The Meaning of Music


When people listen to music, their brains create patterns that are uniquely adapted for understanding the sounds. The resulting neural network, called the brain’s musical map, provides us with a comprehensive system for describing and predicting the effects of various musical sounds. This makes it possible to explain why some sounds are more pleasant than others, and how certain songs can trigger the release of hormones that make us feel a connection to other people.

Music’s role in human culture is vast and varied. It is often used to accompany ritual and ceremonial occasions, such as religious and military services, weddings, funerals, and royal coronations. It is also a powerful way to convey emotion and meaning, with the ability to evoke feelings such as sorrow, satisfaction, anger, joy, or piety. It can also be a medium for communication, as it can convey information with more precision than spoken words.

The most persistent debate about music involves the question of its meaning. Some theorists, known as referentialists, argue that music can and does communicate meanings to the listener, while others, called nonreferentialists or formalists, assert that music has no intrinsic significance beyond the sounds themselves.

During the course of this episode, we will explore some theories of musical meaning. Our first consideration will be the Platonic idea that music, like all art, is a kind of copy or symbol of the Idea of Beauty. This view explains why the great composers, such as Beethoven and Brahms, were concerned with harmonic structure.

It also explains the use of tonality as a way to communicate a sense of order in the universe and to impart emotions, such as sadness or happiness. Throughout the centuries, philosophers have argued over whether music is truly expressive of ideas and emotions, or whether it is merely an ornament or embellishment.

The earliest theorists regarded music as an accessory to other art forms, with particular value for its function in ceremonies and narratives. The philosopher Confucius, for example, considered it an important tool for learning and a manifestation of virtue. He believed that it could portray the six emotions: sorrow, satisfaction, anger, piety, and love.

In recent times, theorists have tended to focus on the social and psychological effects of music. They have also analyzed the ways in which the sonic features of music can influence human behavior, such as enhancing group cohesion and facilitating bonding with close friends. In addition, research suggests that listening to music can motivate people during repetitive tasks and reduce the onset of drowsiness. It can also help to stimulate the production of the hormones oxytocin and serotonin, which promote social attachment and trust. Music can even affect our body chemistry, triggering the release of chemicals that increase motivation, alertness, and blood pressure. For these reasons, it is no wonder that music is so universally loved and enjoyed across the world.