More Notes on Meaning

It's not what you said, but how you said it!

In my previous post, I introduced the classic communication model, but asked you to pay special attention to the third stage--the decoding phase--where the listener creates understanding from the message. Recent scholarship places the prime importance on the third stage, to the exclusion of the importance of the first two.

Such thinking is manifest when someone shrugs and says "it's all subjective," when discussing Music.

In practice, we have come to recognize that verbal communication employs additional components that affect how the listener perceives a message. The tone of the speaker's voice, the expression on her face, eye contact, her posture--and more--are cues that become part and parcel of the message. These cues may work to strengthen a message or weaken it.

'Nonverbals' in Music

One of the shortcomings of how Music is taught and discussed is traditional analysis, which studiously ignores musical "non-verbals." By concentrating on only the score (and specific note structures therein), we ignore some of the components of the musical message.

For instance, we all learned once about the basic components of Music: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Tonality, Texture, and Form. A four-year stint in Music School will concentrate mostly on these elements, often in great detail. Most of the work there centers on the score itself which we'll regard here as being loosely analogous to the written or spoken word.

There are other elements, however, that tend to get ignored in such a study. One reason might be that it can be difficult to express purely musical ideas in the form of spoken or written language. Written scores are at once very exact with respect to specific note choices, but less so concerning "musical nonverbals."

The nonverbals can, however, still offer instances where the listener can "decode" musical information. Here are some examples:


Any pianist who takes an organ lesson will learn very quickly that articulation matters. Professional performers have the ability to articulate ideas in subtle and effective ways.


It may surprise you, but there are known instances of highly skilled jazz drummers who are unable to "pull off" a convincing rock-and-roll, 4/4 pattern.

Why is this? Because the swing style and rock styles are different enough that proficiency in one style doesn't necessarily equate to skill in another. There are times I'd argue that "feel" is one of the most important--and least understood--elements of Music.


The way an instruments sounds is known as 'timbre' and encompasses many details about a musical event. Whether we're aware of them or not, even tiny changes in timbre can provide cues to the listener. Here are some examples:

  • Envelope: Each tone has four components--attack, decay, sustain, and release.
  • Waveform: Each tone may have a different waveform (patterns visible in an oscilliscope such as squares and triangles).
  • Harmonics, Overtones: In addition to a fundamental tone (the note being played) instruments will emit additional, multiple frequences, called overtones, that affect the sonic character (or "color") of the instrument.

We associate musical timbre with certain situations, even if loosely. Certain musical styles demand certain instruments. Nobody wants to hear Celine Dion singing her hits as a guest artist with a grunge/metal backing band (well, maybe they do...)

Spatial Positioning

Our ears tell us a lot about the world, helping us get through the day. When we're playing hide-and-seek, the ability to hear our snickering children behind that tree over there can be useful. We can judge the distance and spatial placement (left-right, ahead-behind) of musical sound sources very well, and that can be part of a message.

Large, resonant churches create a special type of reverberant sense of "space," while a quiet carpeted room creates another.

Recorded, Amplified, Equalized Music

Though completely unknown a century or so, the act of electronically storing and reproducing music has become an art form in and of itself. Advances in electronic circuitry (and later, digital technologies) have spawned an entire industry of musicians, manufacturers and schools concentrating on the electronic modification of musical ideas.

Few of us have heard a live symphonic performance of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," but most of us would recognize it (or the more famous parts of it) immediately.

What percentage of our musical intake comes via speakers or headphones? How does this affect what we expect from Music in general?

The Multivalent Nature of Music

Multivalence (a term I borrow from the sciences) means there are many different ways to 'conenct with' Music. Just like an atom or antibody can connect to other physical structures in different ways, we can connect with Music in different ways. The written score offers a clear, obvious, and important point of connection, but other choices in the presentation of a musical idea can come into play as well.

As we proceed, it will be important to remember that the receiver (the listener) of a musical message may be constructing meaning (or interpreting) using more elements than simply the notes in the score.