All languages consist of individual parts that essentially have no moral value. The smallest parts even have no meaning: qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, zxcvbnm. The meaning comes when you take the smallest parts (letters) and arrange them into words. This is a simple proposition that works to refute the idea that music is amoral. Music has often been called a language. The idea, while true, does not solve the problem outright. The reason is that “word has meanings.”
Let’s take the word ‘jam.’ How many meanings can you think of for this simple word?
- I put jam on my toast this morning.
- These latest developments have me in a jam.
- Just jam the towel in the bag.
- I jammed my toe when I had to jam the brakes at the traffic jam.
- The basketball player had quite a jam!
- Let’s get our instruments and jam!
How about these words:
Where do all these meanings come from? They come from two places: the context immediately and the culture ultimately. I understand what meaning to put with ‘jam’ because I can read the other words and understand their relationship to ‘jam.’ I can read and understand the sentence because I am familiar with my own culture.
Can you imagine what the same arrangement of letters would mean in a different culture? What does ‘jam’ mean in Finnish, Dutch, Malaysian, German, Spanish, French, etc. Even English has cultural differences. I recently traveled quickly through London. While we in America wonder, everyone in London knows what ‘Mind the gap’ means (Watch your step). ‘Way Out’ in England means ‘Exit’ in America.
Our understanding of a language is dictated by the culture in which we find it. I believe the same is true with musical language.
Here’s your assignment: what does the music of our culture that worships sex, materialism, and rebellion sound like?