What Does Music Mean? – A Curious Reflection

Does music mean something? If so, what does it mean?

Let’s go down to the fundamentals a bit. Music is just good sound. Sound is some waves at a certain frequency that human perceives by ear. When the waves have certain property, they harmonize, and human ears and brains perceive that as something nice. With that, music is the type of beauty that human experiences from nothingness, from the symmetry of the universe. That’s what music is.

But what does it mean? Music is a collection of sounds that is good. It serves as a way for human to enjoy ourselves. It, together with other form of beauties, means the joy of existence, utilizing the weird way that our bodies perceive and makes sense of sound. Music means the mastery of ourselves over our bodies, using it to pleasure ourselves, creating emotions, invoking memories. It’s similar to paintings, perceiving good things by eyes, by senses, to serve our purpose in life.

But what does it mean? Like, what’s the meaning of it being used to pleasure ourselves. The reason for its existence.

Hmm… I see your point! Let’s take a detour a bit. All the questions of what something means assume that it was created with some intention. Intention implies that those things have certain intended function. A car’s intention could be something along the line of bringing people to places. The Sun’s function could be to shine the Earth. An idea’s function could be to make people contemplate, or to push innovation. Or if you believe in a religion, that religion function could be to enlighten human, to guide them to the right path.

With that logic, the question “what the meaning of life is”, for example, assumes that life has some intended meaning. And similarly, the question “what does music mean” assumes that music is created with a certain meaning to it. We visited the fact that music only consists of sounds of certain frequency that sounds good to the human ear together or in sequence. It has no meaning. We exploit our way of perceiving the sound (the waves in nature) to our advantage. We realize that hearing sound in certain order or fashion makes us feel good, happy, sad, or dancy. So, we exploit this to our advantage and continue using the proven technique of producing sounds in a “good” way to continue enjoying this type of beauty.

But why do we have a certain type of response physically or emotionally to a certain type of sound sequence or sound combination? Here’s an unsatisfying answer: I have no clue. It’s similar to the fact that I have no clue why human ear picks up waves at a certain frequency as sound, waves at other frequencies as light, waves at other frequencies as pressures. That’s how we adapted to survival through evolution, and there happens to be some “bugs” or “features” of the human bodies that help us exploit it for our happiness. It’s like a flower has a certain function in the nature, but it also happen to look nice at the same time (well, there are two question embed in there: first is why people think flower is good looking, and second is why flower takes that shape). The answer to both are I don’t know. I can tell you that I know the intended use for flower is to attract bees and other insects, so they must look nice and smell good. So maybe that’s the meaning of flower? It fits into the ecosystem of both plants and nature.

Ok, counterpoint (not Bach): if all things in life has meaning, does life also have meaning? Why does “meaning” apply to some things but not others? Why does something have intended use, but not others?

Hold yer horses! Let’s take a look at a waterfall (beautiful! I know). What’s the waterfall’s intended use? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but certainly it wasn’t intended to be turning turbines and generating electricity for a long long time. So should we say that a waterfall is meant to generate power? Or would we say that it has many intended use, and as smart living beings come round, they/we come up with different ways to exploit them, then we give them more meanings. So if we constantly give things new meanings, that opens up the possibility that in the beginning, they have no meaning to begin with.

Ok, back to the meaning of music, or the intention of music. Waves that sound good in combinations or in sequence to the human ears may have no meaning from the beginning. But we exploit that fact to make “music”. Music has no intention when it comes to how we experience it. But the way that people have gradually learnt to exploit this weird perceiving feature of us has intention, to convey emotion. Since we know that music has certain bodily response from the human, which we have in common, we can use that to communicate with others, use it as a language. People have been obsessed with communicating with each other. That’s why we developed many language system. Meanwhile, music already has certain bodily response and can be transcended between cultures. It’s similar to the body language of opening up, hissing, making a face, or appearing big to scare off enemies. Since it’s embedded in the human package as a whole, we don’t necessarily need to learn to know what that means. Heck, we can even detect body language of other livin beings.

I’m pretty sure you don’t need to understand some lion’s language to know that it’s about to have you for dinner here.

Exploiting the fact that we perceive music in similar ways, people use music to communicate in the more primal level, the level that cannot really be explained by words. Take a listen to the music in this scene from Star Wars.

Urgg! I feel… feelings. How do we even come close to replicating that feeling by using words in a similar period of time? We can say we are hopeful, but the feeling elicited from the listener is no where near hearing this.

So here’s my conclusions: Music doesn’t have any innate meaning, but since human discover ways to enjoy it, and use it to communicate, we infused it with some meanings. If you feel like my explanation is not satisfying, that sucks! Jk, try Adam Neely’s explanation of the meaning of music. He made some interesting points.

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