© 1998 - 2001 RICHARD STAINES

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Probing the many-sided nature of meaning in music necessitates adopting a multi-disciplinary approach, one that recognises psychological and sociological perspectives. It cannot be a matter for philosophical or aesthetic inquiry alone. Furthermore, aesthetics has long been swayed by the Kantian notion of disinterestedness with its suggestion of observer/listener neutrality, detachment and objectivity, the effect of which has been to transfer the focus of the aesthetic experience to the perceiver and away from the work of art.

Since musical meaning is something that is neither unitary nor straightforward in identifying, its multiple understandings and relationship to meaning in language should be viewed through many different lenses, even though the precise question of what constitutes it is unlikely to elicit a precise answer, there being no guarantee that the interpretation of two individuals over what a piece of music ‘means’ will either coincide or result in one being more ‘true’ than the other.

Despite these uncertainties, the quest for meaning remains an ever-present preoccupation of music education, and as this article concludes, far from being inaccessible or concealed in some way, music’s diversified meanings are approachable and should be made available to pupils through their contact with musical objects.

In revisiting some of the established theories advanced over meaning in music, this article also juxtaposes aesthetic viewpoints with insights drawn from both sociology and psychology in the belief that as the disciplinary boundaries of these discursive systems develop greater permeability, an increased theoretical ‘borrowing’ from all of them marks the only way forward in carrying out the search for understanding meaning in music.

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Debates over the nuts and bolts of musical meaning have had a long history in the making. The classical era reveals Platonic and Aristotelian references to music’s pervasive bewitchments and to its other emotional qualities, not the least being when on those occasions its effects were considered to be malign, perhaps thought to be too beguiling or overstimulating to the impressionable. This long, persistent narrative was less about the existence, or otherwise, of musical meaning and rather more the expression of an often uncoordinated and fitful struggle to identify the physiognomy of that meaning and with how music could come to be a bearer of it. Resurfacing in the nineteenth century, the debate highlighted the ardent polemicist Eduard Hanslick who, in 1854, voiced his vehement objection to what he regarded as the debasing but widespread association of music with subjective states of consciousness. Hanslick’s position was to mark a milestone in the metanarrative on meaning; believing that both the meaning and beauty were inherent formal properties of music rather than something to be gleaned from any unanalysable state of subjective feeling that music might engender, his absolutist standpoint was one that resonated with the prevailing rationalist Cartesian suspicion of the ‘fluctuating assurance of the senses’.

Continuing after Hanslick’s thesis, the discussion reached two further milestones a century later with Stravinsky’s terse repudiation of music’s ability to express emotion at all and with Deryck Cooke’s countervailing perspective of 1959, until fairly recently held to be the polar opposite of Hanslick’s views. Cooke’s argument was a peculiarly British and empiricist version of the notion that music was a language assigning ‘terms of musical vocabulary’ to specific emotions; musical notes were ‘sounds which have clear but not rationally intelligible associations with the basic emotions of mankind’. (1959, p.26) One can find Cooke’s articulation of this so-called referentialist perspective juxtaposed with the Hanslickean stance in Bennett Reimer’s A Philosophy of Music Education (1970) where they are held up as antithetical aesthetic positions. Echoes of these two prototypical standpoints exist even today and stubbornly refuse to die away, or at least to yield, within popular opinion, to a more synthesised accommodation of them. I will describe these two positions more fully later on.

Today the question of musical meaning persistently occupies attention from musicologists and other theorists, though the form and substance of that debate has altered into being more of a preoccupation with whether or not music’s cognitive representations or descriptions of it can be held to possess a language-like semantics, i.e. with a grammar of some kind (e.g. Lerdahl and Jackendoff, 1982; 1983), of with whether Peirce’s semiotic theory with its triadic conception of the sign can be fruitfully applied to music, perhaps within the analysis of compositional processes (e.g. Agawu, 1991; Monelle, 1992; Tarasti, 1994). Indeed, any close review of the literature on musical analysis will uncover a range of recurring themes, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, that ultimately hinge on the nature and meaning of music itself.

Perennial difficulties exist over the conceptualisation of music as the working out of natural elements such as the harmonic series or small whole-number ratios or, alternatively, as the construction and expression of something artificial - as implied by the word ‘art’ - which is essentially unique to the specific work under scrutiny and therefore to the culture within which it is embedded. The notorious obscurity of the term ‘meaning’ and its equally slippery synonyms like ‘sense’ and ‘significance’ have provoked almost every active philosophical thinker to search for some resolution of the concept into sharper outlines. Philosophical distinctions could be drawn between meaning de facto (the type that holds that most statements about meaning are, or should be, statements about habits, states, occurrences and their introspectible relations to one another) and meaning de jure (the type that holds that most statements about meaning are, or should be, construed as statements about rules of certain kinds and the extent to which those rules have been obeyed or disregarded). When applied to music, issues appear that relate to the relationship of music to language, to the nature of communication, perception and understanding, and, no less, to the nature of truth itself. I stated ‘truth’ rather than ‘musical truth’ at this stage deliberately for, however wayward it might be in being pinned down, ‘meaning’ is a concept that carries with it crucial questions over intentionality (aesthetic or otherwise), conveying messages, and the possibility of a common semantics. Polemical issues appear over music’s very essence. Does music possess a content? Or is it merely mimetic or self-referential? Two conceptually differentiated areas particularly remain over:

  1. how, and in what way meaning can be said to ‘be present’ in music, and
  2. how, and in what way, the human mind comes to perceive musical meaning in the first place.

The first question is aesthetically orientated, the second rather more psychological in character. However, neither are in any way irrevocably anchored to these domains, nor should they be.

More specifically, since music can be interpreted in so many ways (Repp, 1992), listeners and performers can attend to different meanings when hearing or playing a piece of music. Moreover, although listeners may pay attention to only one or a few things at a time, their understanding of what is being attended to is partly determined by aspects of cognition that are largely unconscious. What relationships do these varying and diverse approaches to understanding music have to individual response to it?

A basic distinction can be drawn between musical qualities that are recognisable to people (‘meaning to’) and those that engage people further by galvanising some vital, affective reaction when listening to music, perhaps on those occasions when it is perceived as communicating a perspective on life as it is experienced (Swanwick, 1979). The second area seems to be less predictable than the first, but the task of the music educator involves a commitment to both. It is with the issues arising from this second area that this article primarily deals.

In the light of these questions, musical analysis assumes a problematical guise, the whole purpose of the enterprise becoming unclear as to whether its principal justification lies in being a set of pedagogical devices intended to initiate students into systematic and disciplined thought processes or more of a mode of enquiry presenting and evaluating the unique qualities and values disclosed in works of art. If we recognise no conflict between these areas there is no problem, but the question of meaning, and what constitutes it, remains. Is it somehow intrinsic to the music, found only within the notes, or is it extrinsic, something discoverable only from areas existing beyond the music? Moreover, how a particular culture arrives at a consensualised understanding of what constitutes musical meaning could account not only for why some music comes to be held more meaningful than other kinds, but also why some aspects of meaning are foregrounded more than others. Some meanings might be overtly culturally dependent, others less so; whilst the surface materials and sound of music from some non-European styles may require, as Swanwick puts it, ‘a slight retuning of the ears’ (1988), it is often the structural qualities and expressive characteristics of unfamiliar idioms that seem to cause people the greatest difficulty.

Historically, some theories have located meaning ‘within’ the sounds that music makes (inherent meaning), whilst others have viewed it something that the listener intuitively generates, more perhaps to do with human cognitive processes or the structure of the brain. This difficult word, then, changes its own terms of reference when inspected from different angles. Thus, within aesthetic enquiry, the question ‘what does music mean?’ would be handled in a manner congruent with the aesthetician’s preoccupation with a particular set of understandings over works of art: concepts such as aesthetic embodiment, experience, aesthetic judgement, emotion and apprehension are part of the battalion of available approaches. Such enquiry might dwell on exploring music’s language-like properties and with distinguishing between meanings inherent to music and those extrinsic to it. Leonard Meyer, (1956/1970), in drawing on Mead’s work, held that meaning could be both inherent and designative, but more significantly arose out of the triadic relationship between the art work, the listener and the various kinds of inherent and designative qualities present in the art object. Indeed, the very act of making sense of something is inherently a constructive exercise; without this act there can be no meaning, conscious or unconscious.

