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Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.



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From The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 24, Number 4, Summer, 1966, pp. 579-583.


Meaning and Music

Donald W. Sherburne

This paper defends the view that music has meaning and that this meaning is a referential meaning referring to the extramusical world of emotional states.  Part I examines and then rejects the widely read, frequently discussed views of Leonard B. Meyer, who defends in a modern, fascinating way the position of the Absolutist that any meaning which music may have lies within the context of the work itself and in the perception of the relationships set forth in the work, and that any emotion which may arise in response to music exists quite apart from the realm of extramusical emotions.  Part II is the constructive section of the paper; it accepts in general outline the position of Susanne Langer but quickly goes beyond her analysis to new suggestions derived from the author’s work in Whitehead’s metaphysics.  Part III suggests the larger implications for aesthetic theory of these proposals.



“Expectation” is the key notion in Meyer’s theory, as that theory is developed in his book, Emotion and Meaning in Music.1  Musical meaning is a product of expectation.  A series of musical stimuli refer beyond themselves, not to extramusical events or concepts, but to other musical events which are about to happen and which are more or less expected as a result of what has gone before.  Musical meaning is possible, on this theory, because of style; a given composition falls within a stylistic tradition which supports a musical syntax, a syntax which leads one to expect given sorts of kinetic development in given sorts of situations.  If a musical phrase thwarts expectation and works itself out in a novel, unexpected way, then its musical significance is considerable.  If a musical phrase perfectly confirms predictions and expectations, then it is trivial.

This theory of meaning in Meyer gets its full impact when joined to his theory of musical emotion.  Arguing away from John Dewey’s conflict-theory of emotions, which holds that emotion in any area of experience is evoked when a tendency to respond is inhibited, Meyer holds that when expectation is generated and then frustrated by unexpected progressions and resolutions, emotion, as well as musical interest and significance, is generated.  The secret of powerfully moving, significant, and meaningful music is thus before us:  it is music (1) within a style, (2) which therefore generates expecta-tions, (3) which expectations are, however, baffled and thwarted by unanticipated novelties of development and resolution, which simultaneously generate emotion and create musical interest and significance.

This is an ingenious, imaginative, plausible theory.  Yet upon reflection I find Meyer’s theory wanting, and I turn now to some criticisms of his position, which I have so hastily adumbrated.  The first and most damaging criticism is that certain inferences about musical experience which the theory forces us to draw are totally at odds with our actual experience.  If the theory were correct, the first hearing of a work should reek with meaning and send emotional tingles to the tips of the toes; but with subsequent hearings the significance and emotional impact of a work ought to decline rapidly as the unexpected becomes the expected, as expectation becomes replaced by recollection and anticipation.  In fact, the far more common experience is that works tend to become more compelling as one gets inside them and obtains a growing familiarity with them.  In short, Meyer’s theory seems to be incompatible with the ordinary conviction that fine music can be reheard and re-enjoyed many, many times, frequently with heightened appreciation.

As Meyer himself has noted, when this objection to his theory has been raised in the past,2 it is difficult to determine whether the theory conforms to the facts of musical life precisely because it is not easy to establish just what these facts are.  Ultimately each person must be judge in these matters for himself.  But it strikes me that even granting Meyer’s counter-argumentsfor example, that memory is fallible and that it takes repeated hearings in order to grasp the implications of a musical event—still, it is just at the point where memory has mastered its material that musical experience emerges as most intense, and this is not what Meyer’s theory leads one to predict.  Also, Meyer considers it a virtue of his theory that it explains why the performer tends to change his interpretation of works he knows well, namely, to revitalize them for himself; and, also, Meyer feels that his theory explains the proliferation on the market of recordings of a given composition:  namely, to meet the demand of listeners for new interpretations of familiar works.  To start with the last point first, I think the proliferation of recordings of a given composition can be explained in economic terms, and several of the most sophisticated listeners whom I know are great partisans of particular recordings of particular works; so that if it is Conductor X’s reading of a given work to which they are partial, then they have no use for Conductor Y’s reading or Conductor Z’s reading.  Meyer’s theory would not lead us to predict this.  On the first point, the point that the performer tends to change his interpretation of works he knows well, here I plead ignorance of the facts; but I am not convinced that performers do “tend,” across the board, to modify interpretations once they have one that by general acclaim is exciting, brilliant, and so forth.  And even if performers do modify interpretations, there is still the question of their motives for so doing—perhaps it is more accurate to say that a sense of dissatisfaction with the quality of their performances motivates them to introduce modifications into subse-quent performances.  Here, again, it is not obvious to me that Meyer’s theory predicts what we in fact find to be the case.

