Music is Meaningless

There is no such thing as sad music.

There is no such thing as happy music.

Music has no inherent emotional value or meaning.

Hearing this, some may at first react rather negatively and strongly, saying that this is reductive and takes all the fun out of music.

I disagree.

To realize that music itself does not have any meaning is freedom. It means that we don’t have to feel sadness when we hear music in a minor key, and we don’t have to feel pumped when we listen to music that’s big and fast and explosive. We can ascribe whatever meaning(s) we want to the music we hear and that we write.

This, of course, has a lot of interesting corollaries when it comes to music for visual media, and even to concert music with program notes. In fact, the way I tend to write concert music, it starts out just writing notes. I search for whatever sounds happens to appeal to me at the moment of writing, re-arranging notes and sections at the whim of the present. Usually, I’m not seeking to address some pent-up emotion or paint a specific picture. I’m just drawing musical shapes that I think look (ie, sound) cool to me, then and there, putting them in an arrangement that makes an interesting pattern.

As the forms start to coalesce, usually something happens to all these musical shapes. Landscapes pop out. Faces appear. It’s like Google’s Deep Dream machine applied to white noise. Sometimes I’ll then purposely shape the sounds to more resemble the newly born figures, but often the abstract representations end up being more interesting than the whatever my mind might be interpreting from the images.

Sometimes at this point I’ll keep my title and “program” for the piece of music vague, a faint impression of what seems to be the most dominant feeling that it gives me, and/or that others might be able to take away from it, or to guide the listeners towards certain shapes in the sounds. Other times the title and/or program notes will be a little bit more specific, but virtually never outright label the individual shapes.

Maybe the triangles are pyramids. Maybe they’re the tips of spears.

Maybe that sound is like a siren. Maybe it’s like a whale-call.

Music for film is obviously a different beast. The preset time constraints and images force one to compose with a pre-conceived image in mind, whether they work with it, against it, or in spite of it.

Video games also provide a different challenge, since the non-linearity leaves one open to make more decisions, but the visuals still provide a point of reference that one should keep in mind when making any musical decisions.

But I digress.

The point is, the music, when separated from the image, out of context of the image or program note or lyrics or title or what-have-you, doesn’t have a meaning. It’s just sound. Just air vibrating at complexly varying, interlocking frequencies. Sound patterns. You don’t have to be afraid of atonal tone clusters. You don’t have to think vast Nordic landscapes when you hear Sibelius. John Cage doesn’t have to be “just noise.” Metal doesn’t have to be satanic.

Music is only what you make of it.

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