

(The biggest threat here might be doctrinal apathy rather than heresy, see

A less straightforward discussion involves an investigation of what sort of communication may be taking place at the musical level. Does an instrumental piece ("absolute music") communicate? If so, what, exactly?

Musical Meaning

Here we are on far slipperier ground. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any admonitions of specific musical styles. Music seems to make no assertion about anything specific, all interpretations are subjective. Everything is a matter of personal taste.

Difficult questions emerge, like:

  • "If I have a doctrinally sound text, can I match it with any type of music I prefer?"
  • "Even Bach was a 'contemporary worship leader' at one point! What's wrong with me playing this?"
  • "What about instrumental music? Clearly there's nothing 'Christian' or 'Non-Christian' here, it's all notes!"
  • "What about music of different cultures?"

Addressing these interesting topics requires a bit of background.

Communication Model

Let's consider music-as-communication. As we've all learned, communication requires three stages:

  • encoding the message by the sender
  • sending or transmitting the message
  • receiving and decoding the message

(from, used under the provisions of the GPL FDL)

In the example above, the sender thinks of a tree, and 'encodes' it as the word, "Tree." It is sent and received (spoken and heard), and the receiver decodes the message.

Recent (in the past century or so) scholarship emphasizes the flexible nature of the the last segment of the process, the receiver--specifically the act of decoding the message. For example, I can say "Tree" to anyone I want, but each receiver will conjure up a unique meaning based on their own context and experience.

Here are a few examples:

  • Someone in a tropical climate might think of a palm tree,
  • Someone from the far North might imagine a pine tree,
  • A person without sight might think of a certain texture or smell,
  • A computer scientist might think of a data structure,
  • Someone in a desert clime might picture a scruby bush...and so on.

This imprecision results in a 'slippage' that has led many to reject the ability of language to convey any specific meaning at all!

Communication in Music

If the word 'Tree' is ambiguous, things seem even more cloudy in Musical communication. If I play a d-minor triad (the message) for a large audience, and then ask each person to write down what they heard, I'm sure I'll get as many different answers as people, contingent on their abilities, interest in music, and education, such as:

  • A sad sound,
  • The last chord in Miles Davis' "So What,"
  • Three notes sounded on an 8' Hautbois registration...etc.

Observe that each response corresponds to a slightly different "reading" on the message:

  1. "A sad sound." => an emotive quality of Music
  2. "The last chord..." => the listener's ability to cross-index musical compositions (referential or intertextual quality)
  3. "Three notes..." => The listener's ability to discern specific structures (ontological quality)

Of these, the first is entirely subjective (e.g. someone else might hear a d-minor chord as being 'happy'). The second may be proven through analysis ("look at the score, compare the notes") or understood aurally by the listener. The third may be shown to exist in the message itself regardless of its listener's ability or willingness to "understand" it (we discuss this some, here:

Some listeners may not "decode" this musical message at all! "Oh, that's the organist playing again." Some may create vivid mental images that would surprise the composer ("That violin sounds like a bunny rabbit running away from the bears, who are tubas.")

We should acknowledge, then, that there are multiple ways to decode or "unpack" a musical message. These ways do not necessarily contradict one another, but nonetheless represent discrete modes of understanding.

Conclusion, Next Steps

In this introductory post, I've pointed out how Music can carry meaning in a lyrical/textual way, and in a purely musical ("the notes") way. The lyrical/textual dimension of music (when it appears) is a well-understood way of addressing "meaning in music," as church bodies have extensive doctrinal writings against which to judge lyrical content. The more difficult road involves exploring what the music itself is saying, even if it carries no text.

We recognized that modern communication theory tends to put the emphasis on how the receiver decodes the message, and admits that language (and especially Music) can be imprecise. We did note three specific ways in which a listener can decode a message.

In my next post, I'll talk some more about what this "decoding" and explore some theories on how musical communication occurs.