Musical Meaning: An Exploration of How Music Affects the Artist and the Audience

Jenna Reed

Jenna Reed is from Salt Lake City, Utah. Though not entirely certain, she currently intends on pursuing a degree in Biology and Neuroscience. At Davidson, Jenna is deeply involved in Dance Ensemble, and she acts as a creative writer and editor for the Davidson chapter of Odyssey. She has a passion for science, social justice, community service, reading, writing, music, and dance. Jenna wrote this essay for Dr. Gregory Weinstein’s class Writing World Music.

Music, whether intentionally or not, often creates some sort of meaning, and frequently, one can determine this meaning through the different features of a work. In my study, I discovered three different types of meaning pertinent one of Davidson’s choir groups, Chorale. First, music holds textual meaning, or the message of the song as ascertained through the lyrics. Second, there is auditory meaning, which can be discerned by the atmosphere or mood that the song creates through a specific combination of notes, tempo, dynamic, rhythm, etc. These moods can be discovered both aurally, by listening to the song and associating the sound with particular emotions, or in the sheet music by observing the marked descriptive terms such as crescendo (an increase in loudness or force), doloroso (sorrowful), fuoco (with fire and fury), ritardando (getting gradually slower), etc. In most cases, the textual and auditory meanings overlap, however sometimes a listener may interpret an emotion from the tone of a song that is not present within the text. Thirdly, those that experience music, either as the listener or the artist, also can find it meaningful by the setting and context that music generates. Music creates a social and artistic space through which individuals can connect. Each of these modes of meaning contribute to the experience of music as a whole, however for Chorale, the most important aspects are the emotional sound of the piece and the social experiences they create within a musical context.

Music is an emotional experience, and these emotions generated in a musical context allow auditory meaning and social connections to be formed. While it can be difficult to explain exactly why music and emotion are connected, the link becomes more clear when observing the use of music in the world and a musical artists’ perspective on the matter. Cultures all over the world use music for spiritual purposes. In this context, I use spiritual to refer to both religion and connecting to one’s own core or spirit. For example, in Northern India, musicians undergo long, intense periods of chorale-image-2-300x199 Musical Meaning: An Exploration of How Music Affects the Artist and the Audiencetraining in which riaz, or rehearsal, is of key importance. When studying the underlying workings and meanings of riaz in Indian culture, Daniel Neuman commented, “The concept of riaz symbolizes a certain accomplishment of one’s inner development” (Neuman, 34). Part of inner development involves emotional maturity and understanding. Another example can be found in Sardinia, where Bernard Lortat-Jacob explores the workings of music within Sardinian society. One particular instance he recounts is the Easter ritual, where a large procession parades through town, completed by the presence of three choirs. Music is an integral part of this ritual, and Lortat-Jacob notes that to be selected as a musician for this event “an honor and a momentous occasion in a man’s life” (90). The tight integration of music and religion demonstrates how music connects to listeners at their emotional core. Music is highly evocative, and it has no limit in the emotions it can elicit. The director of Chorale comments, “Art, and especially musical art, is spiritual… It can be enjoyable. It can be disturbing. It can be meditative and sublime. It can be silly and fun” (Gilliam, Interview). Based on the way music is used in different societies and how musicians view it, it is clear that music and emotion are strongly tied together, which provides the basis for the auditory meaning and social connections that Chorale members find within their musical repertoire.

For their upcoming holiday performances, Chorale is singing a mixture of both English and non-English songs. Each day of rehearsal, the singers sing all or part of a piece on a nonsense monosyllable such as “dee” during the first run through, followed by practicing the song with the proper lyrics. The tactic allows the singers to focus on aspects of the piece such as notes, dynamics, and quality, rather than on pronunciation and dictation, however it also affects the interpretation of the piece by temporarily taking the textual meaning of the song away from the singers. As a result, the singers’ first impression of that song for the day is through the auditory meaning, thus they will interpret the piece by the emotions they associate with that particular sound before they do so through text.

Chorale relies quite heavily on the auditory meaning of a text, and experiencing music for them is a physically-involved task. Consistently through the rehearsal, the director will close his eyes while directing, listening to the music by cutting off his sight and immersing himself in the sound. The director also often uses his facial expressions to reflect the mood of the music. For example, while Chorale rehearsed a song called Riu Riu Chiu—a high energy, animated work—the director smiled brightly, with a lively expression adorning his face as the piece progressed. This physical investment was not limited to facial expression as both the director and some of the singers bounced in their seats in time with the tempo. Additionally, in many of the pieces sung throughout the rehearsal, the director used large gestures to direct, putting his whole body into conducting. The physical investment that the director and singers put into the music is based off of the auditory meaning of the music, because their body movements spur from the tempo and rhythm of the song, thus in order to evoke such an obvious physical reaction, the sound and mood of the music must play an important role for Chorale.