By contrast, sociologically focussed work would look more closely at these constructive operations and emphasise how meaning can become socially formed and with investigating not so much the ‘authentic’ meaning of any piece of music but rather more with attempting to understand what people have come to believe it to mean. This fixity with the kinds of beliefs people may hold about the world has traditionally been an organising principle within the social sciences and has, as Max Weber pointed out (1978), it distinguished ‘the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history, from the dogmatic disciplines in that area such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics and aesthetics, which seek to ascertain the ‘true’ and ‘valid’ meanings associated with the objects of their investigation’. (p.4)

To carry out the task of minutely examining this long and convoluted history of enquiry then, is beyond the scope of this essay. As Reimer remarked (1970), to anyone who scrutinises the myriad of viewpoints that have ever been expressed over meaning there soon dawns the realisation that here, if nowhere else, are perfect examples of the truth being relative. However, all quests into meaning should be imbued not only with an acquaintance of music education but with an informed perception into its problems, history and present status (Reimer, 1970, p.13). Any perspective taken to shed light on the difficulties needs to be wide-ranging and flexible enough to offer consistent guidelines to the many working agendas of music education.

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Notes and Symbols

Human beings only ‘know’ the world through having concepts that are expressed in the language of symbols. Whilst an independent world impinges on us, its characterisation is apprehended in terms of symbolic concepts, most notably, that of language. Accordingly, the emergence of symbolic thought in early childhood has come to be viewed as one of the most key moments in child development (e.g. Gardner, 1973; Schmidt, 1973). The words that the child learns and the linguistic structures that become progressively available to her are those of a specific language which is itself the instrument of the particular culture within which it is embedded (Tough, 1977). Indeed, even while she is learning to operate the system, language itself begins to forge meaning for her as it becomes increasingly operational as a device facilitating the growing subject’s escalating socialisation into both the family and into a wider society enshrining a set of concrete values and expectations. It holds then that the experience which children have of adults using language with them must ipso facto play an appreciable part in influencing the kinds of interpretation that children will make of their everyday situations.

But language is only one of a number of other symbol systems. The arts, too, each in their own way, through aesthetic symbolism, can enable powerful transformations to occur of lived, perceived experience, even though, as Louis Arnaud Reid reminds us (1969), there cannot be any simple or straightforward relationship between the aesthetic in art and the feelings of life. This much can possibly be conceded. Fear and terror may both be experienced at one time or another by human beings, and although these words can, and often are, applied to music, it manifestly is not those kinds of fear and terror that belong to music.

Whilst there have been many developmental investigations of symbol systems focussing on the way language works, far fewer comparable studies exist that have considered the arts in general and music in particular. The diversified symbol systems characterising the arts appear to be less amenable to systematic enquiry than those pertaining to the denotative features of a language system. Because of its almost total lack of explicit verbal or representational content, music seems to be even less amenable to such enquiry than alternative modes. It is arguable that differences in the ongoing debate, referred to at the beginning, over what constitutes musical meaning have contributed in part, if not entirely, to the imbalance in the literature1.

Remarkable consistencies, however, are displayed in people’s immediate responses to music; whether or not they have received musical training and education, it is clearly evident that they do derive meanings from it since the plain fact of music’s cultural universality is both incontrovertible and pronounced, its meanings appearing to be inextricably interweaved with the fabric of human emotion itself. This fusing together of many layers of experience is, as Swanwick has written (1979, p.28), an integral part of the capability of music to ‘move’ us. And it is not only amongst adults that empirical research has testified to the presence of noticeable agreement over the meaning of musical compositions (e.g. Hevner, 1936); children too, maybe as young as six years, (Trainor and Trehub, 1992) can reliably judge whether, for example, two musical excerpts were drawn from the same piece or were from different musical items (Gardner, 1973). Of whatever age, then, people are able to assign emotional, concrete or attributional meanings to music through the use of metaphoric or imitative mechanisms (Trehub et al, 1986; Gardner, 1974). For it appears to be the case that music presents the listener with a distinct type of knowing, that it functions as an expressive symbol manipulating the direct expression of ‘knowledge of’ the feelingful.

Indeed, as Reid had pointed out (1969), although aesthetic categories are marked with a degree of provisionality and openness and are always inconclusive because art is ever changing, this indeterminacy in no way diminishes the versatility that humans can show in articulating and indicating to others the unique properties of a work of art; rather the reverse in fact.

The two distinctive views that had long been held over the subject matter and meaning of music - formalism and referentialism - had provided the framework for debate. Put simply, the absolutist position of formalism is that music refers to nothing external to itself; meaning, which is intramusical, arises solely from the tensions produced by the activation of melodic, rhythmic and probably timbral expectations as well as by the ensuing relaxation evoked or established by how these anticipatory impulses acquire resolution. Whilst Hanslick did not deny that music produces various emotional reactions, he held that these were secondary and derivative in being the products of the physical effects of organised sounds on the human nervous system. Thus, meaning lay exclusively within the work’s immediate context; both its meaning and its beauty were qualities inherent within the formal properties of the music itself, but which, in contrast to the array of subjective impressions which might be engendered, could lend themselves, upon reception, to objective identification and analysis. The sounds themselves, and how they were structured, provided the site of indwelling sense; meaning was constitutional within the notes, and if a listener was to ‘participate’ in that meaning then the task involved attending to the sounds made by those notes and to how they were related to each other rather than to anything evoked in the listener’s mind in any extra-aesthetic dimension. Meaning, therefore, was sui generis: ‘ definite feelings and emotions are unsusceptible of being embodied in music’ (Hanslick, 1885/1957).

By contrast, referentialism holds that music can refer to non-musical events or concepts, the meaning lying outside the work, in addition or even independent of the abstract, intellectual qualities that are underlined by the position of absolute formalism. Whilst advocates of the latter position would disclaim any need to account for how sounds become meaningful - because sounds ‘mean themselves’ - the referentialist believes that since sounds typically produce ‘meaning’ in ways that are comparable to other symbol ‘systems’ capacity for doing this, the task of elucidating how music acquires and transmits its meanings becomes unproblematical. To the degree that the music is effective in directing the listener to non-musical experiences it becomes an effective piece of music. In order to elicit these meanings the listener is obliged to attend to the concepts, feelings, inclinations, associations, images, principles, events or attitudes existing externally to the music that are suggested or stated explicitly by it and to which the listener is thereby referred. As Reimer states about referentialism (1970, p.15): ‘the sounds should serve as a reminder of, or a clue to, or a sign of something extramusical, something separate from the sounds and from what the sounds are doing’.

In the past, the quest for emotional or referential meanings in music were carried out in a general way as individuals tried to excavate the probable ‘meaning’ of a piece. Lawrence Ferrara (1991), in adopting the viewpoint that people clearly do manifest some consistent responses to music, gives much greater refinement to the search for musical meaning in his book Philosophy and the Analysis of Music: Bridges to Musical Sound, Form and Reference.

He takes the somewhat controversial position that it is quite acceptable to discuss the emotional and referential qualities of a musical work in analysis and supports his stance with a comprehensive review of philosophical literature drawn from the particularities of phenomenology and hermeneutics in the writings of Husserl and Heidegger. The meanings of every, or any moment in the piece are sought and plotted against traditional analyses (form, time line, chord symbols and layers), a tactic which makes possible tracking down the meaning of one bar or even one note or chord, and to plot it against the other analyses for correlations. Any music teacher could feasibly apply Ferrara’s methods directly to classroom use and maximise it on many different levels.

