Subjectivity in Music

by jayhavaldar

I listen to a lot of music from France, Germany, Japan, Korea, India, and Sweden. Some of my favorite music comes from these places, and yet I understand none of it—at least, not in the conventional sense of “understanding”.

I believe that music itself is a language. Music is able to express a multitude of emotions with an incredible degree of precision. It varies between cultures and across generations, evolving along with and in relation to the people who use it as a form of communication. We parse it and create it on and an individual level. Its constituent elements work according to rules and patterns, allowing composers to divert our expectations in order to create humor or horror. In fact, the only difference between music and other conventional languages is that music is not as specific. It is a language of metaphors and feelings, rather than concrete descriptions and judgments. This is probably why vocal pieces often attach conventional language to a melody in order to create a clearer message. But if music operates on multiple linguistic levels, can we ever say what it really “means”?

In opera, the creation of libretti is recognized as a delicate and difficult task. A libretto is poetry of the highest form, expressing abstract emotions using only the concrete tools of language. Ideally, a good libretto would match the emotional tone of a melody. If, as in the case of Wagner, both are totally under the control of the artist, then the creation of such a coherent vision is much more possible. There is always a degree of discrepancy, however, and the same music without words could never mean precisely the same thing. We must understand that even in conventional languages, understanding is subjective. In music, this subjectivity is magnified by the inherently polysemous quality of the language. Adding words to music sacrifices some sincerity for clarity, but ultimately it is impossible to totally direct an individual’s understanding of the piece.

When l listen to foreign music, I fail to hear the entirety of the author’s intent—but I think that’s okay. The music affects me in the first place because of how I perceive it. To me, the musician is dead, but the music is still very much alive. Does this matter? Somewhat. I enjoy music sometimes for its craft. But sometimes I enjoy music for its effects rather than its causes. And I can enjoy foreign music this way just as much as a native speaker can.