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Understanding Music and Musical Meaning

Updated on June 18, 2012

This article, while it stands alone as an independent piece, can also be read as part of a larger discussion about the value of studying music. If you are interested in exploring the larger context of this writing, please go here to the introduction of this series of articles.



Scholars have been searching for the meaning of music for millennia. It is an ever-evolving quest as our understanding of philosophy and psychology and, now, even neurology deepens and expands. While we know far more today than we did a hundred years ago, we are still far from a definitive answer.

That said, there are definitely ways of looking at how music creates meaning that can grant insight into its inherent character and value to human civilization. This article considers music as a comprehensive symbolic system and contrasts its various elements to the well-known symbolic mechanics of language with an emphasis on clarifying the unique qualities of music.

For a complete discussion of denotative and presentational symbol systems, please refer to this article: “How Thought Works.”

Understanding Denotative and Connotative Meaning

To articulate the similarities and differences clearly, we must first understand the difference between a denotative symbol system and a presentational symbol system. Briefly, these can be described as follows:

Symbols have two basic kinds of meaning: denotative and connotative. Denotative meaning refers to dictionary-like definitions that are commonly shared by everyone familiar with the symbol. Connotative meanings are the personalized thoughts, associations and feelings that arise for a given individual whenever they see a symbol.

Understanding Denotative and Presentational Symbol Systems

Denotative symbol systems like language and mathematics are based on symbols that have both denotative and connotative meaning. Words, numerals, and operational symbols like the “+” sign all have specific denotative meanings, but also bring to mind various personal reactions, thoughts and feelings that make up their connotative meanings as well.

Presentational symbols systems, like music and art, are based on symbols that have no specific denotative meanings, only connotative ones. There is no dictionary that assigns the high “C” on a trumpet or the jagged line in a painting a specific meaning. Still, both of these things suggest the personal reactions, thoughts and feelings that make up connotative meaning.

With this established, we can turn to exploring the presentational symbol system of music in more depth.

Summary of the Symbolic Systems

Symbolic System
Denotative Meanings
Connotative Meanings
Language, Mathematics, Chemistry
Painting, Sclupture, Dance, Music
Musical tones and phrases make up the basic elements of music.
Musical tones and phrases make up the basic elements of music. | Source

The Elements of Music

When looking at how music works as a symbolic system, the first task is to consider the various elements of the medium itself. The individual tones of music and the musical figures derived from them serve as its most basic symbolic elements. They have little, if any, meaning outside of the context of the rest of the piece and thus have no identifiable denotative meaning. While certain musical gestures are meant to reference very specific things within the musical context of certain styles (especially within the baroque and classical styles of the 18th and 19th centuries), when that musical gesture is removed from its context, the specific reference is lost.[1]

A musical vocabulary?

A number of scholars in music, including Wilson Coker and Leonard B. Meyer, have attempted to clearly define and describe musical vocabularies. The vocabularies that exist within the world of music, however, are, along with being tightly bound to particular stylistic genres, significantly vaguer than those that exist in the world of language. For this reason, what one might call a "musical vocabulary" is so distant in nature from a linguistic vocabulary that they really can't be described as being equal.

For a few studies on the syntax and vocabulary of music see Wilson Coker, Music & Meaning and Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music.

This being the case, it is impossible for music to have a consistent vocabulary similar to that of language because there are no individually meaningful symbols to identify, classify, or standardize into a denotative “dictionary” of symbolic meanings. Relative to the rules of symbolic combination known as syntax, while there are syntactical rules that seem to be followed within a given style of music, to suggest that there are any universal, or even commonly accepted, rules of syntax in music is just as false as suggesting that music has a standardized vocabulary.

That syntax does exist in music to some degree, however, is unquestionable because identifying the rules that define how music is put together is the life’s work of music theorists. A look at any standard theory text will reveal that there are consistent methods of combination within a given style period, but that they change drastically from one to the next and are not even all that consistent within a given style period.[2] Thus, we can see that while the elements of music possess some characteristics similar to the discursive meanings of language—a vocabulary and syntactical rules of combination—none of these is firmly set or standardized.

Both language and music possess the power of subtle articulation.
Both language and music possess the power of subtle articulation. | Source

Articulation in Music

One vital characteristic that both discursive and presentational symbols do have in common, however, is the capability of clear and subtle articulation in symbolic representation.[3] In language, even within the established rules of syntax, there are a myriad of ways in which the individual symbols (words) can be combined that can create very subtle differences in the message that is sent. This ability is common to all discursive symbol systems and is centrally important to their power to symbolize because it allows the symbol system to capture meanings with acute precision.