Quite frequently in the rehearsal, the director would ask the members of Chorale to take a pencil and mark changes or make additions to the sheet music, adding a breath, a beat of silence, a tonal descriptive word, etc. As a result, the music was changed ever so slightly in dynamic and rhythm. These two areas of music are slightly different for every single group that performs a given song. By changing these features of the piece, the ensemble changes the very factors that make up the auditory meaning of the work, thus the auditory interpretation may be slightly different at any given part depending on where the changes were made. By altering the sheet music, Chorale makes their version unique, thus the auditory meaning derived by Chorale’s audience will be slightly different than that for another group.

While it can be difficult to explain exactly why music and emotion are connected, the link becomes more clear when observing the use of music in the world and a musical artists’ perspective on the matter.

While Chorale frequently focuses on the auditory meaning of music in rehearsals, they do not completely ignore the textual meaning. For example, in one rehearsal, the singers were practicing a new song on a nonsense syllable, thus their first impression regarding the meaning of the song was through the auditory mood, however one comment from the director struck me. As the singers entered the second stanza, the director commented, “Take a look at the words while you’re at it. Get your eyes out of the music.” Such a comment, directing the singers to focus on the words over the specific descriptive instructions on the sheet music, demonstrates that the members of Chorale also place importance in the text of a song. Additionally, in their Fall Concert program, which incorporated many non-English songs, Chorale had English translations for every work in the show, thus the audience had direct means to discover the textual meaning of each song. If the text of each piece did not matter to Chorale, then the translations would not have been included in the program. When asked about the importance of lyrics to the ensemble, the director commented, “To me, lyrics—whether they be secular or sacred—enhance the music, but they are not as important as the music itself, the feeling behind the music, the artistry that should be expressed no matter what the lyric… I don’t think it necessary to make the lyric drive the musicality. That is not to say that the lyrics aren’t important” (Gilliam, Interview). For Chorale, the text is not the primary driver that creates meaning in a musical work, nonetheless it still contributes to the overall message.

Both the textual and auditory meanings of a song work together to create a message and mood, which drives the importance of music for many singers in Chorale. When asked what his opinion on the importance of music, one Chorale singer reflected, “I think music, at a low level, is mostly performed for enjoyment. That said, it has the potential to help people get in touch with their emotions if done well. Good music can have an emotional impact on people and change the way they see the world” (Becker, Interview). Some Chorale members believe that music can affect a listener’s world view because of its emotional impact, therefore while there are many forms of musical meaning, it does not just affect the artists, but the audience as well. When discussing his hopes for the audience’s take-away from performances, the director explained, “If my audience is unable to appreciate the genre of music that they are hearing, my hope is that they will gather other elements from the concert that will inspire them. My hope is that they will walk away having experienced art in a way that causes them to wonder, to ask questions” (Gilliam, Interview). As demonstrated by Chorale, music affects listeners in a way that can follow them even after a performance is over.

Music also creates meaning by generating a social and artistic space where individuals create meaningful relationships. Music draws artists together and their mutual love and passion for it acts as their initial point of connection. The auditory meaning of music creates feeling in those experiencing it, thus when individuals experience such strong emotion together, they see each other more on the core level, which strengthens the relationships between them. As a result, not only does Chorale find music meaningful because of its emotional repercussions but also because it draws the ensemble together in a way that is difficult to achieve in a non-artistic space.

Each Chorale rehearsal that I attended felt casual and familial. At the beginning of the rehearsal, everyone chatted and joked with each other, and the singers had no hesitation in talking to the director, speaking with him as frequently as with each other. Repeatedly throughout the rehearsal, the director addressed the ensemble with the title “friends.” Both the director and the students often cracked jokes in the middle of the practice, causing the whole room to descend into laughter; the ease of conversation in the group spoke to their tight-knit relationship. When asked about the relationship between the singers, one Chorale member commented, “When people spend an hour of each day together, it’s only natural that we become close. Usually, relationships don’t become really strong until we’ve gone on tour in the winter. Everyone spends a lot of time together there, and we learn quite a lot about one another, for better or for worse” (Becker, Interview). chorale-image-2-300x199 Musical Meaning: An Exploration of How Music Affects the Artist and the AudienceThis sense of closeness gives meaning to the music and the ensemble for some of the members, because the music creates an important social setting through which they forge meaningful friendships. At any pause between songs during the rehearsal, the room became filled with the mixed sounds of humming, whistling, and idle chatting; the rehearsal space acted as the melting pot for music and socialization. When asked about the importance of music, the same Chorale singer claimed, “A lot of it is also about the connection I have to the other singers. Knowing that the love of the music we’re singing ties us all together is huge” (Becker, Interview). To him, music was important because it acted as the main and initial connecting point between him and the fellow members of the ensemble that he had grown so close to.

