Revisiting 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.

The objective is to remind that Music can and does carry meaning, and that despite our feigned protestations to the contrary, the notion that Music is completely arbitary or valueless is absurd and disingenuous.

The initial goal will be to chronicle the fundamental shifts currently taking place with respect to our perception of Music, particularly Sacred Music. The problem is wide, so an equally broad interdisciplinary approach needs to be employed, one that takes into account not only Theology, but also Music Theory, History, cultural criticism, media ecology, and technology.

Once identified, a variety of approaches will be identified that at once acknowledge the validity of the competing arguments while gently suggesting new directions.

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, "absolute" music)

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.)

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 absolute music (the notes themselves) has something to say!

An Overview

What follows is a road map for a much larger and more involved work. The general themes:

  • 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.

Another dimension is demographic; at the risk of raising the tired spectre 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 ("absolute" Music), like all communication, is communicated at several levels simultaneously. I will identify at least three of them here, covering the obvious, surface-level elements as well as the deeper structures:


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 gravitate toward the behavior of educational institutions.

Music teachers have forgotten how to inculcate an appreciation 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 accommodate 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-hegemonic 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 any direction, even the wrong one, is better than none at all.) More on this, later.