While presentational symbol systems do not maintain the same elements of standardized vocabularies and syntax, they are just as capable of precise articulation. Langer makes this point here relative to the presentational symbol system of visual art:

Visual forms--lines, colors, proportions, etc.--are just as capable of articulation, i.e. of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language.[4]

Notice the symmetry of lines and the way they are pulled together.  This is the syntax of line as created by this artist within this painting.  In another piece, the rules would likely change.
Notice the symmetry of lines and the way they are pulled together. This is the syntax of line as created by this artist within this painting. In another piece, the rules would likely change. | Source

The same is true of music. In the combination of pitches, dynamics, tone-colors, rhythms and musical phrases music is just as capable of complex combination, or articulation, as is language. It is this ability of symbols to enter into these complex, expressive combinations that defines articulation, which is at the heart of how both discursive and presentational symbol systems express meaning.

What Kind of "Meaning" is in Music?

Though quite different in nature, both discursive and presentational symbols are capable of embodying very subtle and articulate meaning and, therefore, both have their place in human mental life. The meanings that they each embody are quite different, however, because of the ways in which the respective symbol systems work.

Returning to language, through its power to call on conceptions of specific objects denotatively, language permits us to understand and identify things and relationships among things because it can be very clear and specific in its references. Langer puts it this way: “A word fixes something in experience, and makes it the nucleus of memory, and available conception.”[5] Once one can hold on to specific objects (physical or ethereal) in thought, one can then begin to categorize them, manipulate them and formulate relationships between them. This is the power of discursive, denotative symbolization and why it serves so prominently in the world of human thought.

Just as the importance of discursive symbolization comes from the power of denotative meaning, the importance of presentational symbolization comes from the power of connotative meaning. Where discursive symbols are capable of identifying, categorizing, and clarifying relationships that exist in the world around us, presentational symbols are capable of symbolically capturing new internal ideas and experiences with a subtlety that is impossible to achieve when using symbols discursively. Presentational symbols do this by using the powers of logical analogy found in connotative meanings in order to create metaphors.

Logical Analogy is the mind’s ability to draw subtle relationships between seemingly unrelated objects. See the article “How Thought Works” for a complete explanation.

To understand how presentational symbols create metaphors, we must now take a turn that may seem somewhat confusing. Up to this point, language has been associated with discursive symbolization time and again and has been designated as a decisively discursive symbol system. Individual words, however, can actually be used as presentational symbols (metaphors) within the context of a larger discursive framework. Consider this quotation from Langer:

Where a precise word is lacking to designate the novelty which the speaker would point out, he resorts to the powers of logical analogy, and uses a word denoting something else that is a presentational symbol for the thing he means; the context makes it clear that he cannot mean the thing literally denoted, and must mean something else symbolically.[6]

The fire of passion burns.
The fire of passion burns. | Source

To make this more concrete, let us take an example. In my own life, I have long had a passion for playing the piano. The denotative definition for the word “passion” is sufficient within this statement to show that playing the piano is something that I greatly enjoy and that has a deep meaning for me. I have found, however, that it is so deep a passion for me that if I am unable to do it for an extended period of time I begin to miss it a great deal and actually become irritable as a result.

It is, then, really more appropriate for me to say that I have long had a burning passion for playing the piano. In this situation, the sentence itself is discursive, but the word “burning” is being used as a metaphor, or presentational symbol, to help convey the deeper personal feeling I have about playing the piano more precisely. The denotative meaning of “burning” is to rapidly oxidize. This meaning obviously makes no sense when coupled with the word “passion” because the word “passion” refers to a feeling and not a substance that can be literally burned. I must, therefore, intend for the meaning to come from the connotative associations that are brought to mind by using the word “burning.” Via logical analogy, the mind is able to perceive a relationship between the intensity of a burning fire, and the intensity of my passion for playing the piano. Therefore, the word “burning,” used as a presentational symbol, is able to color the word “passion” and give it a subtler, more appropriate meaning.[7] It is this ability of a presentational symbol to more subtlety symbolize the exact nature of the actual experience trying to be conveyed that is its greatest power of meaning.

Intelligence or Talent--What Do You Think?

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There is reason in language.There is reason in mathematics.There is reason in science.But there is no reason in sculpture?  This is all feeling?Dance is exclusively the expression of emotions?All of these, including music, are deeply thoughtful and require sound and "logical" reasoning.
There is reason in language.
There is reason in language. | Source
There is reason in mathematics.
There is reason in mathematics. | Source
There is reason in science.
There is reason in science. | Source
But there is no reason in sculpture?  This is all feeling?
But there is no reason in sculpture? This is all feeling? | Source
Dance is exclusively the expression of emotions?
Dance is exclusively the expression of emotions? | Source
All of these, including music, are deeply thoughtful and require sound and "logical" reasoning.
All of these, including music, are deeply thoughtful and require sound and "logical" reasoning. | Source

Does Music Really "Mean" Anything?

