Publication details [#3023]

Brower, Candace. 2000. A cognitive theory of musical meaning. Research in Language 44 (2) : 323–379. 57 pp. URL


This theory of musical meaning draws upon two theories that have recently emerged in the cognitive sciences. The first, proposed by Howard Margolis, suggests that all thinking consists of pattern matching. According to Margolis, perception begins with the selection of a pattern from memory to match an incoming stimulus. This may be followed by checking for differences between the two patterns, which may then give rise to a search for a higher-level pattern to account for these differences. The second, proposed by Mark Johnson, suggests that much of our understanding is embodied and metaphorical. According to Johnson, we learn about phenomena such as motion, force, energy, and balance through our own goal-directed actions. This understanding is captured in the form of image schemas, which are then mapped metaphorically into other, more abstract domains. Music particularly lends itself to this sort of mapping, being marked by changes of rate and intensity that translate easily into force and motion. These two theories serve as the basis for the proposed theory, which explains how musical meaning arises through the mapping of musical patterns onto three different types of stored patterns: (1) an image schema for goal-directed motion; (2) the abstract patterns that constitute musical style; and (3) patterns heard within a musical work. Analysis of Schubert's "Du bist die Ruh" will demonstrate how all three levels of pattern matching interact and define one another to produce at times quite precise musical meanings, yielding at the highest level a rudimentary plot structure. (Candace Brower)