Music is Referential

When we hear a new piece of music, we attempt to make meaning out of it.  Our mind attempts to give it context based on everything we have ever heard before.  If  it has a melody that we have heard we name it. If it sounds similar to a melody we have heard, we say,” it sounds like”… If it is played on particular instruments or with particular rhythms, we tend to identify it by style or a place in history or as belonging to a particular country or culture.  If what we are hearing is too different from anything we have ever heard, we usually don’t like it at first. Maybe we will like it better if we hear it some more. Maybe we won’t. It is also true that, if we hear the same piece of music over and over again, we might grow to love it and if we hear it too often we will really begin to hate it. Repetition, as one of the elements of music, plays a role in the meaning of the music. An additional repetition might sound like a reprise or a restatement that validates something. It might seem like it is bringing home an idea. It might seem like a chorus that sums up the meaning of the whole piece.

Some pieces of music seem to have a structure that is just like a written paragraph. They might have phrases, questions, answers, exclamations, mantras, etc. It seems like this music is either pretending to be spoken language or that music and spoken language have something in common. Words spoken inside music are called lyrics. The word lyrical contains words like emotional and expressive in its dictionary definitions. A noun is a word that names something. It names something by drawing a line around something that separates it from everything else. Adjectives are used to qualify a noun further, making the circle smaller.

When we put musical ideas next to each other, we can take something that at first seems foreign, and make it seem familiar by repeating it. We can take something that sounds dissonant and make it seem attractive by referring to it in foreshadowing phrases or by explaining it after it is stated.One of the ways we make music work is by introducing a motif , repeating it and referring to it elsewhere in the music. All of these devices are referential. If we sit down and attempt to intentionally play bad  music, we end up playing things that aren’t related, don’t refer to each other, and don’t have meaning. But if we continue in this charade,  meaning begins to emerge without our consent! Our human attributes of adaptability and  our innate pattern recognition and communication  abilities automatically kick in and  begin to make sense out of the nonsensical. Try it and see. All art and nature contain the property of attracting the observer in order to make meaning out of pattern. 

When we improvise, we walk the line between what is new and unknown and what is known. When we improvise well, we walk the space between chaos and the old boring ideas in a way that provides meaning and freshness. 

One Perfect Sound


What is Music? Answer: ______________________________
Some people say music is “pitch in time.”
Some say “sounds sung by voices or played on musical instruments.”
Some people say music is “architectural time.”
Some say “music is the language of the emotions.”
I believe that music is a language, a code that conveys emotional meaning.
Can you make one perfect sound?

Outline for Improvisation