By Lawrence Kramer, author of Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History                                        

In his classic study of perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the experience of listening to a classical sonata, which he takes to be representative of listening to music in general: “The musical meaning of a sonata is inseparable from the sounds that are its vehicle: before we have heard it, no analysis enables us to anticipate it; once the performance is over, we shall, in our intellectual analyses of the music, be unable to do anything but carry ourselves back to the moment of experiencing it.” 

What is most striking to me about this statement is how self-assured it is.  Merleau-Ponty seems to think that his observations are self-evident, along with his choice of repertoire.  But what if he was wrong?

Do we really need to grasp what music “means” in the act of listening to it?  Does listening really shut off all other cognitive and sensory activity? Is listening to a sonata really limited to hearing its sounds? Is listening to any music? And who are the “we” who listen? Who is entitled to, enabled to, instructed to listen this way? Who is excluded from this kind of listening?

I raise these questions because the new paperback release of my book Musical Meaning must still contend with the point of view expressed by Merleau-Ponty and by many contemporary writers about music. The poet Archibald MacLeish famously wrote that “A poem should not mean / But be” and that seems to go double for music.  So if there is meaning in music outside the vicious circle that Merleau-Ponty traces—and clearly I think that there is— then what is it and how does music “have” it?

Merleau-Ponty focuses on classical instrumental music because, unlike vocal music, whether classical or popular, it is not bound to a text. Texts or song lyrics inevitably complicate the question of musical meaning. To raise the question of what music means in essence, we need to refer to strictly instrumental music, whatever its genre.  (Or do we? This argument is questionable, but I do not have the space to question it here.)  And if we’re talking about “just” music, music made of sound and nothing else, then surely it cannot “have” meaning in the usual sense.  So the questions that ended the last paragraph return in force.  What could musical meaning be, and how can purely instrumental music “have” it?

But these are the wrong questions.  At least they are wrong when posed as rhetorical or adversarial questions. Asked in those forms, they confuse the practical sense of the term meaning with its larger philosophical or critical sense.  In practical everyday use, meaning is the content of simple statements of fact, opinion, or intention.  If there is ambiguity about it, we usually seek clarification by asking “Did you mean . . . ?”  If I say “The door is open,” what I mean is that the door is, in fact, open.  In the right circumstances, however, even a simple statement like this one can produce meaning in the larger sense.  The statement may have implications that draw in undercurrents, attitudes, feelings, and dispositions that are no more inherent in the words spoken than spoken-word meanings are inherent in musical sounds.  You knock. I say the door is open. You hesitate to enter because my words (of welcome? trust? indifference? annoyance? desire?)  are about more than just a door and . . .  here the possibilities expand to the indefinite horizon. 

In ordinary circumstances music has no practical meaning. Who would claim that it did?  But it does say the door is open.  Meaning in the larger sense does not depend on practical meaning.  It can start from virtually anything, music included.  And it is not opposed to being.

Meaning in the larger sense can never be reduced to simple and bounded statements.  It emerges from and helps shape the way an experience develops over time.  It has to be renegotiated every time it is revisited.  This is the kind of meaning that music can certainly have.  Put more strongly, it is the kind of meaning that music does have, and even must have, if, as we think we do, we hear the music with understanding or pleasure.  Debates over whether music is ineffable are beside the point.  Musical meaning does not have to be recognized while we listen; it is not identical with musical experience. Nor does music  need to usurp on the other senses to work its magic on us, although it sometimes may.  Like most, musical meaning is genealogical. It accrues gradually and intermittently to whoever takes an interest in it. It is never just one thing. It is an activity, not a possession.  This meaning, moreover, is only “musical” because its occasion is music. It is actually the same kind of meaning in which any complex phenomenon participates.  In this sense, to flip MacLeish’s line, meaning is the way things come to be. 

Such meaning cannot be stated, only followed. To follow it requires an evocative language from which the meaning is as inseparable as the “sonata” is inseparable from its sounds. Or rather more so, since we can go on experiencing music even when we are not listening to it. For example, after hearing or just recalling the Adagio of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, we might wonder how this music that was first received as an expression of deepest sorrow became the soundtrack of reconciliation for a troubled marriage in Tolstoy’s novella “Family Happiness.” We might further ask what the sound of the notes had to do with it. The answer cannot be put in a few words.  Its course, its genealogy, has to be followed—inferred, described, imagined—step-by-step. 

Those steps are found in Musical Meaning, along with others dealing with varied sorts of instrumental music, classical and otherwise, as well as with the question of who listens.  Readers will also find a further account of musical meaning which I literally put in the form of a musical composition called “Revenants”: music (available here) that seeks to embody just the kind of genealogy that musical meaning is, and any meaning is, in the larger sense.