Leonard Bernstein On The Meaning Of Music (Hint: There Is None)


In 1958 Leonard Bernstein took over the long-running Young People’s Concerts series, and for the first time in the program’s history it was televised nationwide. With this kind of reach, which was unprecedented for any American composer at the time, the man behind West Side Story used his influence and his New York Philharmonic to educate and inspire young children with different musical lessons, all based around classical music.

The most famous of these concerts might be the very first one, when Bernstein, a man who loved to talk about music as much as he loved to preform, was bold enough to tackle one of the great questions of music: what does it mean?

Bernstein attempts to answer this question by using music itself to demonstrate how any sort of meaning only comes from the stories and titles that composers give to the audience. Take away any context and music has no meaning.

Bernstein on what music does not mean:

“When [my little daughter] heard me play [Rossini – “Overture to William Tell”], she said – ‘That’s the Lone Ranger song, Hi-ho Silver!’ Well, I hate to disappoint her, and you too, but it really isn’t about the Lone Ranger at all. It’s about notes – E Flats and F sharps. You see, no matter how many times people tell you stories about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what the music means at all. Music is never about anything. Music just is. Music is notes, beautiful notes and sounds put together in such a way that we get pleasure out of listening to them. That’s all it is to it.”

On the power of words and imagery, which music does not have:

“When you say ‘What does it mean?’, what you’re really saying is ‘What is it trying to tell me?’, or ‘What ideas does it make me have?’. Just like words; when you hear words, you get ideas from them. If I say to you ‘Ow, I burned my finger!’, then immediately you get an idea from what I said or some ideas. You get the idea that I burned my finger, that it hurts, that I might not be able to play the piano any more, or that I have a loud ugly voice when I scream, lots of different ideas like that.

“You see, notes aren’t like words at all. Because if I say one single word all by itself to you, like ‘rocket’, immediately you have an idea; you see a picture in your mind. Rocket! Bang! Picture! But if I play a note, one note all alone – it means nothing. It’s just a plain old F sharp of a B flat. A sound, that’s all, higher or lower, louder or softer – a sound that can seem very different if I play it, or if I sing it, or if an oboe plays it, or if a xylophone plays it, or if a trombone plays it. Very different. It’s all the same note – only with a different sound. Now all music is a combination of sounds like that one.”

Why composers give titles to their music:

“Well, if all that’s true, then why does a composer put names on his music at all? Why doesn’t he just write something called Symphony or Trio or composition Number 900 and 50 and 12 or anything? Why does he give his music a name, like ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, or whatever it happens to be, if it’s not important to the music? Well every once in a while an artist is stimulated to express himself by something outside himself – something he reads, or something he sees, or something that happens to him. Haven’t you ever felt that you wanted to dance or sing because something happened to you that made you want to dance or sing or express your feelings in some way? I’m sure you all had that feeling. Well, it’s the same with a composer…The name doesn’t matter, except to help you tell one [song] apart from the other, and maybe give the music a little more color, like a fancy dress costume.”

Bernstein then plays Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote”, which was made about the famed novel, but he tells the audience a different story of the music, that it’s actually about a prisoner who is waiting for his friend Superman to bust him out of jail. The audience accepts this story and pictures the music, which was created for something else, to match this prison story. This is proof of how much power a piece’s context has over the listener – we will associate the music with whatever story we’re given.

After playing Tckaikovsky’s “Symphony no. 5”, Bernstein concludes that music’s meaning comes from its movement:

“Didn’t you feel triumphant? Didn’t that make you feel like the winner at least of a football game, maybe of a presidential election. Now we can really understand what the meaning of music is; it’s the way it makes you feel when you hear it. Finally we’ve taken the last giant step, and we’re there, we know what music means now. We don’t have to know a lot of stuff about sharps and flats and chords and all that business in order to understand music; if it tell us something – not a story or a picture – but a feeling – if it makes us change inside, and have all those different good feelings music can make us have, then we are understanding it. And that’s all there is to it. Because those feelings aren’t like the stories and pictures we talked about before; they’re not extra; they’re not outside the music; they belong to the music; they’re what music is about.

“And the most wonderful thing of all is that there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. And some of those feelings are so special and so deep they can’t even be described in words. You see, we can’t always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can; we can say we feel joy, or pleasure, peacefulness, whatever, love, hate. But every once in a while we have feelings so deep and so special that we have no words for them and that’s where music is so marvelous; because music names them for us, only in notes instead of in words. It’s all in the way music moves – we must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing, and flowing, from one note to another; and that movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can.

“let’s say I play the note and them move to another one — right away there’s a meaning – a meaning we can’t name, a sort of stretch, or a pulling, or a pushing, something like that, but it’s there. The meaning is in the way those two notes move, and it makes something happen inside of you. If I move from that first note to another one — the meaning changes – something else happens inside of you – the stretch is bigger, somehow, and stronger. Now this note means one thing with this chord under [this other chord] and it makes you fell a certain way, and it means something completely different with this chord under it — And it makes you feel another way. And with this chord under it, Or with this chord And each way, each different chord makes you fell a different way.”

So, according to Bernstein, music has no meaning because there is no meaning that you can (or should be able to) define. The meaning is instantly recognizable:

“So you see, the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies, and the way it’s orchestrated, and most important of all in the way it develops itself. But that’s a whole other program. We’ll talk about that some other time. Right now, all you have to know is that music has its own meanings, right there for you to find inside the music itself; and you don’t need any stories or any pictures to tell you what it means. If you like music at all, you’ll find out the meanings for yourselves, just by listening to it.”

This is pretty heavy stuff, and I’m not sure if these kids were ready to hear Bernstein give this long lecture (the networks agreed; future series would be drastically simplified). But this is still some great insight from one of America’s greatest composers.