Battle in Print: What does music mean?

Sarah Boyes, 21 January 2008

Despite using no words, instrumental music speaks volumes. A simple jig makes people dance in delight and a melancholy melody reduces people to tears; union songs, hymns, football chants and even the national anthem bring people together with shared values, ideas and aims; and everybody has their own special songs. Music en masse means reams to millions. But once the words are stripped away, what can music really say? What can rhythm, harmony and melody mean on their own terms?

Instrumental music in many forms, from Western classical pieces to Indian ragas, electronica to acoustic guitar, are often said to convey emotions, values and even ideas. Instrumental music has been commandeered by states eager to imbue their citizens with a sense of national pride; composers have tried to politically engage their audiences through symphonies and concertos; certain instrumental pieces resonate deeply with feelings of shared humanity. But in contemporary society, classical music is vilified by the government, and even cultural elites themselves, for being ‘inaccessible’ and ‘irrelevant’, and crowds of critics proclaim its ‘death’. Contemporary instrumental music meanwhile uses strange harmonies and weird sound samples; it seems almost incomprehensible. Did music only mean something in the past? Is the thought that music can express ideas sheer lunacy? And can contemporary instrumental music express political ideas when classical music was murdered and even political mouths are mute?

Bringing it together

Instrumental music has meaning in the sense that it frequently has strong associations with places, events and ideologies. The opening to Zadok’s The Priest reminds football supporters of the fervour of the World Cup, for example; a tune at a rally can galvanise supporters; whilst the Death March from Star Wars means the evil Empire is up to no good. Music without words is frequently associated with certain ideas. It draws up memories and feelings through the things people associate it with. Often, a piece of music can grow to represent the ideas of a political movement, sum up a sense of dissatisfaction with society or point towards a better world.

A shared experience of music, as celebrities are currently wont to expostulate, and the Department of Culture Media and Sport is fond of exploiting, can produce a sense of collective power which often leads to collective action. Think Rock Against Racism; think Live Aid; think all those old-times peddling the ‘power of music’; think American troops plugging into death metal before going on duty; think blues music of the black deep south. In many ways, it’s not the words of these songs that bring people together, but the music itself. Think of footballers miss-mouthing the words of the National Anthem - the words ‘God save the Queen’ have very little to do with a swelling sense of nationalism in British football crowds.

Rather, it’s the sense of history the tune conjures up, a feeling of ‘we’re in this together’ that comes from being in a mass of people singing the same melody. This idea that music cuts across boundaries of class and culture is a powerful one. It doesn’t matter how good the music is or how musical the participants are, it’s the act of opening your mouth and making a noise together that frees people up to embrace a sense of something shared and meaningful. It’s the thought ‘we made this, ha!’.

But does this have more to do with the simple truth that shared activity brings people together than it does with music specifically? Musicologists point out it’s the rhythm of music, rather than any ideas it expresses, that makes it speak to people like this. Banging a drum in a march or blowing a whistle to a catchy rhythm can affect people brutely - before you know it, you’re marching in time, swinging your arms to the beat and chanting along. This often instinctive reaction can be exploited by those seeking to organise and influence a group atmosphere; it can be used by crowds themselves to generate an atmosphere of tension, of aggression or of accomplishment and deliver a sense of purpose and power. 

But often the reactions people have to music are deeply conservative - rather than opening up to the possibility of action and change through participating in mass music, crowds can be comforted and abated. It’s as if the very act of music-making itself delivers sufficient feelings of engagement to stunt any further activity. Rather than music taking on broader and bigger meanings that allow groups to surpass themselves, pieces become narrowly associated with particular cultures and any ideas they might express fall short of having a social character of their own.

Musical conservatives would say that all of the above isn’t really ‘music’, and has nothing to do with rarefied conceptual content being expressed by instrumental pieces. In a way they’re right, not with being hoity-toity about what music is but with pointing out that this process is about people reacting to rhythm and melody, and not about instrumental music itself expressing robust ideas.

Pure and simple, or a not so innocent art?

Is there some more transcendent truth that music can communicate? And can instrumental pieces express complex thoughts; for instance, can they say the people should revolt or the government is censoring political expression?

The two questions seem related. One of the salient features of instrumental music - and perhaps why it’s called ‘pure’ - is that it uses no language. But there’s more to it than this, since my socks are silent and not many people think they express great truths. Is instrumental music special, or are we fooling ourselves when we think we understand music and that it tells us about the world? Is it cowardly even to rely on the vagaries of music rather than putting forward a view? Should music keep to its own turf as an art form rather than attempting to influence public discourse?

This notion that music is both like language and yet not language seems to be a way of saying a piece must have a certain complexity before it can verge on expressing any robust ideas. Established musical forms, like symphony or even fugue, seem to express ideas because we can have a prior understanding of how the structure of these pieces work. Programmatic music by definition tells a story, for instance. If we know the story beforehand we can map it onto the music as we hear it; and if we know a symphony has a theme and a second theme we can come to some conclusions about how these relate to each other as we listen to the symphony itself. Such pieces are deeply embedded in musical traditions, with complex musical systems where specific instruments represent specific moods and objects, and where the notion of harmonic progression is tightly defined and understood.