Both connotative and denotative systems contribute to our understanding by allowing us to symbolize our experience of the world in different ways. Unfortunately, while most everyone has at least a basic understanding of mathematics, language, and science (all of which have discursive symbol systems at their roots), far fewer have a basic understanding of the various forms of art (which have presentational symbolism at their roots).

All of the arts, however, are still based on thoughtful symbolization—or mental representation—and therefore make important contributions to human understanding. The problem is that, while people generally understand and easily recognize the “meaning” behind discursive symbol systems like language, far fewer people clearly see the “meaning” behind presentational symbol systems like music.

The societal distinction between the two is so common that familiarity with discursive forms of symbolic reasoning like language and mathematics has become synonymous with intelligence. As Susanne Langer puts it, “…it seems peculiarly hard for our literal minds to grasp the idea that anything can be known which cannot be named.”[8] That is, if you cannot assign a symbol to denotatively designate something, then it cannot really be known. From this point of view, the presentational symbol systems of art cannot be seen as sharing relationships with anything that can be “known” because they do not deal in denotative meanings.

This assumption, however, is false. Consider the example of my burning passion for playing the piano. As demonstrated earlier, I used the word “burning” to symbolize was the intensity of my own interest in the piano—an internal, emotional experience. It is true that neither I, nor anyone else, can precisely name or denotatively symbolize that internal, emotional experience; it is also true that even the presentational use of the word “burning” in this context does not convey the exact nature of what I actually feel. Using the word did, however, bring the meaning closer to what I intended. Moreover, although I cannot denotatively symbolize the feeling I have for the piano precisely, even through presentational symbols, it is absurd to suggest that I do not know how it feels or that others would be incapable of identifying with it.

What is important about presentational symbols is that they allow me to get much closer to precisely symbolizing the feeling I have than any purely denotative word could achieve. The word “burning” was, however, the only presentational symbol that I used to symbolize my feeling for the piano. Imagine how much more accurately I could describe the feeling if I used the connotative powers of more than one word, or better yet, if I symbolized it in a complete presentational symbol system like art or music. Using the connotative powers of these symbol systems, I could get even closer to accurately symbolizing the subtle details of my passion.

The point is that presentational symbols are just as capable of symbolizing experience as discursive ones are; they simply take a different path and describe different kinds of experience. Both kinds of experience can be intellectually “known,” and both kinds of symbolization can, in some way, share a meaningful and insightful relationship with those experiences.

This is logical thinking with clear understanding.
This is logical thinking with clear understanding. | Source
There is no reason here.  This is all about feeling...or is it?
There is no reason here. This is all about feeling...or is it? | Source
Perhaps there is more reason in music than we know...
Perhaps there is more reason in music than we know... | Source

The Heart of Musical Meaning

The potential importance of musical meaning is often missed because of two problematic assumptions that uphold the traditional views of knowledge and understanding as being relegated to logical-mathematical and linguistic forms of reasoning. As defined by Langer, they are: “(1) That language is the only means of articulating thought, and (2) That everything which is not speakable thought, is feeling.”[9] These two assumptions lead to a restricted view of intellectual activity in which language is the only symbolic system that can be legitimately identified as intellectual.

All others deal in the world of emotion, intuition, and vague conjecture. As we have seen, however, presentational symbol systems are very capable of articulating, symbolizing, or mentally representing human experiences in great and subtle detail, which thereby allows such experiences to enter the world of conscious thought and deliberation. Since there are ways of articulating thought other than language and there are experiences that cannot be symbolized by language but can be symbolized in other ways, there must be more to the intellectual than is traditionally considered.

Opening one’s mind to the possibility of other forms of understanding and intellectual interest creates many new avenues for the exploration of human thought and knowledge:

The recognition of presentational symbolism as a normal and prevalent vehicle of meaning widens our conception of rationality far beyond the traditional boundaries, yet never breaks faith with logic in the strictest sense. Wherever a symbol operates, there is a meaning; and conversely, different classes of experience--say, reason, intuition, appreciation--correspond to different types of symbolic mediation. No symbol is exempt from the office of logical formulation, of conceptualizing what it conveys; however simple its import, or however great, this import is a meaning, and therefore an element for understanding. Such reflection invites one to tackle anew, and with entirely different expectations, the whole problem of the limits of reason, the much-disputed life of feeling, and the great controversial topics of fact and truth, knowledge and wisdom, science and art.[10]

Thus, while presentational symbols do not arrive at the same meanings as the discursive symbol system of language, they do follow a logic of their own and present relevant meanings in a fully symbolic way. It is this that places musical meaning firmly within the bounds of intellectual interest and activity.