So much for my first objection to Meyer’s theory, the objection centering upon rehearing music.  But there is a second:  Meyer is forced to reject as meaningless and trivial the music that results from recent experiments to produce non-teleological music, music avowedly without tendency or direction.  Such music, sometimes complete with built-in randomizers, is written with the purpose of destroying purpose, destroying syntax, and eliminating expectation, so that the listener will concentrate not on relations, but on the immediate sense surface of the sound.  Such music can be reheard indefinitely, Meyer admits, without any change in emotional value and meaningfulness at all—but this is, he holds, because of, and proof of, its total lack of musical value.   Now it is a virtue in Meyer’s theory that it possesses a clean-cut, direct honesty—it leads him to conclude that works like those of Stockhausen and Cage are without value as music.  But this kind of virtue is a dangerous one.  Though many may feel like giving three cheers for a theory with this particular implication, one is sobered by the recollection that history has a way of incorporating principles from fringe movements into the main stream of aesthetic development.  One has only to think of painting and the phenomenal rise of abstract impressionism to begin to feel uneasy about a theory which out of hand rejects the non-telic approach.



In this controversy over meaning in music, the Absolutists who hold that music illuminates nothing whatever are most certainly wrong, but so are the extremists at the opposite pole who, like Wagner, insist that music illuminates everything in heaven and on earth.  I agree with J. W. N. Sullivan when he says that “. . . no class of people is to be more avoided than those who look for, and find, a ‘story’ in every musical composition.”3  It has been reported that Strauss, at the height of his programmatic frenzy, asserted that the day would come when a composer could compose the silverware on the table so that the listener could distinguish the knives from the forks.  This is obvious nonsense, and I want to make it clear that I repudiate this lunatic fringe just as Meyer, it might be added, repudiates those Absolutists who deny that music has any meaning at all.

But what do I assert?  As a beginning I accept certain points from Hanslick and Langer, and depart from a point made in Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music.  In one interesting passage, to be quoted directly, Hanslick is arguing that music can represent neither the object of a feeling nor the feeling itself.  He is right, but, nevertheless, this passage, which Hanslick advances to crush the referentialists, really contains the foundation for limited, viable referentialism.  Hanslick writes:

What part of the feelings, then, can music represent, if not the subject involved in them?  Only their dynamic properties.  It may reproduce the motion accompanying psychical action according to its momentum:  speed, slowness, strength, weakness, increasing and decreasing intensity.  But motion is only one of the concomitants of feeling, not the feeling itself.  It is a popular fallacy to suppose that the descriptive power of music is sufficiently qualified by saying that, although incapable of representing the subject of a feeling, it may represent the feeling itself—not the object of love, but the feeling of love.  In reality, however, music can do neither.  It cannot reproduce the feeling of love but only the element of motion. . . . This is the element which music has in common with our emotions and which, with creative power, it contrives to exhibit in an endless variety of forms and contrasts.4

In this passage Hanslick has granted a certain analogy between music and emotions, an analogy of dynamic structure.  Morris Weitz has correctly argued that even this small admission makes Hanslick a heteronomist in a very limited sense.5  Susanne Langer pushes this insight of Hanslick’s even further in creating her limited referentialist position.  She argues that Hanslick’s implicit semantic is far too narrow and primitive:  “Because he considered nothing but conventional denotation as ‘meaning,’ he insisted that music could not mean anything.”6  She further argues that the analogy between music and emotions pointed out by Hanslick satisfies the basic requirement for a connotative relationship between music and subjective experience, namely a similarity of logical form, and with this to work on, she proceeds to argue that music is the kind of symbol which she calls presentational.  Such a symbol is a dynamic instrument of discovery and clarification rather than a purveyor of static references; it is an unconsummated symbol which does not assert but rather articulates—it is not expression, it is expressive.7

Mrs. Langer’s position is basically sound, but the meaning of her account can be expanded beyond her intent.  In analyzing ordinary statements we distinguish a subject and a predicate.  We could, if we wanted to be Whiteheadian about it, distinguish the logical subject of a proposition on the one hand and the predicative pattern of a proposition on the other.  I should like to suggest that music is sheer predicative pattern.  As Hanslick insisted, music cannot represent specific feelings, it cannot convey a subject, but it does convey the dynamic properties of feelings, and this is what I mean by saying that music is sheer predicative pattern.

Three observations will, I think, clarify this proposal.  First, it is a fact that people have said over and over again that music is the most abstract of the arts; for this reason it has been called the Queen of the Arts.  In some sense this is true, but in what sense?  Sound is as concrete a datum as any other—there is nothing abstract about it.  How, then, can the character of music be abstract?  It is abstract precisely in the sense that it is sheer predicative pattern.  But in the aesthetic experience of music there is more than predicative pattern; there is a subject also.  I contend that this subject is provided by the listener in response to the predicative pattern.  The predicative pattern elicits the subject:  It is in this way that I interpret Langer’s assertion that the presentational symbol is an unconsummated symbol which discovers, clarifies, articulates.  In itself the music is an abstract predicative pattern, but in musical experience it becomes the pattern of a subject-feeling provided by the listener.

Second, numerous writers have noted that there are myriads of emotions, only a few of which have been singled out and named.  The emotional life is hopelessly complex and varied.  Music leads us to a heightened awareness of our emotional existence by causing us to isolate segments of it as subjects for the predicative patterns it thrusts upon us. 

