Is Music a Symbol?


Music, the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds for beauty of form and emotional expression, has been an important part of human culture since prehistoric times. It has been analyzed and described in many ways, and its intrinsic nature, function, or meaning has been the subject of many speculations. Nonetheless, the underlying articulation of melody and harmony has been central to all musical styles, from the simple folk song to the complex electronic composition. The resemblance of music to language has been the focus of many speculative ideas about its significance, and it has often facilitated an easy alliance with other arts, such as literature and drama, and in rituals and ceremonies (religious, military, courtly) and dance.

Music is a kind of symbol, in that it is the embodiment of certain ideals and sentiments. It has also served as a medium for expressing emotions and arousing certain reactions in listeners, especially through its effects on the nervous system. For example, music can evoke strong emotional responses such as excitement, happiness, sadness, and love.

It can also serve as a vehicle for political ideas and social messages, such as the desire to achieve world peace or the call to follow a particular religion. This has been true for many genres of music, from rap to opera, and for different periods of history.

The notion of a symbolic value for music owes much to the Platonic-Aristotelian concept of the art as imitation and, later, to Aristotle’s idea that works of art contain a measure of truth in themselves. The Pythagoreans elaborated this idea with the concept of the harmony of the spheres, linking the rhythms of music to the movement of the planets.

Many theorists, however, have argued that musical meaning is not a direct product of the artistic articulation of melodies and harmony. Instead, they contend that music has an inbuilt psychological or social importance, or some other type of significance. They have referred to this significance as the music’s gestalt, import, or meaning.

Philosophers who have favored this view of music have generally been those who have also held extramusical preoccupations. These include the need to explain how music relates to other aspects of cultural life, such as its alliances with dance and theatrical events; for its adjunctive role in religious or secular rites; or for its ad hoc connections with language (either as literary or dramatic accompaniment) or with a particular movement in the arts. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) were among those who have emphasized this idea. They viewed music as a force that is closer to the inner dynamism of reality than are the other arts, which speak only of shadows and reflections. They argued that music is a more universal and indestructible form of truth than any other art. These ideas have continued to shape musical thinking, even in our own time. Despite this, there is no agreement among philosophers about the exact nature of music or what it means to us.