Week 4 Blog -Meaning in Music and Making it Together

When Schutz speaks of ‘making music together’, he is referring to the social relations between a composer, listener and the intermediary party (performers primarily, although recorded music would fit into this category). He looks at the ‘mutual tuning-in relationship’ between the participants, arguing that this relationship occurs due to simultaneity within a specific dimension of time. Schutz refers to the music-specific dimension this occurs within ‘inner time’.

‘Inner time’ isn’t measured in the same way as real time, but for musical communication to be possible, it must occur within a shared temporal continuum – ‘inner time’. In order to ‘make music together’, musicians have to relate their ‘inner time’ experience of the music to their physical actions taking place in real time.

Whilst Schutz’s work is certainly an interesting analysis of a composer-led concert, today’s popular music proves problematic when applying Schutz’s framework – most popular music acts are presented as the songwriters as well as performers – there is no real ‘intermediary party’. Musicians in bands have to keep to ‘inner time’, but the rhythm of this ‘inner time’ is provided by a percussionist or drummer – even singers and guitar players tap their feet to keep to time. The structure of conventional bands has changed to musically connect ‘inner time’ to real time. The ‘inner time’ (the beat of the song) is provided by the drums, then tied to the more melodic and ‘real’ elements of the music by the bass guitar.

Simon Frith also identifies problems with Schutz’s framework by pointing to African musical ensembles – it is impossible for African music to have a conductor; the music is always becoming, never being (Frith 1998). Another challenge to Schutz’s work is made by those who believe that music comes from nature – Leonard Bernstein supported the tonal system, believing ‘musical poetry’ comes from the Earth, and that the sources of this poetry cause a phonology of music to exist, having evolved from the universal harmonic series (Storr, 1992). Essentially, Bernstein is arguing for musical monogenesis – all music comes from the same place. Storr goes on to argue that music is best understood as a system of relationships between tones, similarly to how a language is a system of relationships between words. The reason we order it as we have (and other cultures have as they have) is the simple human desire for order rather than chaos.

After reviewing the surrounding academic literature on meaning within music, as well as working at a small indie music gig (Youth Club/Young Kato), I believe context is the origin of meaning within music. Context refers to both musical and extra-musical entities. For example, the exact song performed in two different venues (a stadium and a bar for example) will have different meanings due to their physical extra-musical context. At the aforementioned concert I was working on the guest list, and found that many of Youth Club’s parents came to the show – this context gives the entire concert a different meaning; it can now be seen as a triumphant homecoming gig (the audience reaction certainly attests to this). Similarly, within the music itself context is important. One note by itself has no meaning – it is a simple, unwavering sound. However, when combined with several other musical elements it becomes a cog in the machine that is the music being performed/played. Lyrics take different meanings based on how they are sung within the context of both the song and society at the time of the release. Third Eye Blind’s ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ comes across as a tongue-in-cheek, bouncy, upbeat, ‘sound of the 90s’ American radio rock song with the semi-rapped verses, catchy yet defiant chorus and the frontman’s falsetto. However, the song takes a considerably more sinister tone when the lyrics are simply read out loud rather than sung. The song is about crystal meth abuse, yet simply doesn’t sound that dark. The rapped verses were a reaction to hip-hop’s growing influence on popular music at the time.

Of course, context by definition involves anyone associated with the performance; the audience’s reaction to Young Kato’s performance adds meaning to the performance both extra-musically (the songs meaning is amplified when a room full of untrained vocalists are singing it rather than one competent one) and musically (crowd chants, crowd singing creating a natural reverb within the small venue (Sunflower Lounge)). So I believe in the idea of making music together – consumers can produce (Long and Wall refer to these as ‘prosumers’ (2012)), but meaning is produced by both musical and extra-musical context.



  • Frith, S. (1998). Performing Rites. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Long, P. and Wall, T. (2012). Media Studies. Harlow, England: Pearson.
  • Schutz, A. (1976). Making Music Together. In: A. Schutz and A. Brodersen ed., Collected Papers II. 1st Dordecht: Springer Netherlands.
  • Storr, A. (1992). Music and the Mind. New York: Free Press.

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