Last week I broached this question, in the music appreciation course I'm teaching. It was a natural sidbar (or so it seemed to me) because we were listening to Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (1. Spring/I allegro) and the text introduced the notion of "program music." The students ought to have read their text prior to class, and to have engaged the Listening Activity - Four Seasons/Spring/I - allegro. As an experiment in "what music means" I had brought a CD with the full set of concerti; and I skipped around through various movements, asking "which season is this?"
The point was made clear, or so I hope: nothing Vivaldi wrote in these delightful pieces can actually tell us about the seasons. Because he provided a poetic program for us, we can make those associations. And they are compelling associations, once we have the key. Over the centuries, they have even come to "mean" the seasons ... for those in the know!
So far, so good. Then I opened Dr. Harold Best's book "Music Through the Eyes of Faith," and briefly posed the argument that music alone cannot convey "meaning" or "truth." Notes, rhythms, dynamics, form - all the elements of music - exist as musical/physical phenomenon. In themselves, they simply are what they are.
Not that music, by itself, stays "meaningless." Music takes on meaning by association, use, an assigned program, or words. But if you never heard the hymn "Amazing Grace" (just for an example), you could not learn anything about grace from the music alone. Yes, it might stir you; it might stir in you a longing for something. But it cannot preach or testify to the idea of "grace." It is, essentially, "just music." An organist may play an abstract Bach fugue in public worship, because the organ has a long association as an instrument of public worship. A fugue based on a hymn tune is one thing, but we hardly blink to hear an abstract fugue (no textual association) as a postlude. What does it "mean" in itself? Ask your counterpoint professor!
The body language, then the after-class conversations, both pleased and surprised me. Here was a subject - a sidebar! - that actually stirred the students. So far as I can tell, they weren't buying it. I think ultimately, with those who continued the conversation, we came to agree that music has a singular ability - that is, to move people; an emotional effect. Even this, to a large degree, is probably culturally conditioned. Regardless, music has this effect, which is not the same as having specific meaning, conveying truth. We also agreed that music is one of God's great gifts of general grace, through which the God-drawn listener might well come to the conclusion that maybe there is a God after all. In that sense, music "proclaims" the same thing as the sun and rain which fall alike on the just and the unjust. Enough to stir us, to awaken us; but not enough for us to know that God so loved the world that he gave his Son.
Thinking back on this, I am struck again with the value, the importance, of music in the church. What a privilege to make music that is "limited" to associtation with words: music that serves proclamation, devotion, maturity. And also to be able to enjoy music on its own terms, and not expect or demand that it do more.