Some of the Best Music Expresses Nothing at All

I’ve been listening to a lot of J. S. Bach lately, as well as bits of Thomas Tallis, Josquin, and similar pre-Classical Era composers. Often as I listen to these pieces of music, I find myself thinking: this music expresses nothing.
The power of a piece like this may well be that it can’t be broken down into any kind of meaning other than the meaning that it seems to have as we hear it unfold. Perhaps that helps to explain why, even as it has no message, it still seems to express information that seems both deep and somehow true as well.
In any case, I have become addicted to the experience of listening to these pieces and searching for the meaning in them. I never find anything I can really point to, but that’s meaningful in and of itself, just like the experience, say, of looking at a tree might be. What do I make of a tree? What does it express? Everything and nothing, I suppose.
I’ve made a station for you. It’s called “Inexpressible Radio.” Take a listen and ask yourself: what is this music saying? If it says nothing, then why does it also seem to make so much sense?

6 things I bet you will notice:
1. The pieces are beautiful.
2. The pieces are extraordinary things for a person to have conceived and written.
3. The pieces are evidence that the people who lived centuries ago may not have been all that different from us.
4. The pieces that have no words (especially the solo piano pieces) are the ones that seem most abstract. They seem to be full of a kind of meaning as you are listening to them, but once they are done, there seems to be no takeaway message.
5. The choral pieces seem more expressive than the solo piano pieces do.
6. Listening to these pieces of music is a really great way to spend some time!
I hope you enjoy and find some new music, and I’ll look forward to your comments.


  1. Michael Zapruder
    August 24, 2009 at 5:07pm
    Hey Prem, Thanks for the thoughts. Personally, I am not looking to find meaning in the music; I just want to search for it. I like that way of listening sometimes. There are clearly choices that were made by Bach when he wrote his pieces, though, and so at least in that sense, if you ask me there is also some basic meaning to the music. It is not random sounds. And if that's true, then there's a way of listening where you listen and try to hear Bach making those choices. Getting a sense of Bach's choosing mind at work or experiencing his compositional instincts in real time seems for all the world like a kind of meaning, although it's not a meaning that is conceptual or linguistic, and it evaporates when the music ends. There's also a difference between meaning and expression, and part of what I was trying to point to is that in Renaissance and Baroque music there is not the kind of self-expression that you have in later styles like Romantic music, and certainly in contemporary pop music. Some people find any discussion of music to be bloodless and violent. I might agree that some analysis can be; but I would also say that with some kinds of music, listening without engaging your mind is missing much of the music. It's good to be a flexible listener. And as a totally tangential aside, these days the destructive powers of excessive analytical thinking may be miniscule compared to the the destructive powers of its opposite. cheers, mz
  2. Anonymous
    August 25, 2009 at 1:31am
    it's hard to put a name to that. But expressing such a deep, wordless, and ubiquitous beauty is not the same as expressing nothing.
  3. Prem
    August 25, 2009 at 7:04pm
    Hello Michael, I completely agree that the satisfaction of analytical listening far surpasses that of passive listening, though some compositions suit the former while others suit the latter. A few months ago I experienced a live rendition of a Poulenc organ concerto which featured continued collisions of what might be considered a hymnal with the jarring dissonance of tritones and other dissonant intervals, not to mention the wild theatrics of the organist that evening at Davies, and I found the performance exhilarating. Were I to have questioned the thoughts percolating through Poulenc's mind as he composed this organ concerto, I could easily have assumed that he wished to blur the line of distinction between good and evil, or even to parody that distinction. That assumption perhaps would, however, have been a reflection of my own sardonic sense of humor, and may in fact have had nothing whatsoever to do with Poulenc's intention. So though I listened to the piece--the manifestation of the intention--analytically, I chose leave the question of its meaning to the aether. I have found that many who have adopted a rigid system of categorization, no matter what its basis, tend to lose sight of the subtle intricacies linking together works that may seem to have nothing to do with each another from an historical perspective or otherwise, or may even seem contradictory for reasons beyond the scope of the music itself. Flexibility, as you mentioned, allows for a far more worthwhile listening experience. So essentially, I do not think we disagree. Now the composition I heard immediately preceding the organ concerto, however, I could only describe as classical elevator music, with very little to "sink my teeth into," so to speak, and had it been playing on my stereo instead of in the concert hall, I would have turned it off without hesitation. Compositions such as this one cater to passive listening, and I could easily picture a piece like this emanating from the speaker system at a party thrown by an individual attempting to impress some elites with his level of sophistication as they all sipped wine with noses pointed skyward. But then, that's just my perspective... Prem
  4. John
    August 29, 2009 at 10:13am
    I completely disagree that this music expresses nothing - it is just that it is hard to put into words what it is expressing. Strong emotions are certainly being expressed by the composer and felt by the listener. Anyway, I would like it very much if Pandora would add two contemporary classical composers to its library: Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938) and Carl Vine (b. 1954) Thanks!
  5. Michael Zapruder
    August 31, 2009 at 11:52am
    hey john, strong disagreement noted. :-) I guess the question is: does the fact that we feel strong emotions when we hear music really mean that strong emotions were being expressed by the composer? Peter Kivy, a philosopher of music, put it this way: "If a piece of music does make someone sad, you can be sure the reaction is either personal or pathological." The thing we are listening to is musical, and has the odd quality of being, even while it moves us and feels meaningful, only music and nothing else. I don't know what the ultimate situation is here, and I don't really mind that. What I still am left with is the awareness that there is something very mysterious about the way we can find meaning and feeling in musical sounds.

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