Music and Meaning
Irecently completed a composition for violin and piano titled “Sanibel Suite.” It was written as a tribute to the natural beauty of Sanibel Island using descriptive titles for each of the four movements―“Deserted Beach,” “Cycling Through the Refuge,” “Under the Stars” and “Dolphins in the Wake.”
A friend heard the piece as musical activism, bringing to mind the fragility of our environment and the continuous effort needed to preserve our natural resources. An absence of such stewardship could result in beaches overrun with condominiums, refuges closed for lack of funds, the night sky obscured by light pollution and dolphins disappearing. The idea that a piece of music I had written could in some way encourage this kind of awareness was humbling.
Music has often been about more than “just the notes,” but defining those extra elements can be challenging. With the addition of words, the task is made palpably simpler: The notes become carriers of a message with specific meaning and context, whether religious, political or some other aspect of the human condition. For example, protest songs such as “We Shall Overcome” point out injustices, inspire solidarity and demand change, transcending specific origin and gaining a universally understood meaning.
But words are not a prerequisite for carrying a message, as purely instrumental works can also communicate through subtext and musical symbolism. These might be inherent to the work itself, or attached to the music at some later point. As an example of the former case, consider a piece such as the “Funeral March” movement of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata. Thanks to the title, we think we understand what the piece is about. But here is where the trouble begins. What Chopin was thinking when he wrote it and what he wanted to convey to his listeners, however, we have no idea. As a funeral march the music serves as a reminder of our own mortality. This might lead us to a greater appreciation of our lives, or alternatively cause us to sink into despair. Or we might just enjoy the funereal musical experience vicariously. It’s up to us to process and interpret Chopin’s musical message.
As an example of the case of adding a specific meaning to a musical work, there is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, used by the Allies as a call to victory during World War II. The symphony’s famous opening “short-short-short-long” motto corresponded to Morse code for the letter V for victory and freedom heard at the outset of the BBC’s wartime radio broadcasts.
Given that Beethoven was a German composer, the appropriation was as ironic as it was ingenious, even if only a few would understand the association.
So as music moves through our world, it carries with it a multitude of meanings, which can be altered over time and vary from person to person. As a potential force for change, music not only affects our own lives but also continues to impact the world around us in profound ways.
How has music given meaning to your own life … and in what ways do you see it influencing the world around you? Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis. Entwistle earned his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel.
SO AS MUSIC MOVES THROUGH OUR WORLD, IT CARRIES WITH IT A MULTITUDE OF MEANINGS.