Is there a meaning to music?
Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?
Aaron Copland’s “What to Listen for in Music”
Many music listeners – musicians, non-musicians, professionals alike – would feel dissatisfied with this exchange. These dissatisfied listeners look for a coherent meaning within a piece of music… music that reminds them of trains or rainstorms or wars or something else familiar. They say music is most expressive when it symbolizes something grounded in our world, with which we can relate. Similarly, according to the cognitive scientist Mark Changizi, music came about or was invented by tailoring it to fit our human cognition. I stumbled upon Changizi’s view on the creation of music in an interview he had with Daniel Lende, a cofounder alongside Greg Downey for the Neuroanthropology PLOS Blog. The purpose of the interview was to inquire about Changizi’s theories on how humans evolved and/ or were selected to do the things we do.
In the interview, Changizi starts with the idea that humans are animals, but we do un-animal-like behaviors like order coffee, write literature, and make music. How have humans come to do this? Changizi asserts that the answer has to do with cultural selection, which is the theory that language and the arts culturally evolved to fit into our minds. This shaping to fit our human minds is achieved through nature harnessing – culture makes language and the arts mimic nature, which is what our brain is designed to consume. In other words, nature is innate and from which we were made, therefore this essential part of human life is also our agent in becoming the way we have become. Everything that makes us unique from other animals – language, music, art, among others – stems from what we have in common with other animals which is nature. Changizi then delves into the specifics, stating that music was created to mimic humans moving: “Music is a fictional auditory story of a person moving about in our vicinity.” A main takeaway from Changizi’s interview is that music was fabricated for the human mind.
Now that we’ve gone over a scientist’s assertion regarding music, it is only fair to examine the written work of a modern composer. I’ve begun to read a book called What to Listen for in Music, which is a compilation of lectures made by the great American composer Aaron Copland (although who knows if I’ll be able to finish it now that Spring classes have started). The focus of the book is to learn how to intelligently and sensitively listen to music. Copland claims that the foundation of the skill involves three separate planes: the sensuous plane (music as a pleasurable experience), the expressive plane (the meaning behind music), and the musical plane (regarding musical theory). Although the first and third planes are equally as fascinating as the second, for the purpose of this paper, we will focus on the expressive plane.
The expressive plane merely translates to the question: How does the music make you feel? According to Copland, difficulty in answering this question is the mark of a sophisticated and beautiful piece of music, which brings us back to the introductory quote. The inability to describe the meaning behind music in so many words or even introspectively understand in so many thoughts is an unsettling notion because we humans are so entrenched in ourselves or concepts related to ourselves. In literature classes we are constantly bombarded with questions like, “What does this object symbolize?” and then rewarded with an A+ when we respond, “Her red dress symbolizes love.” Love is such a ubiquitous human experience; even if love occasionally baffles us and exasperates us, we typically all feel love. Similarly, during my music classes we were always asked, “What does this music remind you of?” or, “What landscape do you picture when you hear this musical line?” It is engrained in our minds that our experiences, whether musical or non-musical, will relate to us somehow, and if this connection does not blatantly appear in our minds, we should dig and search for it.
Copland denounces this standard goal of ours. He claims that sometimes (definitely only sometimes, as composers differ in levels of skill), music is incomprehensible and difficult to grasp, but that is when we have a truly musical and otherworldly experience. Why? Because each additional listen will not bore you – the music is slightly different with every hearing. That is why the greatest and oldest classical works are still being performed today; these compositions remain alive and timeless. The problem occurs when the “nonprofessional is only too anxious to hang on to any explanation that gives him the illusion of getting closer to the music’s meaning” (Copland, 1953).
Thus we approach our conundrum – Changizi asserts that the creation of music was tailored to fit our human experiences and minds, and Copland claims that the greatest works of music are elevated far above the capacity of the human mind. (I’d like to point out that the viewpoint of the psychologist, whose field of study involves humans, embodies the role of humans; meanwhile, the composer, whose field of study involves musical composition, embodies the role of purely music. It is not surprising that each expert is loyal to his field.) What caused this shift in philosophy? How come our values in music listening changed? Perhaps this is merely an abstract example of evolution (I’m doing exactly what Copland despises, which is creating a label for a phenomenon that I don’t quite understand), and that music is created for humans to escape humanity.
If you are interested in hearing a work by Schubert that I’ve been religiously listening to lately: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdHfVxySCTc
Copland, A. (1953). What to listen for in music. New York, New York: Mentor.
Lende, D. (2010, October, 22). An interview with Mark Changizi: Culture harnessing the brain [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.plos.org/neuroanthropology/2010/10/22/an-interview-with-mark-changizi-culture-harnessing-the-brain/