Deciphering the hidden meanings of music 

Quest University lecturer provides listeners with tools to better understand classical compositions

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PAVEL L./SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - HOT TOPIC An upcoming lecture at the Whistler Public Library delves into the field of topic theory, which aims to give listeners a roadmap to better understanding the seemingly obscure works of classical composers.
  • Photo by Pavel L./
  • HOT TOPIC An upcoming lecture at the Whistler Public Library delves into the field of topic theory, which aims to give listeners a roadmap to better understanding the seemingly obscure works of classical composers.

How can we make sense of the music we hear?

It's a simple question, with a much more complicated answer, one that Andrew Haringer wants to help you solve.

The Quest University teaching fellow is a musical historian with an interest in a particular field of semiotics called topic theory, which aims to give listeners a road map to better understand the seemingly obtuse works of classical composers. Haringer's free community lecture, entitled "Does Music Mean Anything?" is scheduled for 7 p.m. on April 8 at the Whistler Public Library.

Essentially, topic theory tries to decode the cultural and historical signs embedded in instrumental music.

"It's a way of listening to music that very much relates to the world around us rather than sounding abstract and purely musical," Haringer explains.

Those telltale horns in Joseph Haydn's iconic oratorio, The Seasons? They sync up perfectly with the horn calls traditionally used on autumn hunts of the era, he says. The lightning quick brass sounds in the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony? They manage to evoke the sense of a military march while being set to a faster pace than any soldier would have been used to.

The hidden meanings of music are there to be parsed, if only we know how to look for them. The best part is that Haringer says you don't have to be a trained musician or accomplished composer to understand the basic tenets of topic theory.

"That's what I think is so great about this stuff: You don't have to be able to read a note of music to be able to grasp the ideas," he says. "The cool thing about it is that people are already kind of aware of this in some way. We're just so saturated in the whole rhetoric of music, largely through film. I think why I wanted to give this talk is I figured it'd be something that people could actually take and apply."

Of course, there's an argument to be made that by analyzing every note of a composition, by attempting to put into words music's ineffable qualities, we are somehow cheapening the art form, or at the very least, taking the fun out of it.

"There's always this fear that any moment you try to pin this stuff down, you're kind of gutting it of its power. But I don't think it has to be like that," Haringer says. "If anything, I think it adds richness to your listening experience."

The key, Haringer points out, is to not treat topic theory as "gospel," but to use it as a loose framework to try and decipher what a composer may be trying to tell us.

"It really does limit music if you say, 'Oh, this is all it is.' But, really, using this idea of topics provides a very loose structure to think about this stuff. There's still tons of room for interpretation," he explains. "It's less about denotation than it is about connotation. It's more about the things a composer may be suggesting. It provides a framework, because nobody is going to listen to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and say, 'Well this is about marching and soldiers.' I think composers have ideas about what they want to express, but those ideas are quite rich and multifaceted."

Topic theory doesn't just have to be applied to 200-year-old classical compositions, either, Haringer says. Modern films are littered with examples, used to invoke a particular emotion or atmosphere.

"Film soundtracks are so steeped in the language of 19th-century orchestral music," he says. "Film composers do this all the time. They invoke heroic topics — think of Lord of the Rings."

What Haringer is referring to is the Dies Irae, a mournful medieval death chant believed to be at least 1,300 years old that warns of God's impending apocalyptic wrath. Used by Catholic priests during funeral masses, it's been plopped into the scores of some of the biggest films in the history of cinema, including every time the orcs appear on screen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in the final scene of George Lucas's original Star Wars, and not to mention in It's a Wonderful Life and The Exorcist.

And just in case you're worried that Haringer's lecture may be a little over your head, he assures me that he will tone down the jargon, fully aware that not everyone shares his passion for musical semiotics.

"I contributed a chapter to the Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory. It's flying off the shelves at Barnes and Noble right now," he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

For more information on all Quest University-led talks, visit



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