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What is ‘floating intentionality’?

By Emily Carlson, PhD, co-founder of the Music Therapy Friendship Initiative In our last entry, we talked about music as having aspects that are universal and aspects that are powerfully cultural. This influences how we understand music within our own cultures and music outside of our native cultures. But what do we actually mean when we talk about understanding music?

Obviously, the kind of understanding we’re talking about isn’t the same as knowing that mustikkapiirakka means blueberry pie in Finnish. If I try to use my piano instead of my words to tell my partner I want him to pick up more salt and vinegar crisps when he goes to the store, I’m not very likely to be successful. Being able to convey such very specific meaning is known as being referential, and it’s a quality that verbal languages have which music doesn’t (although of course we often pair music and words in the form of song lyrics). A fairly common interpretation of what we mean by “understanding music” is our ability to correctly perceive the emotion expressed by a given pieces of music, such as Balkwill and Thompson’s finding that Western listeners could correctly identify Hindustani ragas as expressing joy or sadness, despite their unfamiliarity with the tonal system.

However, when we refer to a particular piece of music or musical experience as being “meaningful,” we’re usually talking about much more than having correctly identified whether a certain emotion is being expressed. A song may trigger a certain autobiographical memory; Cake’s song Stickshifts and Safteybelts will always bring me straight back to working as a camp counselor in the summer of 2006, for example. Making music, alone or with others, also seems to be a meaningful experience, although it can be hard to put into words what is expressed and shared with a given song or jam session or dance party. A way of talking about musical meaning, which has been described by Cambridge Professor Ian Cross, is floating intentionality. Simply put, music having the property of floating intentionality means that, unlike verbal language, music can have individual, specific meaning to each person hearing or making it, while still allowing for a shared experience.

The fact that Stickshifts and Safteybelts has a very specific meaning for me does not prevent it from having a very specific meaning for anyone else, even if we are listening to it at the same time. However, if we are listening to it at the same time we are also sharing an experience of the same physical sounds, the same cultural norms, and possibly moving our bodies in rhythm to the same beat. Ian Cross suggests that this property of music may relate to evolutionary understandings of music, and early humans seem to have used music during social times of uncertainty or transition, when peace needs to be kept within a group or between groups–weddings, funerals, coming-of-age rituals. We indeed still use music during such times today.

Floating intentionality is an example of something just about any music therapist who has facilitated a group improvisation (or group music therapy of any kind) understands almost inherently, and uses deliberately, whether or not we have a specific word for it in mind. Verbally processing after a group improvisation pretty much invariably leads to participants describing unique, personal experiences and specific thoughts and memories which came up for them during the music-making, but there is also a sense, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, of unity and shared experience that arises from the act of making music together.

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