Theories of musical signification since the nineteenth century

Many different interpretations of musical meaning have been proposed since the nineteenth century.

If a theorist is someone who explains something, then musicians themselves were not theorists before the 19th century. When not an explanation of a current or developing musical fashion, music theory usually takes the form of a technical manual for singing or playing an instrument, a collection of guidelines for adapting to the moment’s needs in religious or theatrical performance, or a message pleading for change. Prolific masters like Johann Sebastian Bach created not academic treatises but artistic monuments.

Composer-critics like Carl Maria von Weber, Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt emerged in the nineteenth century. These composers were also accomplished musicians and writers but did not propose grand unified theories. By combining the roles of composer and author, Richard Wagner, an engaged theorist, ushered in a new species. However, his contributions to music theory were few. Reflecting the programmatic concerns of 19th-century composers, he advocated the unification of music and theatre (Gesamtkunstwerk), but its many musical and extramusical aspects only served to muddle musical thought further. Wagner’s musical genius, so evident in his four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung (Der Ring des Nibelungen), cannot be explained by his rambling beliefs. Composer-authors of the 20th century, such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, were a little better at explaining their methods and intentions.

This idea of dynamism

Music symbolism owes a great deal to two German philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). These thinkers introduced a new concept to the study of music, one articulated by each thinker in their unique way. Still, they remained true to the same principle: the dynamic nature of music. They both recognized music’s status as a form of art that is not “spatialized” (and hence not “objective”) in the same way that other forms of art are due to the conditions of its manifestation. As an art form, music is more in tune with the intrinsic energy of the process; there are less technical (and no concrete) barriers to instant comprehension, as an entire dimension of the empirical world is avoided.

Some people use references while others don’t.

The most persistent disagreement among those who seek and propound theories of musical meaning is between the nonreferentialists (formalists or absolutists), who maintain that the art is autonomous and “means itself.” The referentiality (also known as heteronomous) holds that music can and does refer to meanings outside. In his book The Beautiful in Music (first published in German in 1854), Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick argued passionately for music’s status as an art based on inherent principles and ideas. However, even the fervent formalist Hanslick had trouble resolving the issue of emotion in music. The modified heteronomous theory is how Hanslick’s ideas have been categorized.

No matter how hard one tries, one won’t be able to find an extremist in either the referential or nonreferentialist camps. Igor Stravinsky’s career began with his success as a composer of dance music, and his later works are characterized by similarly extensive use of non-musical imagery. Associating referential with program music and nonreferentialism with unlimited music provides a convenient oversimplification. However, this option is not viable since extramusical referents can range in complexity from a simple descriptive title to the complexities of the Wagnerian leitmotif, in which a certain musical phrase is consistently connected with a specific person, place, or object. Both referentiality and nonreferentialists can enjoy program music if they consider the distinction between the extramusical program and the musical meaning. In his 1956 book, “Emotion and Meaning in Music,” American musicologist and theorist Leonard Meyer distinguished between “designative” and “embodied” meanings in music. He seemed to assign equal weight to music’s extrinsic and intrinsic meanings.