Ferrara’s standpoint could be seen as sanctioning the existence of referential meanings in music, for long held by some within the music teaching profession to be somewhat suspect. Assertions made about referential meaning can be traced back to ancient Greece when the presumed connection between specific emotional or moral states and musical modes resulted in the Platonic restriction of the use of the Lydian mode believed then to induce excessive laxity or jollity. Nearer our own time the composers of the Romantic movement in the nineteenth century were to wield extramusical associations to a heightened degree: even the proliferation of programme notes accompanying the music was supposed to facilitate the task of listening (e.g. Berlioz Harold in Italy, and Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie). Indeed, nineteenth century writing on music tended to abuse subjectivity, and as every teacher who grades student papers knows, students frequently display a pronounced predilection for indulging in subjective responses to music. Writing about emotion and meaning is, in fact, often a perilous undertaking on nearly all levels and is still usually reserved for the programme note or the description in the booklet accompanying the recording. But whilst it is misguided to think of music, or any other art form, as merely an exploration of emotion (Reid, 1969, p.43), it is evident that emotions are present whether they are positioned ‘within’ the music or elicited ‘by’ it. To be sure, when confronted with the task of trying to understand emotional states and how they operate, musicologists, philosophers and the like have not only experienced methodological difficulties and disagreements about choosing the best way forward but have also registered reservations of an essentially epistemological or ontological nature. These qualms have been attributed by Wallin (1991) to an apparently ingrained and peculiarly Western positivistic disinclination to treat emotional areas as a legitimate facet of human psychobiological inheritance and thus as objects worthy of sustained, determined research.

Gustav Mahler incidentally discovered the tendency for suggestive performance instructions to be easily misunderstood early on in his career, but the fact that for personal reasons he had desired neither his listeners nor the performers to see his programmes does not detract from the fact that he apparently had a strong need to refer to extramusical associations in the first place in order to compose at all.

A cursory glance at the two aesthetic positions described above might lead one to conclude that they are fundamentally opposed to each other. This is not the case; they are mutually inclusive and their differences have tended to be the consequence of philosophical monism2 rather than as a product of any logical opposition between types of meaning. Reimer, who had greatly exaggerated this difference, advanced an intermediate position, one which he maintained represented a distinctive, coherent perspective that was more than merely being an amalgam of the other two. His formulation of absolute expressionism (1970, p.24) has received widespread approval; just as this perspective cannot accept extramusical meanings as being necessarily central to music, neither can it accept the pure intellectuality of absolute formalism. An element of truth exists in both the positions summarised above, as Reimer concedes, but the emphasis should be placed on the expressive ‘feelingfulness’ of the music: ‘one can share the insights of art work not by going outside of art to non-artistic references, but by going deeper into the aesthetic qualities the art work contains’. (1970, p.25) Even finer distinctions can be drawn: although all referentialists are expressionists, holding that emotional meanings can be conveyed by music, not all expressionists are referentialists. While absolute expressionists would take the view that expressive emotional meanings arise in response to music which exist without reference to any conceptually organised extramusical world, by contrast, referential expressionists believe that emotional expression is dependent on some understanding of the referential context of the music.

This aesthetic via media, if such it is, could be said to be congruent with the position occupied by the anti-referentialists Susanne Langer and Louis Arnaud Reid and is the stance consistently countenanced by Reimer (1970). Whilst both Langer (1957; 1960) and Reid (1969) recognised some validity within absolute formalism, they also appreciated that such a viewpoint circumvented the principal question as to how music could bear meaning at all unless some kind of sensory, emotional content was conveyed by its art works. Langer’s claim was that specific emotions do not have to be either present in, or reflected by, the music for it to behave in the way she believed it behaved, namely to ‘reflect the morphology of feeling’ (1960, p.238), an interpretation that was strengthened in her writing by the supposition that a homomorphic relationship existed between the structures of music and the fabric of human existence itself, and was a position which coincided with the Wagnerian dictum that music ‘can express what is unspeakable in language’ (1969, p.235).

For Langer, then, constructing her interpretation within a naturalistic framework, music symbolised feelings since it offered a means for making contact with life; for Reid it was a symbolisation or aesthetic embodiment of life itself.

In raising these axiological questions, both writers recognised the presence of a primary human need to activate consciousness of value, an awareness of a ‘beyond’ that nevertheless was capable of being understood, however partially, through symbol systems such as language (discursive), or art and music (aesthetic). Accordingly, if music was to have any meaning or value at all, then such meaning was not to be merely emblematic - that of a stimulus/signal or icon intended to evoke a corresponding emotional response - least of all was it to impart some cultural gloss to human life, but rather by virtue of its ‘presentational symbolism’3 could help us acquire insight into the sentiency of that human existence through an active involvement in music and an engagement with its aesthetic properties.

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Aesthetic Interestedness

It is not my purpose here to offer a critique of the aesthetic theories of Langer since this has already been done by Martin (1995) and by Shepherd et al (1977). Nor do I wish to dismiss the value of approaching the question of meaning in music through philosophical and aesthetic routes as if such an undertaking could credibly be done without considering either psychological factors or the socio-political sphere. I am arguing for an increased permeability of disciplinary boundaries with productive theoretical ‘borrowing’ from neighbouring academic domains. That appears to be the best way to proceed.

David Elliott (1989) has rightly pointed out that the ‘aesthetic’ or ‘fine art’ conception of music, with its familiar Kantian philosophical supposal of disinterestedness has been a powerful regulatory discourse in music and music education since the eighteenth century. It was one that was largely refined by Wilhelm Robert Worringer and others at the turn of the twentieth century and later institutionalised as an all-prevailing outlook on art. It is therefore easy to fall victim to a restricting view of what can constitute aesthetically-based judgements and to overlook the place that interestedness can have in these realms. Aesthetics is not only something one studies, it is an activity carried out by people in diverse settings in their encounters with the products of art. There is every reason for adopting a more activist notion of aesthetics, one that embraces the notion of interestedness by expanding beyond the traditional stress on universality and neutrality. In stark contrast to Kant’s position emphasising abstraction and detachment from the art work (e.g. Worringer’s Einfühlung of 1911), such a viewpoint would encourage interest in, as well as identification with, and a nurturing of awareness of the specificities of art works with their often conflicting 'messages’. Areas of social class, ethnicity, sexuality and gender would become progressively highlighted, thereby according more congruously with post-modernist notions of the self as possessing a multiplicity of identities. (Usher and Edwards, 1994; Bernstein, 1996; Barnett, 2000)

In any case, it is unlikely that a wholly disinterested stance to music and its art works can ever truly exist, let alone be sustained. There can be no such thing as a ‘pure’ musical experience, as if such an encounter was transacted in splendid isolation unhindered by the mediating imprints of wider sociohistorical contexts and people’s places within them. For not only does music probe its own structure (inherent meaning), it is itself the probed, permeated through and through by the cultural, political, ideological and material specificities of societal factors (delineated meaning). Thus, musical encounters, of whatever kind, are socially situated (Green, 1988); to believe otherwise is to be both blind and deaf to the actuality of this ongoing tension.

Works of art yield multiple, often contradictory kinds of responses. They can be highly unstable, and the very attempt to promote an attitude of aesthetic disinterestedness participates in a misplaced endeavour to posit a particular type of spectator/listener as ‘ideal’, one who is somehow neutral, passive, middle-class and probably male. To pursue the case further, it is arguable that the category of ‘the aesthetic’, the separating off of art/music from other areas of social and political life, has been nothing more than a socio-historical construct, one that has led to a polarity between social meanings and those musical meanings discernible more through philosophical and aesthetic routes. This unfortunate dichotomy has proved unhelpful to say the least. For instead of perceiving these adjacent regions as occupants of opposite poles of the same horizontal axis, there is surely much to be said for seeing them as orthogonally related, independently variable but existing in perpendicular dimensions. Thus, there cannot be two sorts of aesthetic value, ie values pertaining to the aesthetic dimensions of works of art and another division belonging to the socio-political sphere. Audiences and spectators occupy both a historical and an ideological position, a plain fact which is demonstrated by hermeneutics, critical sociology and Marxism. The notion that musical structures are crystallisations of social structures (Ballantine, 1984) is a compelling one and resonates uniequivocally with the belief that holding music and society to be separate domains is a rationalistic bourgeois construct:

‘The French Revolution had promised a better future for all human beings. If that future was to be indefinitely postponed - and the entrenchment of bourgeoisie during the nineteenth century made that inevitable - then all forms of bourgeois thought, including aesthetics would need to show a similar turning away from the great problems of the age a similar flight from reality and a movement towards abstraction. The connection between Europe in the age of imperialism and an aesthetician such as Worringer is not in the least fortuitous’ (Ballantine, 1984, p.6).

