Meaning in Music

By Alan Gilbert

On Monday, April 4, 2011, Alan Gilbert became the first New York Philharmonic Music Director to give the Annual Erich Leinsdorf Lecture. His remarks, titled “Performance and Interpretation,” were Webcast live. Following is an excerpt from his speech, which can be watched in full on the New York Philharmonic’s Website,

Meaning in music is elusive — in fact, there are those who have said that music has no meaning. Nevertheless, for this discussion, I will be bold enough to posit that music does indeed have meaning, albeit not in the concrete or overt way that the word “apple” has meaning. Still, a performer interprets a piece of music by playing it in a way that is designed to enable the audience to understand the piece’s meaning, and I think that we can agree that it is not enough just to present the notes in the score. There must also be emotional understanding that adds meat to the bones of the score.

But what is meaning in music? Is it necessary to defend the notion of music as having meaning? As I just said, there are those who have said that music per se has no meaning — that music is essentially an empty shell that can only provoke individual responses that are not intrinsically related to whatever quality the music holds. I could be tempted to counter this nihilistic attitude, first, by pointing to the many functions that music has served over the millennia. For one thing, music has crucially served as a call to religious life —  by the shofar at Rosh Hashanah, or by masses for weekly or funeral rites, or other types of music used for rituals in other religions. Similarly, music has inspired people in battle, in declarations of love, and in other various communal and social forms. Today many art forms — art song and opera, Broadway musicals and film — are human expressions in which music contributes to the text’s meaning. How could it be possible, especially in cases where it is an accompaniment to narrative, for music to lack meaning?

That having been said, I am much more comfortable with a non-rigorous, intuitive reaction: obviously music has meaning, because it so palpably provokes a deep emotional response in people. I think I am drawn to this approach for dealing with this profoundly important question partly because I am far from being a true scholar — I lack the intellectual tools that academics use to effectively carry a convincing philosophical argument very far.

Still, my belief that music has meaning lies on an even more basic level: as a musician, believing in the primacy of meaning in music could not be more fundamental as a defining point in who we are and what we do. Furthermore, the idea that we must constantly search for meaning and truth in music is, I think, the guiding light for most musicians, and it provides a framework for stylistic choices: why would it even matter how we decide to play a given piece if there were no reference goal or meaning to pursue? It does matter, it has to matter, since otherwise we would have no compass to guide us in our interpretive decisions.

Of course, music’s meaning is ineffable — precisely because it picks up where words leave off. How often have we, as music lovers, felt something incredibly powerfully as the result of hearing a piece, or a phrase, or even a note of music, without being able to express or understand why we had that particular feeling? Amazingly, these musical moments can seem unbelievably precise, although there may be no words to describe them.

(For more information on Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, visit


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