The mind is filled with many fields of flowers of all different kinds--one no better than the other.
The mind is filled with many fields of flowers of all different kinds--one no better than the other. | Source

I cannot close this discussion in any way that is better than the following quotation from Susanne Langer in her book, Philosophy In A New Key:

The general theory of symbolism here set forth, which distinguishes between two symbolic modes rather than restricting intelligence to discursive forms and relegating all other conception to some irrational realm of feeling and instinct, has the great advantage of assimilating all mental activity to reason, instead of grafting that strange product upon a fundamentally unintellectual organism. It accounts for imagination and dream, myth and ritual, as well as for practical intelligence. Discursive thought gives rise to science, and a theory of knowledge restricted to its products culminates in the critique of science; but the recognition of non-discursive thought makes it just as possible to construct a theory of understanding that naturally culminates in a critique of art. The parent stock of both conceptual types is the basic human act of symbolic transformation. The root is the same, only the flower is different.[11]

End Notes:

[Return to Contents]

[1] Leonard Ratner, Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style (New York, NY: Schirmer, 1980), 9–30.

[2] R. Evan Copley, Harmony: Baroque to Contemporary: Part One and Harmony: Baroque to Contemporary, Part Two (Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Company, 1979).

[3] Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1942, 92–93.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 135.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] Nelson Goodman describes the function of metaphors as a calculated category-mistake (Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach To A Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1976, 73). I have done this in the example above by putting the word “burning” into a context in which the denotative definition is obviously out of place, and it is clear that I intend to make use of one of its connotative meanings.

[8] Langer, 232.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 97.

[11] Ibid., 143.


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    • dmop profile image

      dmop 4 years ago from Cambridge City, IN

      I love music; I couldn't imagine my life with out it. I really enjoyed this in-depth look at what music is and how it is interpreted by each of us in our own unique way. Voted up and interesting.

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

      This is a really interesting and informative hub. I love music in its many forms but have often worried that there is something about interpretation of music that others understand and I don't. Now, I feel a little more confident that, as with literature, interpretation is unique to the individual. Voted up and interesting.

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado


      Thanks so very much for taking the time to read this over. There are musical roots to almost everything I do, whether it's inherently musical or not. I really appreciate the comment, and it's always a joy to run into other musicians wherever I find them.



    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado


      Thanks so very much for commenting. I definitely wonder sometimes about this material if it is too dry or too esoteric to be interesting, so this helps a great deal to build my confidence in the general value of this work.

      As for interpretation, music is very much like literature. The more you learn and the more you listen, the more you are able to see connections and perceive more subtle details, but this in no way diminishes the authenticity of a given person's reaction regardless of how "knowledgeable" they might be. Music has value for us in how we experience it and what it helps us to feel and see.

      Thanks for the positive votes,


    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      I would love to have had this information when I took music theory courses! You truly have a great background in music, and I know from hearing your performances (in your other hubs) that your talent is incredible. Thanks for educating us on this - I learn from you every time I read one of your hubs! Voted up and up!

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado

      This is wonderful and timely support! The next four articles I will be writing (which should all go up by Tuesday) are a new approach to introducing folks to some piano compositions I'm going to try that will use written notes along with short explanatory videos to give folks real clarity on how and why a particular piece was put together the way it was--something like an online version of a music appreciation lesson.

      I'm hoping they work out well. We'll see.

      In any case, thanks so very much for taking the time to comment!


    • no body profile image

      Robert E Smith 3 years ago from Rochester, New York

      I am now 58 years old and never had any musical training. I have no visible musical skill as I plink or plunk or bang or toot something that is able to vocalize emotion, any musical instrument. BUT... I have a deep desire to learn. I have no money and some learning disabilities that always get in the way when I try any endeavor. People who play try to discourage me by indicating how complex making music is and how hard it is for them (and they are musicians- some very accomplished musicians). Others that know no music point out every musician they ever heard about say that they began as children. I come from a background where there was extremely smart people but not much was done with the intelligence. I had one uncle in the music business and he hosted a weekly live radio show on a station in West Virginia, having at one time or another every old Country and Western Star alive at the time. It was very popular in the several county area that the AM station reached. My mother had a desire to play the piano and read a book and then sat down and played what seemed to me to be very intricate songs that sounded good to my ears. I was however was not the brilliant student, not the kid that could do anything but sit down with his school books and after studying every hour I could I only would come away with barely passing grades. I wasn't worth sinking money into for music lessons or an instrument just to have it wasted. And so my life and active years passed. I now am retired and am still longing to "sing" with a musical instrument. I sit down with music books from the library and no money and no talent and torture my wife with squeaks and squawks from my ocarina. I have always loved singing and the flute. The ocarina has become for me connection to hurts and pains that span my life. It has (for brief moments) let me sing and hear a few tones that, when they reach God's ears, hopefully make Him smile. I guess my question to you is: Is there any chance a senior citizen like me can learn on his own to play music on this instrument that I stubbornly refuse to put down?

