On-going debate asks whether music can convey meaning, and if it can, how does it? Of course, these arguments devolve into semantics. What do we mean by meaning? But leaving conundrums aside, the question of “meaning” in music, as we commonly understand that word, fascinates me. This piece wonders how meaning is made, especially as posed by Noam Chomsky’s now famous sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He purposely constructed that nonsensical sentence to research how we make meaning in things—even things intentionally devoid of meaning. Absolute music is an example. The composer intends it to be contemplated as pure music, as artistic abstraction without rational meaning, but I’m not sure that’s possible.
As Chomsky’s research showed, we seem compelled to discover or make meaning, intended or not. When we read Chomsky’s sentence, we can’t resist trying to figure out what it means. Is it emotional meaning as in a poem? Are “Colorless green ideas” and “sleep furiously” metaphors. perhaps for unresolved theories struggling for completion? Even from nonsense, we try to make meaning. It seems that besides meaning in the rational sense (e.g. the futility of war, or love conquers all), we also understand emotional or supra-rational meaning. “I don’t know what that piece is supposed say, but it really means something to me.”
Even when a composer intends meaning, explicitly or implicitly, it seems to be no more valid or meaningful than what a listener may find—or invent. We may clearly understand what the composer intends to communicate from a program note or the music itself, but we aren’t simply receiving that information. Our minds compare, relate, and otherwise contemplate the music in many ways. Whatever the composer may have to say about it is only one of many aspects to which we respond and that determine whatever meaning we may or may not find. As Chomsky’s sentence demonstrates so clearly, meaning is not solely conveyed by the composer’s intention. As listeners, we make it. Like composing, listening is a creative act.