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The late Jaime Zapata, a

powerful Warao shaman.


Meaning in Music
Music comes into existence at the intersection
of sound and culture. It is not until some kind
of meaning is connected to sounds—sounds
that might otherwise be heard as random or
arbitrary—that these sounds come to be per-
ceived as music. Meaning, then, is the essen-
tial glue that binds together sound and culture
to form music.
As was mentioned briefly in Chapter 1 (p. 3),
the tones of music are meaningful in at least
two ways. First, they have meaning relative to
one another. For example, the familiar chil-
dren’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb” consists
of a series of tones, or notes (a common term
used to refer to the specific tones in a piece
of music), that occur in a particular order.
Each of these notes acquires meaning relative
to the others: the first note sounds “higher”
than the second, the second note sounds
higher than the third. The relative highness
or lowness of these three notes (a function of
the musical element of pitch, which we will
explore in Chapter 4) invests each with a par-
ticular meaning in the context of that song. This kind of meaning is essentially limited to the
sounds themselves, in other words, to music solely as a phenomenon of sound.
At the second level of meaning, the one that concerns us here, musical sounds acquire
meaning in relation to things beyond themselves. Imagine being raised
in a culture where the exact same melody that we associate with “Mary
Had a Little Lamb” was the basis of a funeral lament instead of a chil-
dren’s song. Hearing the melody would cause you to have entirely dif-
ferent feelings, memories, and thoughts. The song’s meaning would be
completely transformed.
This example illustrates what is so often true of music: that its meaning is
determined as much or more by matters of context as by “the notes” themselves. This
is musical meaning at the level of a phenomenon of culture, not of sound alone.
Musical meaning as a phenomenon of culture accounts for why shamans (tradi-
tional healers) among the Warao, an Amerindian people of Venezuela, believe that
there are certain kinds of songs that have the power to heal people and other kinds
of songs that have the power to make people sick or even cause them to die (Olsen
1996: 262–63). It also accounts for why the singing style heard in CD ex. #1-5,
an example of a Chinese opera song (see Chapter 13, pp. 330–331), is perceived
as beautiful by its Chinese admirers but may be perceived quite differently by
people who do not share their culturally informed points of view regarding music.