So whilst it would be rash to devalue aesthetic enquiry as such I want to pursue other routes that may more clearly help us to disentangle some of the problems found along the road in the search for meaning in music. R G Collingwood expressed it exactly when he wrote:

‘The aesthetician is not concerned with dateless realities lodged in some metaphysical heaven, but with the facts of his own time and place’ (1938, p.235).

These ‘facts’ impinge on the very judgements we make about art works and are immediately accessible within critical enquiry, lending themselves to clarification through at least two particularly helpful sets of interpretative lenses: those belonging to psychology (analysis of the behaviour of the individual) and sociology (analysis of the behaviour of large agglomerations of people). If no two individuals have the same experience with a piece of music then the results will be of special interest to psychologists. Likewise the essentially aesthetic aspects of art works, which for Langer were primarily emotive, may be cognitive or imaginative, more perhaps to do with the artist’s mental activities or with those of the audience or the viewer.

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Music, Language and Meaning

An allusion has already been made in this article over the comparability between what has been held to be the connotative transactions of music - Langer’s ‘unconsummated symbol’ - and the denotative behaviour of language. If both symbol systems are viewed as forms of communication, then likening music’s potential to convey information or ‘messages’ to the way by which a language system does this may illuminate the contrast between how the two systems operate. Wittgenstein suggested that a musical theme was more easy to understand than a sentence (Worth, 1997) because music remained essentially uncompounded with the labyrinthine networks of linguistic referents that can be found in the words of a sentence. Although he regarded music to be a highly abstract affair, Wittenstein maintained that it was especially amenable to understanding since one could apply both experience to it as well as an innate or learned group of governing rules that took into account the schematic principles by which it habitually functioned. However, the analogy with language, where one hears a word or phrase and then supposedly instantaneously accesses its meaning, turns out to be less than helpful. Although music can, and does exert distinctly emotional impacts, as does language, it is not necessarily the tonal elements of music, as Cooke (1959) would have had it, that are responsible for doing this. Many non-Western musical cultures might well register completely different emotions to the same piece from those felt by their Western counterparts. Although Cooke conceded that joyful emotions, for example, which he viewed as inherent in music and based on the major third, are expressed in other ways by non-Western cultures, his thesis remains unconvincing since it is rooted in the Western tradition and carries with it the implication that other musical traditions - whose exponents and audiences may not even think in terms of music-expressing-emotion at all - are somehow inadequate. It is surely misguided to think of all musical practices, as Cooke did, in terms solely applicable to Western composed and tonal music - a scarcely four hundred year old tradition, and one that is conceivably dying even though it constantly metamorphosises.

Most likely meaning does lie embedded in music’s emotional content, but whereas language is based on the complex interactions of its phonetic, syntactical and semantic elements providing the means for the sharing of information between users of it, music embodies a multiplicity of elements yielding a plurality of meanings. People can listen repeatedly to the same piece of music as if each new listening was an act of discovery. Can the same be said of language? Some might say so: Sloboda (1985) has helpfully distinguished between the two systems by offering an analogy between the act of listening to music and the somewhat ill-defined process by which one can come to a full appreciation of a particular phrasal turn in a poem. Such an imperceptible, intuitive, processual act of illumination and insight turns out to be very different from the putative ‘synonymous expression’ involved in sharing and participating in semantic discourse.

There are other differences too. In speech, the sounds of the syllables are always organically related to a set of amplitude and timing features imparting both sense and eloquence to what is spoken. But these features are not interchangeable; neither shortening nor lengthening their duration is equivalent to decreasing or increasing amplitude as it is in music. Unnotated timing and amplitude deviations occurring within the beat in music have almost always been considered to be a separate matter of microstructural fluctuations that are essentially non-organic to the music. Thus, in organ and harpsichord music, for instance, lengthened duration is frequently made to serve the function of increased loudness so as to produce musical ‘accent’.

A further point can be made. Here I draw upon Goffman’s critique of the simplistic, behaviouristic, functionalist speaker-hearer model in his discussion (1981) of talk. Goffman explores the complexities of everyday contexts of communication and attacks the common model of communication as the transfer of a single meaning from speaker to hearer. Consider, he says, the position of the eavesdropper, of the third-party under discussion, of the subject of an ironic aside or of the party being subtly colluded with during a three-way conversation. Their positions, and the meanings they construct from the conversations differ subtly and substantially from each other and from the other speaking participants. In these everyday and complex encounters the ‘message’ is imperspicuous, imprecise, the listeners are multiple, standing in very different relations to the utterance; intended meanings may differ radically from those that are unintended. Goffman’s observations on meaning cast doubt on frequently-made assertions about language that it is something whose meaning is instantly accessible. For what chiefly characterises language is vagueness, ambiguity and incompleteness (Rommetweit, 1984), qualities which clash and collide with three other characteristics: versatility, flexibility and negotiability. Much the same might be said of music.

Moreover, music, too, can attract or repel eavesdroppers. Consider the position of a latecomer to a concert, a temporary (willing) eavesdropper to what is going on in the concert hall but forced to remain outside it until a suitable pause emerges in the music. Or consider another kind of eavesdropper (unwilling) to music’s ‘messages’ and the possible implications there are for meaning for a bus passenger, say, overhearing, and probably over-reacting, to the sonic leakage levels coming from a nearby portable sound system. This is a common enough situation and maybe encountered daily by some. ‘Decontextualised’ such listening may be for the person wearing the headphones, but the actual listening event is far from being asocial. For all encounters with music are social, even if they are so by default. Genuine difficulties of divergence can therefore exist between the intentions of a composer, or a pop group, and the interpretations of an audience. As in language, the problems are unavoidable; no one single, immutable or unitary relationship can ever be predicated between performer(s), music and listeners.

Comprehending language requires users of it to assimilate words, to bracket these words together, positioning them within groups of syntactically organised patterns. The comparable processes involved in music listening are both similar and different: in order to ‘make sense’ of music, listeners not only have to combine sounds into motives, melodies and phrases, but to respond, albeit tacitly, in varying degrees - but simultaneously - to an extensive stretch of other elements which include beat, rhythm, dynamic level, timbres and combinations of them, harmonic flow and rhythm, note and phrasal duration, interpretative nuance, use of repetition, tempo fluctuation, texture, use of silence, the weight, flow and sense of space in the music as well as the interplay between the foregrounding and backgrounding of musical material. The list is a long one and does not end there. It is true, as Aiello and Sloboda have written (1994), that within language/speech comprehension, expressive inflexion, voice nuance as well as social context all play key parts in determining how listeners interpret language and make sense of its messages, both overt and covert. But music undeniably operates on a different footing from the broad-based semantic level that exists and functions in a language system. Because it appears to lack semantic specificity, music directs its respective acts of listening into becoming particularly alert to the very manner by which selected mixtures of musical elements interweave and to how they are compounded into an overall style. Hence, to listen, especially to the same piece repeatedly, is always to take part in an exploration, not, as Reid rightly stressed (1969, p.42) into emotion as such, but into many-layered strata of meanings.

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Tiers of Meaning: Expectation and Retrogression

The distinction often made between meanings held to be intrinsic to, or embodied within musical products and those thought to work extramusically holds firm and forms a central theme in the writings of such theorists as Leonard Meyer (1956) and Wilson Coker (1972). But others too, (e.g. Green, 1988; Clarke, 1996), have recognised a similar bifurcation (e.g. primary/secondary signification; syntactical/analogical meaning; congeneric/extrageneric meaning; inherent/ delineated, and so on).

