Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group. We meet on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

Music and Meaning


Any discussion of 'music and meaning' quickly runs into a quagmire of vagueness and imprecision--what is the ambit of 'music', and how is philosophical debate dependent upon the field(s) of music with which the philosopher's familiar? what is the meaning of 'meaning', and does it make sense to talk about music in terms which have been developed in relation to language (meaning-as-intention, meaning versus meaning by, meaning as signification, and so on)?

The mainstream of Western philosophy has focused on what has been dubbed 'Western art music', and 'pure' music in particular (that is, not songs, or dance music, or music for cinema, or music illustrative of some 'programme', etc), and so I have sorted these suggested online resources (by no means an exhaustive selection) under two heads--music and texts. For both, Kent County Council Libraries provide an invaluable online portal to the Naxos online library of music and to the New Grove Dictionary of Music. If you already hold a KCC library card then you have access free of charge, using your unique library card barcode identifier. The online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and YouTube provide further material.

From the enormous wealth of musical material available online I have picked the following to stimulate and ground reflection on 'music and meaning'. I hope that at least some of these are new to you! After all, we might expect that if music does 'mean' something in the way in which speech can be said to 'mean' something then we will gather something of that meaning on first listening.


To refresh your ears you could do worse than start here:

Charles Ives: Three Places in New England (1929); ii. Putnam's Camp

Luciano Berio: Sinfonia 3rd movement

John Cage: Roaratorio (1979)

The pieces above all employ a compositional tactic of 'quotation'. As well as considering the work which quotes it is good to think about something which is recount been quoted, such as the opening of the plainchant Dies Irae. There is a useful entry (including an audio clip of the plainchant) on Wikipedia.

An acting masterclass must deal with the 'meaning' of a play or speech. Is this so for a musicians' masterclass? The following link takes you to a short clip of Daniel Barenboim helping Lang Lang to get to grips with the opening of a Beethoven piano sonata:

Another route is to join the audience of a lecture given by such a thoughtful and well informed--and preferably charismatic--maestro. Leonard Bernstein gave an influential and provocative of lectures (the Norton Lectures for 1973) with the title 'The Unanswered Question' in which he discussed musical signification in the light of Chomsky's innovations in linguistics. Happily, all six are available on YouTube. For our purposes, Bernstein's presentation is particularly relevant in lecture 3 on 'musical semantics', and if you are short of time dive into the lecture at 27:00 minutes, as he introduces a distinction between 'meaning' and 'expression':

Bernstein is also eloquent about the 'semantic crisis' in 20th-century music—see lecture 5:

It is always interesting to hear composers talking about their own music (others', also). Are they telling us what their music 'means'? Here is Pierre Boulez speaking about his music, foregrounding a key 20th-century work 'Le Marteau sans Maitre':

You can watch and listen to that work, conducted by the composer, here:

For another 'take' on composing after the Second World War, there is a fascinating and rare opportunity to see Karlheinz Stockhausen giving a lecture in London in 1972 here:

(If you are unfamiliar with the music of Anton Webern, try his early 'Five Movements for String Quartet, Opus 5' in a sensitive and intelligent performance.):

Of course, there are other traditions of music making and various ways of making music meaning-full. Traditional folk music, for one, and one can pose the question of meaning and music here by asking (amongst other things): Do we get any meaning if we don't understand the language of folksong? Consider for example:

And compare:

Nely Andreeva

Radka Kushleva

Examples of Bulgarian instrumental music:

Georgi Petrov

Sinan Çelik

Stefanovski, Tadic and Spassov: "Ne si go prodavaj..."

You may like to follow some of the relevant threads of discussion in the online Philosophers' Forum especially in the topic 'Philosophy of the Arts'.

Writing about Music

From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy the entries on Philosophy of Music and Schopenhauer's Aesthetics are good.

Entries on other specific philosophers part of whose work has made significant and lasting impact on the philosophical discussions of music (such as Kant, Hegel, Adorno) tend to be rather more technical and dense.

From the New Grove Dictionary of Music (part of the 'Oxford Music Online' collection at KCC, for which you will need your library card number), the following entries reward the reader:

David Reason,
Honorary Senior Lecturer
History & Philosophy of Art
University of Kent
June 2013

That the way in which
idle sounds run together
should matter so much
is a mystery of the same order
as the spirit's concern
to keep a particular body alive,
or to propagate its life.

~ George Santayana

Heard melodies are sweet,
but those unheard
Are sweeter

~ John Keats

In proportion as one experiences and so understands a work of art, one loses interest in its evaluative criticism.

~ Hans Keller

It cannot be too emphatically stressed that the only possible evidence for any discussion on the nature of musical meaning is the subject's own experience.

~ Hans Keller