If there are multiple valid interpretations of a piece of music, but the composer of the music states that only one of those interpretations is what they intended, are other interpretations still valid?

Suppose someone's music has an E♭ chord in the key of C. Person A, the composer, says they intended modal mixture when writing the chord. Person B says that they heard it as a tritone substitution. Is person A more correct tha person B, or can music have multiple meanings depending on context?

Or another situation, where an old piece of music takes on a new meaning over time. Does the meaning of the piece then change, or is there only one true significance?

  • 2
    Perhaps this is a question for philosophy.stackexchange.com. :)
    – ibonyun
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 19:50
  • Interestingly, E-flat is tritone substitution for A, but it's B, not A, who hears this. :)
    – trolley813
    Commented Nov 19, 2019 at 10:03

5 Answers 5


If there are multiple valid interpretations of a piece of music, but the composer of the music states that only one of those interpretations is what they intended, are other interpretations still valid?

This concern is known in literary theory as the intentional fallacy, though some people have discussed it in reference to music as well. The "fallacy" is assuming that there is one true meaning determined only by the intent of the author/composer. However, both literature and music only gain meaning by being understood within a culture/society, and different people in a culture may have different interpretations.

One interesting historical example of this situation is Stravinsky, who continuously (and somewhat notoriously) refined his own biography and his own interpretation of his works throughout his career. If one believes in the "one true composer's intent" theory, what are we to take away from that? If Stravinsky first composed Rite of Spring to correlate with the novel choreography of the first performances, but later Stravinsky claimed he wrote the Rite of Spring as "absolute" music to be understood and analyzed independent of any staging, which Stravinsky are we to believe -- the young composer or the older reflective composer? Are we supposed to analyze Rite of Spring in terms of how it may have worked in trying to portray a staged ballet telling a narrative story, or should we believe older Stravinsky and think of it as a concert piece meant to be understood on its own independent terms? (I mention this specific example because it has been debated by music historians as an example of the difficulty in sorting out composer's "intent.")

So what, then, is a "valid" interpretation? As long as it fits the music and you can convince other people that it makes sense, it might be a good interpretation. A word like "valid" sounds more like a philosophical/logical conclusion, so I don't know how to evaluate whether a particular interpretation qualifies as "valid." That depends on the assumptions underlying your theory of analysis. But, in general, I'd say a successful interpretation should communicate something that makes sense to others, just as a successful piece of music usually communicates something to an audience.

Suppose someone's music has an E♭ chord in the key of C. Person A, the composer, says they intended modal mixture when writing the chord. Person B says that they heard it as a tritone substitution. Is person A more correct than person B, or can music have multiple meanings depending on context?

Well, first we need to consider whether both analyses could be correct. As other answers have already noted, there doesn't seem to be a tritone in an E♭ chord, so it's unclear how it could be a "tritone substitution." If it's actually an E♭7, and the G-D♭ tritone is substituting for a place where a C♯-G tritone might occur in C major (e.g., substituting for an A7 that is replacing V/ii), then it might be a tritone substitution. But in that case, the function is probably not simple "modal borrowing."

So, perhaps that's not the best example. But there are clearly places where we could debate how to interpret a particular chord. The function/identity of the Tristan Chord is a notable example where various analysts have disagreed about how the chord functions or even which notes are the primary tones of the chord. And yes, the notes of the Tristan Chord could have different functions depending on context -- in another voicing and spelling, it could function as a simple half-diminished seventh resolving in a leading tone function. But that's not how the specific voicing tends to resolve in Wagner's opera.

Anyhow, yes, there are definitely places where different analytical interpretations could make sense. In those cases, the different interpretations will often convey different attributes or focus on different features or aspects of the segment of music in question. (For example, the varying interpretations of the Tristan Chord often depend on a particular analyst's priorities in how to think of harmonic progression/function or even how to choose what is a "chord tone" vs. a non-harmonic one.)

Or another situation, where an old piece of music takes on a new meaning over time. Does the meaning of the piece then change, or is there only one true significance?

I already addressed this a bit above with the Stravinsky example. But we could get even more extreme. Consider the application of Roman numerals to the analysis of the music of Bach. Bach never heard of Roman numerals for harmonic analysis. They didn't exist in his time. That's clearly not how he would analyze or would have understood his music. And yet there are hundreds of music theory textbooks that teach Roman numeral analysis often by partly analyzing works of Bach. Are they all "wrong"?