As lived experience, music has been described as a series of sonic moments unfolding temporally, spatially projected (Smalley, 1997) and bodily perceived - phenomenological meaning (Clarke, 1996) - but which are instantly complemented by the dimension of form and rationality that exists beyond the sound that music makes (symbolic meaning).

Earlier in this article reference was made to Reimer’s misconceptions over the ‘differences’ between absolute formalist views of music (as exemplified in Stravinsky’s dictum of 1936: ‘ expression has never been an inherent property of music’) and the referentialist perspective, where the belief held that music can be understood only by referring it to agencies, contexts, situations or states of mind existing outside or beyond it (a notion epitomised by the statement of René Descartes (1961): ‘the basis of music is sound; its aim is to please and to excite emotions in us’). The supposition was made that Reimer’s over-polarised interpretation of these positions had led him not only into overlooking their potential for coexistence but also to the erroneous opinion that adherence to one or the other would create disparate types of music education practice. Formalism and referentialism are complementary, not opposing views. But at first glance the idea of distinguishing between meanings that are inherent and those that extramusical might appear to be a reworking of the same basic split. This is not the case. Both inherent and designated meanings exist in music and they are, as Green states (1988), fundamentally, primarily and experientially inseparable, the former constructed within the music, the latter without it (in both senses). Neither can exist without the other. Nor can it be said about them that they correspond merely to areas ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ musical discourse; being both interrelated and interdependent they are more like ‘moments’ standing in relation to ourselves and the music, and in that state of symbiosis they are instrumental in negotiating musical realities to us even though they are positioned assymetrically to each other (Green, 1988).

For whereas the centuries-old argument over formalist and referentialist viewpoints had represented a divisive, and often rancorously expressed divergence of outlook advanced by its respective proponents having markedly differing agendas, the understanding amongst theorists now that music has both intrinsic and designated/delineated meanings has been generally accepted and appears to accord well with our experiences with music, whatever name is given to these two close-fitting areas of signification. Cooke had believed that specific emotional states could legitimately be prescribed not only to particular pieces of music but even to their component parts and the phrasal fragments constituting them. Neither Meyer’s formulation of designative meaning (1956), nor that of its terminological counterpart, extrageneric meaning (Coker, 1972), come anywhere near to sharing such an idiosyncratic position.

For Meyer and Coker, affective and meaningful experiences of music were different. Put simply, embodied/congeneric meanings are those alluding to the significance of a music passage in terms of its structural life, ie both the stimulus and its resultants ‘are of the same kind’ (Meyer, 1956/1970). The sign is made up of the same thing as the referent. Musical stimuli indicate and point to other musical events which lie ahead, or are about to happen. Thus, a given musical gesture should at once express an attitude in signifying another gesture that may be prior, subsequent or concurrent in time, and, as individual entities, they are knowable and can be aggregated into more complex ‘molecular congeneric gestures that may be derived and formed through the syntactic connections of basic gestures by the logical operators’ (Coker, 1972, p.196). Thus, for the primary dimension of congeneric signification (syntactical meaning), meaning is embodied within the local, regional sonic gestural properties of sonorous motion.

By contrast, the extrageneric dimension, in recognising the capacity for gestural expressivity to evoke particular attitudes in the minds of listeners, locates meaning within events and consequents that differ in kind from the stimulus, ie non-musical ones, and enables music to be experienced as a sonorous-rhythmic analogue of organic behaviour. In other words, when hearing those qualities and combinations of them when musically reproduced, the listener can identify them as designations of qualities and properties with which she/he is familiar. Although regarded by Coker as secondary to the congeneric dimension, extrageneric meaning is neither something that exists merely ‘outside’ the notes nor is it some kind of ‘add-on’ to meaning-inherentness. For just as inherent meaning cannot live by itself in musical experience without the analogical sphere, so the latter is intrinsically linked to the music itself and may contain clusters of referential allusions that accompany the music in its passage through life, assisting one to situate the music socially within its production, distribution and reception.

To perceive meaning in music, of whatever kind, necessitates cognitive activity on the part of both practitioners and audiences. Whatever the style of the music, listening to it might include recognition, thought, appraisal, reasoning, memorising, learning, imagining, symbolising, comparing, empathising and judging, with any or all of these processes enacted consciously or subliminally but all sensitive to the inflections wrought by the surrounding culture in which the music is received and all equally susceptible to both individual and collective overall mental states. Crucial to any acknowledgement of the scope and diversity of this taxonomy is an awareness of the indiscerptibility of affective responses from those of the intellect. Emotions elicit cognitive evaluations which result in feelings; and like all other facets of cognition, feelings contribute to the network of images constituting the meaning of an event or an object. Meyer was insistent about this point, believing that the psychostylistic conditions creating musical meaning were the same as those which could communicate information (1967 p.5).

In addition to these dimensions of meaning further distinctions can be highlighted between hypothetical, evident and determinate meanings (Aiello and Sloboda, 1994). At the most rudimentary level, in strictly behaviouristic terms, any musical stimulus can evoke several consequents in the mind of the listener. These ‘hypothetical meanings’ are triggered by the act of expectation itself with those that the listener conceives inclined to be the resulting products of the network of probabilities set into motion by the style of the music; some consequents are going to be deemed more probable than others and depend, very considerably, on the individual listener’s familiarity with the idiomatic norms and deviations of the music. Contingent to these are those meanings that the listener has deemed evident to the music, those that are concomitant on the original stimulus and which occur when the listener has perceived the existence of some normative affiliation between the original gesture and its consequent. Since this relationship may itself become gestural in its own right by evoking its own envisaged or actual aftermaths, further levels of relationships can be constructed as both hypothetical and evident meanings come into existence on multiarchitectonic levels.

Thus, to take an example from harmony, say one that is commonly found in the chordal progressions of a 1960s pop song, if the sequence I-VI (stimulus-consequent) occurs frequently in the song then not only can VI (the submediant) be viewed as a determinant in its own right in giving rise to IV (the subdominant), but the dynamic motion, I-VI-IV-V can itself also be conceived as a gesture - one that is often repeated many times in songs from that period as an ostinato (the ‘Chopsticks Effect’) supporting a tune.

Evident meaning is affected by hypothetical meanings but always with the affinity between a stimulus and its consequent judged in the light of a foreseeable future. As listeners we may modify our stance taken towards hypothetical meanings when the original stimulus fails to evolve into what we expected. Aiello and Sloboda see determinate meanings as those evoked from the relationship between hypothetical meanings, evident meanings and the later stages of musical development. In other words, evident meaning in music is that which is dependent on the listener’s understanding of the meanings already realised which the stimulus initially gave rise to. Now ‘timeless in memory’ the musical experience goes on revealing further meaning levels to the listener as networks of specified, self-defining outcomes are consolidated.

It is tempting to think of the concept of expectation as being the sole determining principle accounting for the essentially temporal character of musical experience; these processes of capturing and subliminally decoding meaning seem to carry the implied suggestion that significative musical gesture in motion makes its headway for the listener always diachronically, ie by always moving forwards in time. Indeed, even a single chord or tone, within the context of tonal motion, can be experienced as a birth, a bridge or an ending. Continuous fluctuations of expectation, disappointment, surprise, fulfilment or even shock - beginning, ending, movement and final standstill - appear to form not only a basic framework to acts of listening, but to exemplify ‘the essence of human life and fate’ (Kreitler and Kreitler, 1972, p.144), with the result that anyone reared in the Western diatonic tradition can recognise that a resolution afforded by a final return to the tonic is analogous to ‘returning home’, or, at least, resembles something of the proverbial, cyclic patterns of human physical need and desire followed by the alleviation of tension.

