Music and Meaning

I began my music theory class yesterday, and what I love about it is that my professor is very interested in the meaning behind music. In fact, he recently presented a paper on the topic in Serbia. When thinking about music theory, most people (including myself from time to time) think of it as a boring subject, reducing music to analysis and symbols on a page. In Music Theory I, that’s pretty much what we did. We almost never listened to what we were analyzing, because what was more important was what we saw on the page, not what we heard. But in this new class, Music Theory II, we are moving on from the basics.

An interesting idea I learned yesterday was the concept of the “cadential six-four chord.” A six-four chord is an inverted chord, so where a normal triad would be played, for example, with the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in the scale, when it’s inverted to a six-four (or 2nd inversion) the 5th note is played on the bottom and the 1st and 3rd are played above. The cadential six-four is actually two chords that combine to make a certain sound. Where in Theory I you might analyze a I64 chord moving to a V chord, yesterday we learned that these two combined should be analyzed as the cadential six-four. (If you are interested, you can learn more here.)

That might sound like a bunch of gobbledygook to people who are unfamiliar with music theory, but the point is this: the way music sounds, the way it makes you feel, is important, more important than individual notes and chords. A piece of music invokes a certain emotion, and yes, there are ways to analyze why and how the piece moves and sounds the way it does, but meaning is the most important thing.

Music is an anomaly in the way that you can infer meaning from a song without any lyrics. No one has to explain to you why Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata makes you feel the way it does, you just know. And it’s subjective, too. Moonlight is one of my favorite pieces of music–it makes me feel melancholy and warm inside, but I could understand how someone might find it creepy, especially if they had watched Psycho II and the scene where Norman Bates is playing it while his houseguest looks on in silence. Music triggers a visceral response in us that is personal and subjective.

The best part of music is that two people can listen to the same song and have wildly different interpretations. The composer may have one interpretation, but the performer may have another, and will infuse the performance with that interpretation. Then the audience member may have yet another interpretation, and all three (composer, performer, and audience member) take away their own experience–and meaning–from the music. As Hans Christian Andersen said, “where words fail, music speaks.”

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