No, I wouldn't say so. They are trying to find patterns that are meaningful in Bach's music, and they are trying to classify those patterns by using an analytical system that was developed later. Most music theory is like this: a lot of analytical concepts were developed in the past couple centuries but they are used to analyze music that predates them. One common example of this is the notion of "sonata form," which was first clearly articulated in the way we talk about it today by Reicha in the 1820s and then really formulated in its modern form by A.B. Marx around 1840. Yet we use it all the time to analyze works by Mozart and Haydn written many decades earlier. In fact, we often then encounter "analytical problems" when we find this piece of Mozart that doesn't seem to "fit" into sonata form, and we ask why it doesn't. One answer (rarely discussed in undergraduate courses) is -- well, Mozart didn't know about sonata form (at least in the terms we discuss it today), so was that even a priority for him?

Heading down this road too far, though, can lead to madness. One begins to question whether any musical analysis of a historical work can be valid without knowing precisely what a composer was thinking, what the understanding of musical concepts of that time were, etc. Those may be valid concerns, but music theory is also about later interpretation and trying to build a model to understand music.

Roman numerals are a model to understand Bach. Sonata form is a model to understand Mozart. They can provide interpretation, but they have limitations. And one has to be very cautious about asserting things like, "Bach was avoiding X harmonic move" unless we actually understand how Bach would have understood harmony. But we can instead make an assertion like, "This moment in Bach seems to go to option Y rather than the more common harmonic move X" and support that assertion with Roman numerals, if we understand what the assumptions of the Roman numeral system are and know where various "harmonic moves" are "common." We may even find patterns Bach wouldn't have even noticed using his theory of harmony, but they become very clear when we apply a novel method to analyzing his music. Maybe those patterns were just something he "intuited" or a function of his training, but something he wouldn't be able to articulate consciously. (See, for example, Michael Polanyi's concept of tacit knowledge.) Yet they may be useful patterns to notice nonetheless.

The bottom line is that we can't help hearing historical music through modern ears. We tend to use the tools and models we know to analyze historical music. That means that interpretations will change over time. Just as musical styles change over time. Just as compositional practices change over time. Just as language changes over time. Music analysis is just a cultural act of interpretation, and it finds meaning through social consensus, just as language does.

Trying to claim that there is only one true meaning/interpretation of a piece of music is like trying to claim there is only one true meaning of a word, and that new-fangled way the young kids are using it today is "wrong." Maybe. But wait 10 or 20 years, and it may be acceptable. Wait a century or two, and your "correct" meaning may be an archaicism no longer understood by most people, while the new-fangled meaning is the meaning.

Artistic works, like any product of human culture, are always evolving with that culture. The same thing is true of their interpretation.


This question is probably too subjective in its nature than what SE is looking for but here are my thoughts:

The music is what the music is and we don't get to decide what is "correct". Theory is a framework used to analyze music and find ways of describing what is happening. In most situations, there is a fairly standard way of interpreting things, which we would generally think of as the "correct" way to analyze them. Once we get into any sort of vaguery, we now have to try to argue for what the "best" analysis is. Lots of people could come to agree on the best analysis and potentially standardize the interpretation, which would then become "correct".

The reality here is that we are dealing with art and interpreting art is always subjective. We create a standard to allow ourselves to have a language to use when we speak about music, which generally does the job pretty well in most situations. However, even when we have a standard interpretation, everyone still has the opportunity to provide a different analysis and present their argument. You can't really say that anyone's interpretation is strictly wrong but if you are in an academic setting, you will likely have to operate within the theoretical framework that they are teaching, perhaps until you get to upper level courses. Either way, if your interpretation differs from that of the standard, then you need to have an especially good argument as to why your different interpretation is "better", or at least worthy of consideration.

Things can potentially get a little stickier once the composer is involved in the conversation but not necessarily. Many people give more credence to the composer's intentions, possibly as far as saying that they are correct, but not everyone will agree with this. Composers are flawed just like everyone else, so even if it is their intention, it may go counter to the standard and if they don't have a great argument for it, then they're "wrong", so to speak.

In the end, we need to figure out what the interpretation is being used for and if that interpretation being different has a better or worse effect on the situation. If it's just someone interpreting the music for their own enjoyment, then the only possible effect the interpretation will have is on their own enjoyment, where they may find that they enjoy the Eb (from your example) more or less when hearing it as bIII vs a TT sub. If it's for school, you either need to work within the framework that you're being taught within or argue very well for a non-standard interpretation (sometimes there is no room for argument, such as in theory 1). If the person interpreting this chord is supposed to improvise over it in a performance, or if they are supposed to arrange the piece for more instruments, then their interpretation is a lot more consequential than their own enjoyment. If the composer is involved in this process, they would likely choose to have the improviser/arranger be on the same page as them while contributing their part, or it will change how the piece that they've written is interpreted by the audience. The way one would choose to improvise over Eb7 (TT sub for V/ii) is very different than how they would improvise over Eb (triad or maj7) interpreted as modal mixture/borrowing.

