On Musical Meaning


I've mentioned the sacred music class I’m taking this semester, but just to recap, we’ve been discussing some of the practicalities of being a church musician: working with the lectionary, ideas for worship planning, and the role of music and liturgy in worship. Last week, we were invited to explore the topic of musical meaning. Is there a sacred semantic for music? This is what I wrote.

We assign music various functions within the worship service in order "to provide a glimpse of heaven, to facilitate prayer, [and] to be a means of witness to the unconverted" (Music, 2007, p. 88).  But while function is the role something plays in a greater whole (a role we often assign), meaning is the reason why it exists in the first place.  Meaning is an intimate characteristic of the music we create and it adds significance, understanding, and value to the listening experience.  In the context of worship, it is the meaning in music that makes the liturgy relevant to the people.  Does meaning make music sacred or secular?  Is it inherent?

Rick Warren (1995) suggested, "Music is nothing more than an arrangement of notes and rhythms" (p. 281); it is the text that makes a piece sacred.  Perhaps this is true.  There are no apparent intrinsic qualities that make a particular arrangement of notes and rhythms sacred; rather, it is the various functions we assign to music, combined with our own associations that make the distinction (Music, 2007).  However, is this not also true for the text?  Words are simply arrangements of letters.  Can words be sacred?  Or, is it more a matter of sacred significance, based on context and association?  Joseph Swain (2000) illustrated that the word "cross" has multiple meanings, each one determined by a different context and set of associations.  The word on its own holds no sacred significance or meaning but within the proper context, carries with it a collection of sacred associations, relevant on personal, social, and cultural levels.

Perhaps it is the same with music.  Swain (2012) wrote, "Like a word in a natural language, a passage of music has a semantic range.  Generally speaking the semantic range of the musical passage - its interpretative potential - is much broader than words in natural language because we rarely ask of music the same kind of specific reference that we routinely expect of language" (p. 182).  Words have specific meanings in language, determined by context, while musical patterns of notes and rhythms tend to be more open to interpretation.  Meaning in music is made by the individual, based on personal reference and experience, context and association.

However, people evolve.  Communities change.  New sacred associations are made based on present experiences and the process of creating musical meaning develops over time.  Therefore, music has sacred significance and purpose within the liturgy whenever it brings sacred associations to the minds and hearts of the worshipers.  Does all music have the potential to acquire sacred meaning?  Swain (2012) wrote, "As long as the music is a means of proclaiming the Word and is not the Word itself, it is theoretically possible for any kind of music to acquire a sacred semantic" (p. 196).

In conclusion, there is not a particular set of qualities that make music sacred or secular; rather, it's the meaning we take from the context of the liturgy and make from our own experience.  Music with sacred significance informs the worshiper and works to make the liturgy relevant and accessible.  Swain (2012) said it best: "In some sense, the best liturgical music deflects attention from itself toward the particular act in the sacred drama.  The words sung are essential because they are the prayer, but, paradoxically, the music points not to them but to Whom they are directed.  The musical semantic that liturgy requires is transcendence" (pp. 183-184).  In the end, the sacred meaning of music is more than praise, prayer, and communion with one another.  It is a way for us to transcend the things of this world and draw close to the heart of God.

Sources: Music, D. W. (2007). "Church Music: 'Anything Goes' or 'Certain Restrictions Apply'?" The American Organist (41), 88-91. Swain, J. P. (2000). "The Semantics of Sacred Music," The American Organist (34), 80-86. Swain, J. P. (2012). Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 175-198. Warren, R. (1995). The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI.

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