MAKING MUSIC MEAN
Dr Nicola Dibben
In very broad terms, two received views of music and meaning can be identified. The first is that meaning is inherent in musical material. This approach can be seen in the work of music psychologists on emotional responses to music and the perception of meaning. The second view is that the meanings attributed to music are wholly constructed - an approach that can be found in recent musicological writings.
This paper argues against both an entirely immanent view of musical meaning, and a naively constructivist account, and puts foward an alternative which attempts to capture the mediating role of musical material conceived as socially and historically constituted.
I argue that music is made to mean through a range of processes (e.g. discourse about music such as journalistic and musicological writing, the values created for music by its use in advertising and its marketing, the rituals and practices which accompany music performance and consumption, etc). The way in which music is made to mean is not simply a free-for-all in which "anything goes" but a process in which meanings are created, shared, sustained, and appropriated. The role of musical material in this is that it bears the traces of its history of use, and thus embodies social sediment in its material form.
This view of musical meaning recognises the mutuality of listener and musical material; it avoids essentialising meaning as inherent in the sounds of music but recognises the role of compositional material as socially and historically formed; and acknowledges the role of a wide range of social processes in the construction of meaning in music. Empirical work which already begins to explore meaning and music in this way is presented and the implications for future empirical research are outlined.
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