But a qualification here must be added. Meyer is too teleologically minded; music does not always have to be ‘about’ where it is going in some end-orientated kind of way. Whilst it is true that its products and the processes within them can certainly negate or confirm our expectations, music can also make us wait, even turning us backward in time. The ecstatic but profoundly anti-symphonic Turangalîla Symphonie of Messiaen seems to take these factors into account in the way whole sections are repeated, turned backward and have bits chopped off them, the music throwing them wildly about. The work progresses not by the expectations wrought by steady change but in cycles of accumulation as textural layers are piled up one on another. There are many other examples in Western music where the listener’s attention is drawn not so much to the linear dimension of forward flow but rather more to musical events whose interest lies in the vertical dimension. For the temporal characterisation of sensory perception, especially that of listening, involves not only present organic adjustments occurring in response to present events calling forth future behaviour, but also accommodations that take place in response to the stimulus of past events; referral can occur backwards as well as forwards as fabricative levels built up expand into both the future and the past. Indeed, the transitory ‘present’ of auditory perception can be conceptualised as one comprising sounds that have already transpired as well as those that are awaiting realisation: musical events that entrench upon the leading edge of the listening ‘present’ come to exercise their ascendancy through the listener’s largely unselfconscious expectations while events sliding into the past maintain their influence through their familiarity in the listener’s immediate recall and retrospection. An immediate past thus fuses into an immanent future.

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A Psychobiological Perspective

Music presents us with a shifting acoustic spectrum that is constituted by the concrescence and superimposition of multiple sound sources. Several writers (e.g. Deutsch, 1982; Sloboda, 1985) have argued that the human auditory system apprehends this spectrum by a method analogous to the operations carried out by the visual system when interpreting the mosaic of light patterns impinging on the retina, an account essentially characterising a notion of perception as a process of ‘unconscious inference’ that had been advanced in the nineteenth century by Hermann Helmholtz (1863). In such a visual configuration, any set of elements that is perceived as a figure will result in the remainder acting as a background. It becomes therefore impossible to decide what the figure actually is without deciding what forms the background to it; in this sense a figure, say a face or an object of some kind, may ‘create’ or ‘suggest’ its own backdrop.

Closely linked to this conception of how humans make sense of their surroundings is the idea that sensory systems themselves were ‘designed’ to enable organisms to respond in the most efficient manner to external environmental circumstances. If this idea is correct, then such a ‘psychological constant’ can be seen as having universal applicability. The case for arguing the existence of these alleged ‘constants’ was one largely derived and developed from Gestalt psychological principles (see Koehler, 1933; Katz, 1950; Hamlyn, 1957) and received further endorsement in Konrad Lorenz’s claim (1959) that the hierarchically organised system of sensory perception involved the circulation and application of both ‘knowledge’ and ‘intelligence’ at all levels in the hierarchy in such a way that the system would ‘automatically’ educe from a stimulus ‘what it meant’ rather than just dwell statically on its constituent graphic/auditory spatiotemporal objectivities. In other words, the adapting organism (human or otherwise) analysed acoustical events at the same time as it evaluated them (Terhardt, 1978; Parks, 1984). Cognitive psychology rests on these principles.

Lorenz had pointed out that in a highly developed sensory system a prodigious amount of knowledge would, of necessity, be received and assimilated even on relatively low levels of perception. Such cognizance would consist of relationships, structures and the constraints of physical stimulus parameters carrying information on external objects or events. In maintaining that these processes were equivalent to how an organism learnt by trial and error, he held that this data had emerged from biological evolution, from the organism’s interaction with the physical conditions of the world outside. Accordingly, it becomes apparent that Gestalt principles like proximity, closure or common fate, are not really principles as such but rather more sedimentary contourising remnants evolved through environmental manipulation and disclosing some kind of optimal response mechanism to external, peer-group competition or to impending danger. Any failure in achieving a satisfactory adjustment to this often treacherous and unpredictable world would lead to the death of the organism. Success, however, could result in survival, the continuation of the organism’s niche in that world and maybe even an expansion of it.

These themes feature regularly in the literature on the psychology of music perception where the claim has been that the phenomenon of residuary, perceptual contourisation offers a key to a unifying concept of sensory information processing (aural as well as visual) on any level (e.g. Sloboda, 1985; Terhardt, 1991). Radocy and Boyle (1979/1997, p.173) state that the tonal, melodic - or rather, melodic contours (Dowling, 1978) - and harmonic idioms of Western (sic) tonal musical traditions are broadly conformable with these laws and that the melodic and harmonic patterns of tonality are readily perceived in Gestalten or holistic shapes by listeners because they offer the structural unity believed to underpin the cognitive operations involved in listening to music. This facility, it is argued, is subcortical in origin, demonstrable at an early age in individuals and may have been acquired too through evolution (Clarkson and Clifton, 1985; Kuhl, 1979). Nevertheless, as Hebb (1949) warned, the perception of relative phenomena, such as melody, develops only as a result of learning and prolonged experience and familiarity with stylistic norms. Moreover, evolution itself should be considered not so much to be a matter of individual adaptation but rather more in terms of what Dowling and Harwood (1986, p.236) have called the ‘gene pool of groups’, with musical participation serving as a ‘cohesion-facilitating group activity’ for thousands of years.

If these conjectured ordinances are evolutionary in origin and both indwelling and generic, then, as Sloboda suggests (1985), it is likely they have been absorbed into mental functioning processes in order to solve ongoing, agelong perceptual difficulties faced by living organisms in their daily encounter with the environment and its many hazards.

However, in marked contradistinction to much that has been proposed about mental functioning in these fields of enquiry, it is worth recalling at this point Meyer’s challenging rebuttal of any homologous links existing between tonality and the way the human brain is constructed. If, as he writes (1956/1970, p.66), ‘the particular organisations of Western music are not reflections of the properties of the human mind’ then such claims as those described above made over the ‘universality’ of mental processing begin to look less convincing. Indeed, it is conceivable that the particular frameworks of Western tonality and diatonicism with their traditional emphasis on syntactical structures and absorption with re-creation over creative spontaneity could well have served to straitjacket social cognition rather than confirm or release it. There is nothing inherently ‘natural’ about these frameworks; Western tonality is not universal, nor is it or ever was, inevitable. And when considering the stylistic impediments posed by some non-Western, non-tonal music on the ears and sensibilities of some European listeners (and vice-versa), (for whom aspects of post-war serialism too can present problems), then assertions made about Western tonality somehow ‘reflecting’ innate mental cognitive structures look even more dubious.

But maybe the argument can be turned around. The continued and persistent presence of these obstructions to musical understanding, often demonstrated intra-culturally within differing age-groups, might equally well be held as proof of some compatibility existing between the structures of tonality and human mental architecture. Essentially the question remains obstinately and fundamentally unanswerable even though presumptions over the existence of these ‘innate, universal mental structures’ continue to appear, often within populist accounts of the mental operations said to be activated by listening to music (e.g. Minsky, 1981). It remains to be seen as to whether ‘mental map-making mechanisms’ are exercised by music listening in the way that for example Marvin Minsky suggests. The human mind, in these conceptions of it, is reduced to a data-processing brain, handling and manipulating arrays of information. Frequently such overtly mentalistic readings have been propelled by other, often covert and non-musical agendas, and even Minsky is forced to admit that ‘the mind holds tightly to its secrets not from stinginess or shame but simply because it does not know them’ (1981). Accordingly, it is very hard to reconcile the sheer variety of modes of thought which have been found empirically; in other cultures and in earlier epochs, people whose brains were probably the same as ours have perceived the world in radically different ways: even such apparently taken-for-granted notions as those relating to time and space have betrayed marked cultural variability.

In the end, as Robert Walker reminds us (1998), we cannot have it both ways.

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Metaphor and Meaning

The language of musical description is metaphorically-centred. Residing within a musical pattern are resemblances to, and replicas of human feeling and experience. As Coker has stated, many extragenerically interpreted gestural statements are derived from congeneric roots and can themselves be called metaphors (1972, p.197). At least four kinds of musical movement have been identified (Laban, 1958) - those of weight, space, time and flow - but I would add a fifth, that of musical grain, ie the ‘feel’ of the music. As schemas of past experiences and memories of events of which we might be unaware (Howard, 1987), these organised bodies of knowledge or mental structures are readily elicited and manipulated by music in an abstract rather than any literal manner. A schema is a mental representation of a set of related categories and five important types of them are those for scenes, events, actions, persons and stories. Their distinctive qualities are immediately apprehensible to the listener for they are abstractions from experience as well as representations of it.