Chorale’s rehearsal space and social dynamic is guided by mutual respect, which allows their relationship to be as close as it is. When leading Chorale, the director allows the students to be autonomous, choosing to guide them rather than command them. When asked about his relationship with the ensemble members, the director explained, “My approach to teaching is to keep a fast-paced rehearsal, leaving room for students to be themselves as they must, trying not to be a strict disciplinarian… I believe that I build respect by respecting them” (Gilliam, Interview). The rehearsals easily reflect this approach to teaching. For example, the director is not demanding of the singers, but rather treats them as near equals. For example, when requesting that the singers take a particular piece of sheet music out of their folders, the director says, “Could you please take out ‘Once in Royal David’s City,’” rather than ordering, “Take out ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’” I observed another example of respect when the director passed out new music. The director wished to preview each piece before the end of the rehearsal, so the practice was tight on time. Due to the casual nature of the rehearsals, there was a lot of socializing that occurred between songs, which was not conducive to the rushed time table. When rallying attention, the director asked for focus and explained why he needed the singers to not waste time. By both asking—rather than telling—and providing reasoning behind the request, the director acknowledged the singers as their own, independent, self-reliant person and allowed them to make the decision to focus for themselves.

The director also respects the students by recognizing their knowledge of music. For example, in one rehearsal, the director tried to make a note about a specific phrase in a song by modelling the manner in which he wanted it to be sung, however he made a mistake in recreating the notes. When trying to figure out the correct notes, the director asked the singers how the phrase went. Once they told him, the director trusted their knowledge without feeling the need to verify and proceeded with his commentary. By trusting the singers’ knowledge of the work, the director demonstrates the extent of their close relationship in the ensemble because they can rely on each other and mutually contribute to their experience of music.

Chorale’s director bears similarities to a guía of an ensemble in Coniman culture in his how he demonstrates respect and authority. In his discussion of Coniman ensembles, Thomas Turino describes, “A guía commands authority and respect with ability, but he himself usually does not emphasize his abilities; he must let others continually choose him to guide the group” (Turino 60). Chorale’s director reflects this concept of mutual respect frequently in his teaching methods. The director similarly lets the singers of Chorale choose to let him guide when he asks rather than orders them to do certain things. By giving the singers the freedom to follow his authority, the director elevates them to a higher level on the social and political hierarchy in Chorale because it gives them more power and allows them to make their own decisions. Ultimately, each individual instance of casual interaction or mutual respect between the singers and the director does not necessarily seem significant, however when looked at as a whole, one can see that the dynamic of the group is on mostly equal grounds, which allows them to have a closer relationship. If the singers of Chorale felt that the social hierarchy was tipped, they would not have been able to have the close, friend-like relationship with the director that is present.

The close relationships in Chorale could not have been forged without the the space created by music. A musical space is sacred to an artist in a way. The director explains it as “the experience of singing together–leading that group of students when they finally realize in performance what all the work has been about–that transcendent place that only artists in performance can understand” (Gilliam, Interview). For artists, music creates a “transcendent” space that cannot be understood by non-performers. Just by both being able to understand the space, which is understood by so few, creates a connection between the singers. Additionally, stress on music’s auditory significance means that music is a highly emotive practice. As a result, space that music creates is driven by emotion, so those that exist within that setting see each other at a rawer level. When people see each other through something as central as emotions, they become closer. Music is key to Chorale’s social existence, because without it, they could not for the relationships that they have.

Musical meaning has many forms—auditory, textual, social, etc.—and all these forms speak directly to the way in which Chorale exists and interacts within the musical world. The textual meaning of music carries a message that reinforces the mood created by the tone. When the lyrics and tone work together, a highly emotive work is created. This work can then be used to forge relationships, as seen within Chorale, and be passed on to create emotion in an audience. By understanding music through the perspective of an ensemble, we understand how music holds significance and power over both the lives of an artist and an audience.



Becker, Andrew. Personal Interview. 3 Dec 2015.

Gilliam, Christopher. Personal Interview. 4 Dec 2015.

Lortat-Jacob, Bernard. “Castelsardo.” Sardinian Chronicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995:89-97. Print.

Neuman, Daniel M. “Becoming a Musician.” The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990: 30-58. Print.

Turino, Thomas. “The Collective and Competitive Nature of Musical Performance.” Moving Away From Silence: Music of the Peruvian Altiplano and the Experience of Urban Migration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993: 58-71. Print.