Such a complex representative system is always embedded in a culture: music is no culturally or ideologically innocent art. Whilst this means, given the right framework, instrumental music can reference extramusical things quite specifically, i.e. the flute solo represents a swan flying away, unless we know something about the culture in question and about the history of the genre, we will have difficultly understanding the complexity of what a piece is about. It seems to be our own prior understanding of the world that allows us to hear any ideas embodied in the music in this way: it’s said music reflects established ideas rather than making any new ones.

Taking the class out of classical

Considerations like these often lead to the thought that classical music in Britain - where it is often associated with class privilege - is the roaming ground of the cultural elites, the ruling classes. Whilst it’s often been the case that the moneyed have enjoyed the pleasures of classical music, the two are not necessary comfortable bedfellows. For instance, Wagner wrote his Ring Cycle with the express intention of explaining to the ‘everyday man’ why the revolution of 1789 failed: he thought an opera would communicate better with ‘the masses’ than any speech could. Civic music could have its place in the nineteenth century because everyday people were concert-goers. The people of Brussels revolted after hearing an opera. And today (as always), being rich or having an impressive formal education are not prerequisites for falling in love with Beethoven, Bach or Mahler.

It’s interesting that classical music is still associated with class privilege at all. When many discussions about music morph seamlessly into heated arguments over classical music versus everything else, it’s tempting to think there’s more than a discussion about music per se at play. The reason people get so hung up about classical music seems to be something to do with feeling a little embarrassed about the inequalities classical music can make manifest. Classical music can be seen as a conduit for the worst of values: arrogance, pretension, oppressiveness.

Music is always embedded in a broader cultural framework and seen through a wider social lens, and without this music could have little meaning at all. The important point, though, is that musical associations aren’t fixed, but are open to interpretation and change. It therefore might be a good thing to take the class out of classical music for a while.

Moreover, with the putative move from a ‘monocultural’ to a ‘multicultural’ Britain, the question of musical meaning takes on an important political focus. Tessa Jowell - culture secretary in Tony Blair’s government - argued that art could (should) better a person, making them a better human being. Whilst there’s something to be said for what art can do to people and humanity, the other side of the coin, the notion that people who don’t engage with art, or who listen to the wrong sort of music, are subhuman in some strange sense shows how borderline fascistic this idea can be. The fact is that listening to classical music will not make people more middle class, more British, or more likely to vote New Labour.

Most recently, the Music Manifesto - a policy document about music education in schools - showed how strongly links have been forged between a particular musical genre and culture and class. One of the laudable principles of the Manifesto is to make money available for any child who wishes to learn an instrument outside of mainstream lessons. One of the less laudable ideas is that classical music be played down in lessons: not only is it too difficult for today’s children, but it’s inaccessible to those who aren’t part of ‘British culture’. Instead, music lessons will involve children bringing in music from ‘their cultures’ so that nobody feels left out. Rather than making music training more accessible to all, the Manifesto makes a conservative move that ultimately reserves classical music for the select few. Instead of showing that some of the best music around can be appreciated by everybody regardless of class or culture), classical music is further being held apart as something too good for everybody to get their hands on. The issue of what music means, of what it is associated with and what it can cause people to think and do, is becoming highly politicised.

Embodying ideas

In politicising music in this way is a more powerful political use of music getting lost? Is there a difference between a piece causing listeners to have an emotional or intellectual reaction and the piece expressing or embodying those ideas itself? What if contemporary music really can have robust semantic content, and is uniquely placed to make political points outside of the constraints of conventional public discourse? 

Composers have certainly been held to account for the content and influence of their works - pieces have been censored because of what they’ve been thought to express. The obvious (and contentious) example is Shostakovich in the first half of the twentieth century, writing under the Soviet regime’s arts policy of ‘nationalist in form; socialist in content’, denounced twice by the regime for nonconformism. His famous tenth symphony is taken not only to contain a musical portrait of Stalin, but has also been said to use various musical ‘codes’ to express dissent. Shostakovich not only refused to conform to the ‘standard’ musical practices of the regime, and in so doing managed to rebel, he also managed to express annoyance through the very content of his work.

Where does this leave today’s classical music? Can the weird and wonderful work of Thomas Ades ever give a critique of British politics? And can experimental instrumental pieces express anything new rather than being doomed to reflect the old? The best ideas are social, and if today’s music is to truly have meaning, if it is to express thoughts and views, it must be a shared effort between composers, performers and their audiences. If contemporary instrumental music is to embody ideas whilst political mouths are mute, it is very much up to us.


Sarah Boyes is commissioning editor for books and a regular contributor to Culture Wars - the reviews website of the Institute of Ideas. She recently developed feature review projects of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007 and the Verso Radical Thinkers II series. She is always on the lookout for new reviewers.

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