Although it is common to speak of ‘musical motion’, such motion is, at best, apparent rather than ‘real’ in any sense. Likewise the term ‘musical space’ does not correspond in any rationally understood way to physical space even though it is possible, by positioning notes within it, to talk of it as though it did. These terms can, if it is wished, be called concepts; there are, indeed, many similarities between schemata and concepts; both are mental representations used to categorise stimuli as instances or non-instances of some category. Essentially, however, a schema is a cluster of related concepts that act as a filter keeping out certain data but strictly withholding other information. But unlike elements of speech, however, concepts are neither conventional nor arbitrary for they do not require linkage to a speech community to develop, and do not depend on sequential presentation. Furthermore, contrary to perceptual recognition, conceptual recognition is always relational and must be able to connect one perceptual categorisation to another, even if it is to an unrelated one, and even if the stimuli that triggered those categorisations are no longer present. Through the means of metaphoric transference, such concepts/ schemata as ‘musical motion’, ‘weight’ or ’space’ can readily be used and extended to music to account for certain aspects of our experience with it. By no means being merely a linguistic anomaly nor just serving as a convenient mark describing the way intentional objects like music can be conceptualised, these metaphors and the way they come to be applied in musical analyses occupy a central position within the sphere of human understanding as a whole (Zbikowski, 1998). Several recent discussions on metaphoric transference, whether driven more by philosophical perspectives (e.g. Grund, 1988) or written from a specifically musical-analytical or semiotic focus (e.g. Charles, 1995), have coincided in the opinion that the rôle of metaphor is indispensable to the wider repertoire of human thought. Even the terms frequently employed to describe pitch relations like ‘high’ and ‘low’ are conceptual metaphors, for such is the range and variety of these basic structures of understanding that the question is raised as to how such seemingly ingrained cross-domain mapping comes to be grounded in the first place by the human organism.

If ‘meaning’ as a term, can itself be construed as something grounded in recurring, habitual patterns of bodily experience (Johnson & Lakoff, 1980; Johnson, 1987; Saslaw, 1996) then these physical exemplars are responsible for generating the image schemata that provide the basis for concept-formation and for the relationships existing between such concepts that are apparently so vital for metaphoric transference to operate at all. Under this conception of how metaphor works - and it is only one amongst many - image schemata4, acting like the abstract structure of an image, can be perceived as dynamic, process-orientated cognitive constructs which are not only adaptive, holistic and efficient (Bartlett, 1932) but can also connect up to a prodigious range of diverse experiences manifesting themselves in the same recurring structure. The fact that the word ‘image’ is used by no means implies that this way of capturing the organisation inferred from human behaviour patterns and concept formation is necessarily visual. Nor, moreover, need holding to such a view commit one to believing these operations are evolutionary in origin.

No-one can tell any individual within a musical culture what ‘fast’ is; either such a concept is grasped immediately by direct intuition and personal experience of it, or it will remain unknown. Such ‘acquaintance meanings’ as Coker calls them (1972), accordingly correspond to instinctual-affective aspects of unmediated thought - moods, desires, beliefs, doubts, expectancies, attitudes, most universals, the properties pertaining to objects, memory-stored data, relief from tension, and so on. By contrast, discursive meanings are those that are indirect, derivative or known ‘second-hand’, and can embrace such areas as historical fact, scientific knowledge, hypothetical understandings, abstractions, analyses, propositional symbolic concepts, definitions as well as knowledge of our own mental state and that of other people. The significations that are prerequisite to discursive knowledge are acquired by passing from one belief to a belief embedded in a further expression the validity of which can be guaranteed either by deductive reasoning, or through induction, ie by the validity of the original premise.

An example may make this clearer. A teacher explaining to a class, say, the fundamental set of twelve pitches, or the chordal progressions within various kinds of musical cadence, or the formal structure of triadic harmony, is actively harnessing the facilitative potential of discursive symbolism by encouraging her class to think within the conventional significations of language. In forming the very stuff of these symbolic usages, verbal descriptions and definitions subsume much of what is conventionally held to constitute ‘knowledge’; indeed, a good deal of what formal education itself routinely holds to be significant falls under discursive symbolism’s wide banner.

Through language then, music educators can enable their pupils to perceive musical meaning by helping them into an active and conscious involvement with the essential qualities of a musical object at personal level (Swanwick’s category of ‘meaning-to’). Carrying out this task, a pivotal one in music education, does not mean, as Regelski (1975, p.10) apparently once thought it did, ‘indoctrinating’ pupils by imposing values and value-systems on them. On the contrary, delineating concepts and disambiguating tiers of meaning in music through language-use offers opportunities for students at all levels to develop their understandings of musical qualities and concepts initially thought to be ‘ambivalent’, and can steer them into an exploration of meanings-in-sound, particularly towards musical regions where previously none had appeared to exist for them.

Objectivities do exist; they are present and can be identified. Though subjectivities clearly do exist in musical meaning, they are not the whole story. Meaning is revealable by the fact of consensual agreement existing amongst groups of listeners of any age (Nordenstreng, 1968; Trainor and Trehub, 1992) when responding to musical expressive qualities. This is not to say that blockages in understanding will not occur. They will, but the rôIe of the music educator is to lead learners into discovering concepts and skills through the use of probing questions, provocative statements and explanatory activities. The arts have to be experienced as they were intended; it is possible to study and analyse them, but the eventual response, significance and meaning will be realised only through direct contact with the art object. And although semantic differentials (lists of adjectival opposites) may not serve as the most razor-sharp device for highlighting the many microstructural fluctuations of feelingfulness in music, they might, as Swanwick (1994, p.47) has suggested, show something of how individuals can build up a relationship with a particular piece of music over time. Their use remains widespread, and rightly so.

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Context and Complexity

Many variables, some already mentioned, and other significant conditions prevail upon and contribute to musical meaning. There are those variables directly related to the structural characteristics of the music, its temporal flow, energy and overall idiom as well as the extent to which it observes a balanced ‘unity in variety’ aesthetic principle (Read, 1955, p.49), all of which constantly interact with those variables applying to listeners. The complexity of the music too (which can be conceived relativistically as a subjective variable) constitutes a further factor profoundly impinging on musical meaning. The dynamics of musical motion are such that any piece of music will call forth responses from listeners requiring an awareness of its capacity for retrospective movement toward the near or even far distant past as well as the more obvious linear flow forward. Sometimes this motivity will be replaced by temporal stasis, or if not arrested altogether, will give way to the synchronic dimension (vertical listening) or require a measure of diagonal listening.

Listening subjects bring to musical objects an extensive range of differential imbalances: previous musical experience (with the same or with other pieces in a similar style), personality, the degree of formal musical training received, acquaintance with the stylistic norms and hence the expectations brought to bear upon music’s structure and referents - all these act and are acted upon within the context of active encounters with music.

But there are others too, for lying largely concealed by those conventionally recognised variations in the composition of listeners exist a set of interrelated dimensions stemming from the effects of gender, age, ethnicity and social class, the interlocking factors from which the notion of aesthetic interestedness can develop. Explaining how these factors can potentially refocus the interpretation of meaning in music may turn out to be a harder task. Indeed, until relatively recently the literature tended not to foreground all four of these ascriptive characteristics as co-equally important even though it implied that they were. These factors play crucial roles in further inflecting listeners' constructions of meaning by offering intersubjectively shared stocks of knowledge. How this knowledge might conjointly influence meaning-interpretation is a task for future research.

Equally germane is the factor of context, the immediate set of social and physical circumstances in which the music is being performed and listened to.

