(Always) Teaching and Learning

“What Does Music Mean?” The First Young People’s Concert

In 1958, a new type of television programming premiered on CBS, with Leonard Bernstein at the helm. He led the New York Philharmonic in over 50 televised broadcasts that combined his talent for communication, passion for education, and, of course, incomparable musical gifts in a series of concerts produced exclusively for one unusual demographic: children.

We are bringing excerpts of the beauty and clarity of these concerts to you throughout Bernstein’s centenary. Above is a clip of the very first televised Young People’s Concert, on the subject: “What Does Music Mean?”

Bernstein told the television audience at the start of this first Young People’s Concert:

No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them. Stories are not what music means. Music is never about things. Music just is.

It’s a lot of beautiful notes and sounds put together so well that we get pleasure out of hearing them. So when we ask, ‘What does it mean; what does this piece of music mean?’ we’re asking a hard question.

Let’s do our best to answer it.

The Great Communicator

One concert goer vividly remembers Bernstein describing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Here is how Bernstein introduced the piece to the young people:

What Mussorgsky did was to take a lot of pictures hanging on the wall in a museum and write music that he thought could describe them — in other words, to try and do with notes what a painter does with paint.

But of course notes can’t do what paint can do; you can’t draw your nose with F sharps, you can’t draw a building or paint a sunset with notes. But you can sort of try to …

Listen: “you’ll find out the meanings for yourselves”

This first concert included the New York Philharmonic performing portions of numerous pieces, including Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, and Ravel’s La Valse.

Ultimately, Bernstein concluded this concert with a few words on meaning, and emphasized that the meaning in music is right there for the listener to discover for themselves.

So you see, the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies, and the way it’s orchestrated, and most important of all in the way it develops itself. But that’s a whole other program. We’ll talk about that some other time.

Right now, all you have to know is that music has its own meanings, right there for you to find inside the music itself; and you don’t need any stories or any pictures to tell you what it means.

If you like music at all, you’ll find out the meanings for yourselves, just by listening to it.

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About this content

Bernstein conducted 53 programs of Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic between 1958 and 1972. “What does music mean?” was originally broadcast on the CBS Television Network on January 18, 1958.

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