      Not to pressure you but there is great anticipation on what you might say... hahaha No, I think I might know the answer.

      I loved the article and I will read more. Much Christian love, Bob.

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 3 years ago from Colorado


      This is, by far, the most thoughtful response I have had to anything I've written. As a member of Hubpages for close to 2 1/2 years now, this comment is just wonderful. Thank you! I hope that it helped you, and I have a few thoughts about your playing. First and foremost, I believe that if you enjoy it, then you need to do it regardless of the opinions others may have about it. Music is at least as much about what it does for the performers life, joy, and experience as it is about what it means to those who hear him. If you want to learn, then grab everything you can and stick with it...the quality of what you produce in the end is actually far less important than what you experience in the journey getting there!

      That said, I expect you are much more capable of creating good music than you might think, even given the challenges you shared with me. Your post reminded me of one of my favorite nonfiction books that I read as I was preparing my undergraduate thesis when I was studying music. I have actually published about half of it here on Hubpages. The book was by a psychologist named Shaefer Simmern. He spent time in an institution where he watched a famous artist (not someone I recognized) teach students with fairly sever cognitive disabilities teach them to draw and paint. What he learned about the process of artistic creation, which applied directly to music as well, was stunning. He emphasized how important the process is over the product, although he came to be quite impressed with the products the students were creating as a result of their solid processes. If you'd like to learn more, check out my hub entitled, "The Psychology of Art as a Process" and the one that follows it (there's a link at the bottom). Those two articles circle around that book.

      Ultimately, the Lord rejoices in the joy found in our hearts and our deep desire to perform well for Him more than the actual result of what we create. Still, our desire for quality is very real and the struggle in getting there can be very hard on us sometimes. Find great musicians. Listen to them. Learn from them. Try to imitate the beauty that you hear. I have no doubt at all that you will get better step by step.

      Play on, brother, and thanks for your thoughts!


    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      Amazing piece.

      I love music, but I was not given the gift at birth.

      Do you think that theme is as important as stories told in song?

      I will tell you the truth. I really love this hub.

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing work. I loved the way you presented your topiic. Wonderful graphics.

      This piece was helpful, informative and very interesting.I was glad to vote Up and all of the choices.

      You are certainly a gifted writer. Please keep up the fine work.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado


      Thank you so very much for this thoughtful comment. I have very rarely received such a detailed response to my writing in the years I have been with Hubpages. Definitely happy to follow you!

      In music that has no words, the themes really are the "story" that the music has to tell. Listening for how they play against one another and evolve over the course of the piece is much like the way we read a novel or watch a movie--we follow how the characters interact with each other, contrast one another, and influence and change one another as the story progresses. This is why I love classical music so much, as this kind of musical development and evolution through a given piece is quite rare in most popular modern music. Not to say that I don't enjoy that as well, but the focus of its interest is on something very different.

      I hope it helps you to listen for some new things in music in the future, and thanks again for your comments.

      Good luck in your writing!!!


    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Oct. 25

      Hi, wayseeker,

      Wow. And I can say the same about comment replies. I have rarely had one so gracious and warm. Thank you sincerely.

      I have to agree with your explanations about music. I just thought that there are songwriters who choose to give their music a theme and not about a character. (e.g. Rocky Raccoon, by Paul McCartney, John Lennon) told about a guy, a girl and her new guy, and the doctor. And that was the song and the story. I wonder how the song would have went if this duo had just given the song a theme and orchestrated instruments that were aimed at the country where the song originated?

      Too late to think anymore.

      Thanks too, for your following. I mean it. I cherish and appreciate all of my followers.

      I wish you My Best also.

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 2 years ago from Colorado


      I completely agree that some song-writers will put theme and song together in wonderful ways (you named a few). There are always exceptions to any rule.

      Thanks for your good heart, friend. Pass it around as much as you can--the world needs more!


    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hi, wayseeker,

      Thank you, my new friend, and YOU do the same by spreading GOOD news with good music.

      You are a blessing to someone like me.


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