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Ambient distortions

As an ever-present element of human social life, music of all kinds and genres is used to influence the emotions and the way people behave in ways thought appropriate to social situations. In possessing the potential for manipulating the emotional and behavioural outcomes in individuals it is actively and deliberately used in ritual every day contexts increasingly for commercial gain and exploitation. In both the audio-visual media and in the competitive world of commercial retail, music plays a central, purposeful, but often ambivalent part in discharging a range of tactical functions by giving countenance to the economic ambitions of dominant élites in society. Not for nothing will slow, sedate string music from perhaps a Telemann or Corelli Concerto Grosso be employed as 'background music’ within the premises, say, of off-licence shops; for the assumption is that sales of the more expensive wine will rise when it is. The use of music in this way is now ubiquitous, but though it has become a widespread phenomenon in shops, hotels and other public places, the common practice of ‘wall-papering’ social space in food retail outlets with music need not necessarily be viewed in a hostile light. Nevertheless, a Marxist reading would hold that the use of music in these commercial contexts to create ever higher profit margins for the few is a prime example of how the sway of technology and utility can ultimately render a disservice to social life, neutering it of significance through the subordination of use-value to the empty formalism of exchange value. When divorced from its initial contexts and recycled in order to manipulate social behaviour music becomes the ‘social cement’ (Adorno, 1941/1990), pressing individuals into an invisible mould and producing a child-like state of dependency. For Marx, industrial capitalism could result only in the total alienation of human beings from their true lives, reducing the relationships between them to little more than the ‘cash nexus’; perhaps, significantly, those who are least powerful in society often face the greatest exposure to these homogenising phenomena.

By the same token, music itself becomes the exploited, increasingly subverted to serve other ends as those in power manipulate it to promote their commercial and social agendas. These manipulative processes have become well established and for those who notice these things, they are immediately recognisable in the way such a cynical exploitation of both people and music is coming to dominate the life-worlds of subject within mass society:

‘Consumerism by-passes meaning in order to engage the subject subliminally, libidinally, at the level of visceral response rather than reflective consciousness.’ (Eagleton, 1991, p.37)

Under these conditions, further strata of meanings, or rather layers of meaning-instability are generated as music becomes ineluctably yoked to abrasive, repressive and exclusionary commercial operating styles where the concern is solely for growth, profit and aggrandisement.

But not all contexts of musical production and reception are commercial. The music classroom also stamps its imprint on musical meaning. For many music educators the classroom forms the backdrop for their activities and those of their students; far from being ‘neutral’ in some way, school music departments leave a trace on meaning that is every bit as decisive as that imposed on music by commercial environments. A subversive, belligerent pop song - or one that is thought to be so by teachers and most other adults - will have much of its anarchic impact neutered when played to school pupils (Green, 1988). Serving now as a component in a ‘scheme of work’ within a bureaucratically organised curriculum, the music has become radically recontextualised, its carefully crafted designations of machismo or socio-political revolt, diabolism or delinquency rendered relatively harmless as its propensity to arouse feelings of sedition in the listener coolly evaporates. Explanations for this meaning impoverishment in the listening act are contextual, for by offering a socio-physical setting for music, the very music department has further alchemised meaning by virtue of its position within the much larger, hierarchical nexus of a school. The surrounding ideology has transformed the music.

The segments of music used for listening purposes in the General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations also have their meanings tenuously inflected by the fact that they are being used for the purposes of sifting and sorting pupils for certain roles in society; not only do the lengthy intervening silences placed between repeats on the listening tape distort the meanings in the music, but so too does the manner in which the music is invariable presented - by a disembodied voice with a toneless delivery.

However, these processes need not always be negative or subtractive of meaning; relatively uninteresting music can be reanimated when played in the classroom. Paradoxically, the very same features of routineness and predictability in the music that are so apparent when it is heard outside the setting of a school classroom can become a source of interest and delight to pupils when presented within focussed listening encounters - ones where the music listening is directed, timed, relevant, suitable and accessible - and could, moreover, lead on to successful practical work in composition.

Thus musical meaning is malleable, ever susceptible to the distorting effects of location; wherever music is produced and received the contextual factors of building, institutional ideology and geographical position reshape the deep structures of primary, intended meanings by enhancement, subtraction, denial or replacement. These processes are structural in origin and whether or not they are consciously apprehended or acknowledged by performers, teachers, pupils or other listeners, they are fundamentally dynamic in nature, ineluctably infused into the music and triggered by the multiple social and political circumstances in which musical products are played and received. And not only is meaning markedly vulnerable to these and other influences, but so too are the very ways of listening that subjects bring to the musical product. Context reshapes meaning, but also intrudes upon the manner by which that meaning is apprehended; each act upon the other, creating yet further levels of disturbance and flux as intended meanings advance and retreat, are highlighted or backgrounded, transfigured or eviscerated by the interposing consequences of milieu, site of reception and over-arching ideology. Our transactions with music, of whatever kind, are never executed in a vacuum:

‘Advanced capitalism oscillates between meaning and non-meaning, pitched from moralism to cynicism and plagued by the embarrassing discrepancy between the two.’ (Eagleton, 1991, p.39)

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So all is in constant ferment: rather than envisaging musical meaning as something fixed, ‘universally’ encodable or unitary, or neatly occupying one end of a polar axis with ‘meaning’ marked at one end and perhaps ‘meaninglessness’ at the other, it is preferable to see it as something protean, a shifting plasticity, a conception that does greater justice to the multiple ways by which pluralities of designated meaning can coexist at any one time, intersecting with each other as the product of a matrix of forces involving value systems, personal histories, social context, gender, ethnicity and social class affiliation. To posit this degree of complexity in meaning is not, however, to suggest it is somehow elusive or resistant to confirmatory identification or description. For there is both flux and certainty. Affirming the multidimensionality of musical meaning does not weaken the case for arguing that its diverse range of sound objects can be accessed; as we have seen these objects have a distinct capacity to evoke often strikingly similar reactions to them in the minds of listeners. The question as to which of these realities if the ‘most correct’ is less important than the recognition that they both address aspects of meaning. Between them, they speak of a valid and critical consideration about music’s multi-faceted nature, and, as such, their governance should be neither disparaged nor devitalised.

Young people need the opportunity to make their own meaning, their own interpretation. Too often, writes Lewin (1977), teachers give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve, a tendency, one might add, that stands less chance of being effectively reversed if British state education is to continue being transacted within the confines of an over-prescriptive and examination-driven curriculum. Nevertheless the priority remains one of enhancing, by whatever means, the abilities of pupils to respond to the many meanings of music in order to incline them into integrating music into their present lives and their lives as adults. As ‘existential explorers’ (Regelski, 1981, p.375), we can illuminate what is already present in sound objects and, together with pupils, can grapple with new meanings, challenge old ones and inch along the path of probing the many layers of musical meaning.

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End Notes

[1] Besides the authors already mentioned see the following as a representative sample of the diverse range of viewpoints in such a discussion: Mursell (1937); Howes (1937); Langer (1957); Keller (1970); Kreitler and Kreitler (1972); Coker (1972); Stefani (1974, 1987); Steiner (1981); Minski 1981); Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983); Ballantine (1984); DeNora (1986); Nattiez (1990); Ferrara (1991); Paddison (1991); Monelle (1992); Tarasti (1994); Adorno (1993); Thomas (1995); Clarke (1996).

[2] Rommetweit (1984) has argued that a ‘monistic’ outlook stemmed from early stimulus-response behaviourism. By this he meant that psychology assumed that objects of perception and reception possessed invariant singular and unequivocal meanings. Despite the move from behaviourism to cognitivism, the object of perception is still frequently referred to as a ‘stimulus’ and is presumed to be fixed in meaning, something ‘out there’, prior to, as well as unchanged by, the perceptual act itself. Hence, multiple, diverse meanings are neither permitted nor debateable; they are regarded as determinate and definite even though we may not know them as such. This outlook has led to a receptive, passive view of the listener/perceiver and is still very much at large, particularly in underpinning management theory, and therefore, the bureaucratic formularies of the National Curriculum of England and Wales.

[3] See Reid, (1969, p.197) for a qualifying perspective on Langer’s notion of music as presentational symbolism.

[4] It should be noted, that for the most part, the image schema remains a theoretical construct. Nonetheless various lines of research have lent credence to the notion: Gibbs and Colston (1995) provide a review of evidence for image schemata drawn from an extensive range of psychological studies.

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