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There is on-going debate about whether music can convey specific, rational meaning, and if it can, how does it do so? Of course, these arguments devolve into semantics. What do we mean by “specific” and “meaning”? But leaving arcane conundrums aside, the question of “meaning” in music, as we commonly understand that word, fascinates me.
This piece wonders about that question, especially as posed by Noam Chomsky’s now famous sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” He constructed this apparently nonsensical sentence to research the human compulsion to find or make meaning in things— even things never intended to have meaning. Put before his students all responded with specfic ideas about what the sentence meant even though he intended it to be meaningless.
Absolute music is an example of how we seem compelled to find meaning. The composer may intend the music to be contemplated as pure music, devoid of any narrative, “program,” or meaning, but I’m not sure that’s possible. As Chomsky’s test showed, we seem compelled to discover meaning, intended or not. Even from nonsense, we try to understand and make meaning. It seems that besides meaning in the rational sense (e.g. futility of war, love is simultaneously blissful freedom and a prison), we also understand emotional or supra-rational meaning (e.g. I don’t know what the music is supposed to mean, but it means something to me.)
Is the meaning, or absence of meaning, intended by the composer any more valid than what a listener may find or imagine? Listeners may understand what I intend to communicate, but they aren’t simply receiving that information. Their minds compare, relate, and otherwise contemplate the music in many ways—including whatever the composer may have to say about it. Just like composing, listening is a creative act.
As Chomsky’s sentence demonstrates so clearly, meaning is not solely conveyed by the composer’s intention. As listeners, we make it.
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Reviews of Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. (solo piano)
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