Third, my proposal takes on clarity when compared to a point made by William James in the penultimate chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James concludes that there are great revitalizing forces in the subconscious which, when released, refresh and strengthen the soul.  But these powers do not automatically flow in upon the soul.  They are released by the over-beliefs of a person’s religion, over-beliefs being those non-empirical convictions at the heart of any religious tradition.

. . . the spiritual excitement in which the gift appears a real one will often fail to be aroused in an individual until certain particular intellectual beliefs or ideas which, as we say, come home to him, are touched.  These ideas will thus be essential to that individual’s religion;—which is as much as to say that over-beliefs in various directions are absolutely indispensable. . .

There is, I believe, a parallel situation in music.  Music has great power but it requires something analogous to the over-beliefs of religion for that power to be released.  I suggest that the clarifying, articulating, communicating dimension of music is released when the listener engages its predicative power by providing a subject for that predicative pattern.

This, then, is the sense of my referentialism.  In one sense music is concrete, but in another it is abstract and points beyond itself, as do predicative patterns, which by themselves are abstract possibilities and point beyond themselves to concrete actual entities for their logical subjects.  Music as predicative pattern points beyond itself to the emotional dimension of human existence.  As a result, in music more than in any other art the very nature of the art—object is a function of the contemplator, who shares in the creation of the aesthetic object by providing from his own experience the emotional subject which completes the pure predicative pattern.  DeWitt Parker’s distinction between aesthetic instrument and aesthetic object is relevant here.  As he uses these terms, the aesthetic instrument is the physical object that scientists can measure, thieves steal, and so forth, while the aesthetic object is the total experience which combines an aesthetic instrument, a sensuous form, with the meanings which underlie the form and exist in the life of the imagination.  According to this terminology it would follow that the aesthetic instrument in music is the sensuous sounds constituting the pure predicative pattern, while the aesthetic object in music is the total response of a listener using the aesthetic instrument (predicative pattern) as a vehicle for the imagination, which creates the aesthetic object from the interaction between the aesthetic instrument and its own nature, its own nature providing the emotional subject which completes, and releases the spiritual power of, the pure predicative pattern.

It should be noted that this theory does not succumb to either of the objections which have been raised against Meyer’s theory.  First, the present theory leads one to predict that a rehearing of a composition would intensify, not diminish, the emotional impact of that composition upon a listener; for the articulating, clarifying power of the “unconsummated symbol,” as Langer calls music, would increasingly penetrate into the emotional life of the listener as familiarity led him to select, even if unconsciously, an increasingly precise and effective logical subject for that increasingly familiar predicative pattern.  And, second, the present theory would lead one to suggest that the compositions of Cage and Stockhausen may be predicative patterns with some real power to articulate the vague, incoherent emotions associated with the angst, the dread, the meaninglessness, the absurdity which existentialism, for example, finds in the soul of modern man.



What larger implications for aesthetic theory now come to the fore?  Aestheticians are divided into those who argue that Art is life-oriented, revelatory, pulsing with human significance and insight into reality, and those who argue that Art exists for Art’s sake alone, that it is aloof, exclusive, autonomous, cut off from the world so that its practitioners and its customers need bring nothing with them from the world when they enter its Olympian domain.  This latter group focuses on the immediate sense surface, the significant form; the former group speaks of expression, communication, revelation.

In the debate between partisans of these two rival positions, music is often used as the prime weapon of the autonomists, the purists, the formalists of the second camp.  To the claim of a Croce or a Collingwood that Art expresses in the sense that it clarifies and articulates, the autonomists reply by smugly pointing to music as does John Hospers, for example, when he writes:  “ ... I cannot say that the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor is expressive of anything ... ”8  The Croce-Collingwood theory operates very successfully in poetry, while the formalists here become a bit embarrassed; the “pure music” theory of poetry has never made much headway.  But on the other hand the purists seem to be strong when they speak of music and modern art.

Is it the case that we are left with these two ultimate positions, each unassailable in those media it prefers to discuss?  I mean this question to be rhetorical, for it has been the purpose of this paper to show that an Art for Life’s sake view can meaningfully and plausibly extend to music.  If it can, then the partisans of this view of Art have captured a hostage whom the purists desperately wish to defend and protect as their own. 


1  (Chicago, 1956).

2  J. of the American Musicological Society, XIV, 2, (1961), 257-267.

3 J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (New York, Vintage Book), p. 9.

4 Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music (New York, 1957), pp. 24-25.

5 Ibid., p. xii.

6 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York, 1954), p. 194.

7 Mentor Edition, p. 388.

8 John Hospers, “The Concept of Artistic Expression,” originally published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1954-55), pp. 313-344; reprinted in Morris Weitz, Problems in Aesthetics (New York, 1959), pp. 193-217, this statement appearing on p. 206.

Posted April 18, 2007


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