What is the meaning of music, especially classical music? What is its value?

Image Credit - Xavier Cortada

What is the meaning of music?

The Meaning of Music

What does music mean to you?

In a fascinating and well thought out analysis, blogger and classical musician Elissa Milne starts with the following quote from the definition proposed in the new Australian National Arts Curriculum. The link to that article is Defining Music in the National Arts Curriculum: Values « Elissa Milne.

Here’s the full definition:

2.3.4 Defining Music
16. Music is the imaginative process of creating, performing, and responding to sound and silence for personal and collective meaning. Through the processes of creating musical works, performing with voice and instrument, and responding to our own and others’ music, individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values. Music engagement shapes our thought and activity, and is evident from the earliest stages of life. People turn to music at times of emotional, physical, and intellectual need. Music is a pervasive feature of contemporary life. In a mobile digital age, music engagement both underpins and accompanies many of our day-to-day activities, and, marks the significant moments of individual and collective life.

Elissa goes on to meticulously think through the assumptions made in that definition, focusing on the implications and issues with the claim that "music individuals and groups communicate meanings, beliefs and values."

I agree with her questioning of the truth of this statement. Music is too abstract to communicate "values" in the sense of knowing good from bad, right from wrong. The performer may embody certain values, but the music itself does not communicate what most would call values.

The music itself creates an experience for the listener, who may experience anything from deep emotions to mild pleasantness. It may even inspire body motions or a desire to dance. Beyond the listener's experience, two performers of the same piece of music will find and experience different musical meaning in the notes.

I have recently begun to use the word "value" when I write about music. The word value (singular not plural) has a completely different meaning from "values". Whereas values implies morals, value implies worth, monetary worth or personal worth or experiential worth.

Music offers an experience of value to the listener, who can then translate it anyway he or she wishes.

Sometimes all music including classical is lumped under the category "entertainment". "Entertainment" to me implies something light and frivolous which might include a circus, a sports event, or a pop music concert. I do not see classical music as light and frivolous, at least not all of the time. Classical music is far more rich and varied than entertainment, at least in that definition.

What are some ways in which classical music differs from entertainment?

Rhythmic variety and complexity:

Some listeners enjoy music for its rhythmic feel, which provide a sort of stable and predictable track with which to dance or sway. Much classical music takes that to another level with greater rhythmic variety and inventiveness. The second movement of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony "Pathetique", is a good example. The rhythmic feel is a waltz, but it's in 5'4 rather than the standard waltz measure of 3/4, giving it an unique lilting feel.


Many listen to classical music for its soothing tones. While tonal pleasantness may be found in much of early classical music, much of it expresses meaning through intentionally harsh and piercing tones, usually to create a meaningful contrast to another more delicate section. The last movement of Mahler's 1st Symphony in D starts with raw dissonance and chaos, as close to metal rock music as was available in the 1880s. The dissonance resolves, the following triumphant theme takes on a battle scarred nobility.


Classical music (even some serious pop music) is often associated with beautiful sadness, deep joy, dramatic battles (between themes or characters). The experience of music can also be cathartic for listeners, urging them to tears, with or without reason for the release.

Sometimes while performing, I feel emotions so strong that I can barely contain my urge to laugh with joy or cry with sweet sadness while playing parts of a Tchaikovsky symphony, or Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Do you ever feel this way while listening to or playing music?

By far the deepest and broadest range of emotions can be felt from the music of Gustav Mahler, whose scope of musical "meaning" leaves no emotional pebble unturned.

Architectural beauty and structural complexity:

While music communicates a vast array of emotions for me, another educated listener or performer may not identify the experience as emotional. Some would say they see the music in patterns and shapes. I occasionally do.

Classical music, as opposed to most other types of music such as pop, rock, new age (with the exception of jazz), communicates through its complex and detailed structures, which can be likened to the grandest architecture in the world. A good musical example is the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, which are not only marvelous in their tonal richness, but also their mountain sized architecture!

Therefore I define music as:

A high quality experience which is able to communicate many levels of meaning through tonal, rhythmical, emotional and structural content of the piece. The meaning may be experienced by each listener in a different way, from simple rhythmic or tonal pleasantness to mathematical amazement to deeply felt emotions.

Do you agree? Disagree? What is your definition of music?

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.

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5 comments for “What is the meaning of music, especially classical music? What is its value?

  1. mrG
    January 9, 2011 at

    How about: “‘Music’ is the experience of resonance.” This requires only an experiencer, but could include more than one of both source and listener and listeners affecting the source, but also a perceiver of natural music, the Music of the Spheres or of a meadow or a pastoral scene, the music in painting and poetry. The perceiver could be human, but could not, so long as they experience the resonance in that ‘qualia’ sense, not simply a rock harmonically vibrating. Music as resonance implies that information is being shared, not ‘transmitted’ so much as co-experienced.

    ‘Language’ on the other hand can be music to our ears, but very often does not resonate, and is more often thought of as transmitted out, very often from a player not listening to a receiver doing likewise 🙂

  2. December 23, 2010 at

    Thanks for this post, which clearly shows all the different faces of so-called “classical” music. Its infinite richness is the reason why it is important and should be an integral part of society. However, its legitimity depends on each and every musician doing a first-class job. It is as important for society that musicians do their job properly as for any other profession. Why? The answer lies in the qualities offered by music only; qualities which you have listed in this post.

    • December 24, 2010 at

      Excellent point. A musician who does not put their heart and soul into every performance is failing themselves and the listener. People can sense and understand when a performer is really giving.

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