Rediscovering Musical Meaning

Initial Proposal

What follows is something of a prospectus ("brief notes" would probably be more approach, although in the end, it's not so brief) of a research/writing project I'm undertaking in the Fall of 2013.

Communication in Pure Music

"Music," in the broadest sense, may refer to two, informal and arbitrarily broad categories:

  • Sung music, where lyrics or text are sung (music with lyrics)
  • Instrumental music, where only notes are heard (pure music, no lyrics)

In Sacred Music, it is imperative that musicians, pastors, and the laity understand the impact of the texts used in sung music. One book I have even suggests that the congregation will remember the lyrics of their hymn texts long after the sermon is forgotten!

The analysis and discussion of musical texts should be a straightforward process, and its value and approach should be beyond debate: print the lyric sheet, read the text, and compare the specific words and concepts to the teachings of the Church. (Believe it or not, there are people who hold this type of exercise in disdain, because they either dismissive of the music, or indifferent to doctrine.)

Today we'll focus on the second category, that of purely instrumental music. This exercise is far more difficult, but the rewards are great--a successful exposition on this topic would actually show that pure music (the notes themselves) has something to say!

An Overview

What follows is a roadmap for a much larger and more involved work. The general themes are thus:

  • That Music has a certain power is assumed, documented in Scripture, history, and even in our present age--it still holds value, whether we value it or not,
  • Exploring how the traditional bulwarks (academe and the Church) against the incursion of mass culture and commercialism have been willingly abandoned by their keepers, and
  • Rediscovering the language of Music, understanding how it fits in culture, but more importantly, how it does not.

One fascinating dimension of this effort it that it joins and parallels Church history; it's interesting (if not horrifying) to observe how traditional, mainline denominations have gradually slid into doctrinal errors; generally these perspectives are introduced to the Church and reinforced through the inexorable (?) mechanisms of mass culture. Postmodernity is a favorite whipping horse in this discussion, but it's interesting that the relativists (the Sitz im Leben crowd) reject or embrace current trends.

Another dimension is demographic; at the risk of invoking some kind of generational conflict (and unfairly blaming a certain segment of society), there can be no doubt that the unique role of America after the World Wars and the baby boomers should be factored into the discussion. If it's true that demographics play a role in the discussion, then now is an opportune time to start the recovery and repair efforts.

My hope is that in a generation or two, we can, through God's grace, rediscover the value of Music in its role as servant to Theology, once again aligning the two.


Meaning in Music (to be clear: we're talking about purely instrumental Music), like all communication, is carried at several levels. I will identify at least three levels here:


Music has its own grammar, developed over centuries. Traditionally, these materials have been described in terms of various natural and physical phenomenon (vibrating strings, overtones, the derivation of scales/modes/chords from the overtone series, and so on). The syntactic level describes the most rudimentary elements (e.g. pitch, consonance, dissonance, timbre) and can generally be observed in the written score of a composition.

At this level we find unique musical devices (or motives) that can be understood as generating (or at least reflecting) the entire "sweep" of the composition (see "semantic," below).


From the tiniest musical elements, larger units are built and understood. Larger structures (phrases, periods, double periods) are hierarchically constructed to yield even larger forms, such as:

  • Binary forms such as "AB,"
  • Ternary forms such as "ABA,"
  • Rondo forms "ABACABA"
  • Sonata-allegro forms

Phrases group themselves into larger units, forming a type of "phrase rhythm," which are heard as larger manifestations of the tinier, microscopic events at the syntactic level.


In modern times we would call this a "Narrative," or "Meta-narrative," discussing how the previous levels work together to express a larger, broader story. Understood as a Gestalt, the semantic level incorporates the tiniest details at the syntactic level and the larger constructions in the formal level, expressing something that encompasses the composition.

This is the layer that really shows us "meaning in Music," and its coherence is dependent upon an unambiguous mastery over the previous two levels. This is the level that differentiates the masterworks from the also-rans. A secular philosopher (like Kant) would say that at this level we experience the sublime; the almost uncanny and eerie glimpse into the mind of genius.

Where We Went Wrong

Where to start? As a former academic, my discussion will naturally graviate toward the behavior of educational institutions.

Music teachers have forgotten how to inculcate an apprecation for the last two layers (I am guilty here as well. Of course, let us pity the music teacher. Arts funding is vanishing, salaries are low, and our entertainment-sports-centered society doesn't leave much room for piano lessons).

At the University, one could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting a Bachelor's of Music and never really understand or explore deeper levels. Syntactic considerations (scales, modes, key signatures, chords, secondary dominants, chromatic harmony, dodecaphonic constructions, and so on) dominate the discussion, but the presence of the other two levels (and more importantly, the relationship between the two levels) is rarely discussed.

The noose is tight around the neck of Classical Music, as once-reputable programs are retooling (partially in response to diminishing funds) to accomodate commercial culture. Out with "Music History," in with "Popular Music in America," "Contemporary Songwriting I, II, and III," and "Audio Recording Techniques."

Worse, graduate programs in Music have abandoned the semantic layer entirely, contextualizing it (hello, Sitz im Leben, old friend) and dismissing it as an artifact of a patriarchal-hegemonious European society. The fruits of the antipathy being sewn today will be reaped for decades to come.

The Cure

In the end, I propose a variety of approaches (One wonders if some approach, even the wrong one, is better than none at all.) More on this, later.