The bare bones of your example, an Eb triad in C major, can potentially have better or worse arguments for TT sub or modal mixture but those largely depend on context, such as genre, style, density of composition, surrounding harmonies, melodic passages/linear accompaniment, etc. If you're trying to argue that something composed in the style of Vivaldi is using a TT sub, then you're fighting a very uphill battle, but if it's composed in the style of Charles Mingus, you may well be "correct".

The composer isn't always correct. They may not even be aware of the concepts that the other party is using to analyze the music. If they don't even know what something is called, they wouldn't even be able to be "correct".


An amorphous question, but interesting.

In the case of harmonic analysis, the more correct interpretation would be the one that more accurately reflects the chord's function. The function is usually made clear by its resolution. Take a fully diminished 7th chord, for example. Heard in isolation, or seen as a set of pitch classes, it is impossible to know which note is the root. But its function, root, and correct spelling will become clear once we know how and where it resolves.

As for music taking on new meaning over time, as in its cultural significance changes, I don't think there is a correct interpretation, only one that is useful in context. By analogy, the swastika is an ancient symbol with a long history in numerous eurasian cultures. As far as I know, it was universally considered an auspicious or good symbol. Post-WWII however, the swastika has a very different meaning, and is now generally reviled because of what it was used to represent. What is the "correct" meaning of a swastika? Whichever makes sense in context. Is its bearer a Jain or a Nazi?


Modal mixture versus tritone substitution seems to be about harmonic analysis. That is fairly specific compared to meaning of..., significance, interpretation.

I would expect at a minimum that a harmonic analysis should be fulfilled in some way by the music.

For example, if someone labels a chord a tritone substitution, there should be some kind of dominant chord function being substituted. An Eb in the key of C major isn't really much of a basis for a tritone substitution. To begin with, where is the tritone? If we are supposed to understand a substitution for an A7, does the substitute Eb go to a D chord? If it does, that lends weight to a tritone substitute analysis.

By comparison, modal mixture (borrowed chords) is usually explained as fulfilling the the same chord function regardless of which mode the chord comes from. So with a C tonic (either C major or C minor) an E chord (either Em in major or Eb in minor) is the mediant chord. Whichever modals combinations are used the chord is expected to behave as a mediant.

Tonally a mediant chord is kind of ambiguous. Depending on style it isn't used frequently. Something like bIII bVI V I might be a reasonable modal mixture progression. Mediant moves by descending fifth to sub-mediant then to dominant...

And for yet another possibility, if the Eb moved to Bb7, it might make sense to talk about a modulation where Eb is becoming the tonic.

Whenever you call the Eb, the musical context should support the harmonic analysis.

FWIW, you might be interested to look up tritone substitution compared to the classical augmented sixth chord.

Enharmonically the two chords appear the same. They both look like dominant seventh chords. But each chord appears in different positions with the tonality. the tritone sub. moves to a tonic or is part of a descending fifths progression, the augmented sixth resolves to the dominant chord for a half cadence.

It's a good example of two different analysis based on harmonic function and style.


If the composer needs to "explain" the only correct way to interpret the music, the basic problem is that something is seriously wrong with the music.

It would be unkind to name the author of the following quotes, so I won't, but they are extracts from a recent question on this site:

... Key is firmly in D major - The hero is accumulating his army …

Key has moved to C major, close only by proximity to the original D major - Army has stopped to look and see what direction the enemy is approaching from …

... A Picardy third turns things around in the hero's favor ...

... Coda- Final few chords to represent the hero's gratitude

As for chord substitutions, I once came across this one, in a piece written more than 400 years ago. It was a set of variations on a traditional dance tune with the basic chord pattern of G Em D G. Nothing unusual about that.

Until the composer apparently got bored with those chords, and threw in one variation using G Eb Bb G instead.

Considering the state (or more accurately, non-existence) of any theory of harmony back in 1600, an "explanation" for that in terms of chord substitution is beside the point. The only reasonable explanation is "the composer thought it sounded good" ...

... which is the only reasonable explanation for anything in music, at the end of the day. Chord theory (and any other sort of theory) is just a means to the end of getting it to "sound good", not an end in itself.

  • Admittedly, I once added a (plausible) story to one of my sonata-allegros I initially composed as absolute music, and feel free to interpret one of my marches I initially wrote a programme for as if it's as much of a piece of absolute music as Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches are.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 19, 2019 at 17:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.