If you are reading this, I want you to picture a scenario right now.

Picture a photograph you have taken. One you are most proud of. It can be of anything, but whatever it is, you have an emotional connection to it.

Now that you have that photograph chosen in your mind, imagine you had it made into a big poster and you hung it up in your apartment so that anyone who comes over notices it as soon as they walk in. Sure, you’ve posted the photo on social media so people could see it, but this one is different. It has meaning.

You’ve invited some friends over and, like you planned, your photograph is the first thing that catches their eyes. The catch is, in this scenario I don’t want you to say anything about it. Your friends have to look at it and tell you the meaning they see behind it.

However this conversation goes, I can guarantee you that their answers will differ from each other, and they will differ from your intended meaning behind the photograph.

Your Intended Meaning vs. The Audience

The meaning of images is in part created by the viewer. In Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s book, Practices of Looking, they discuss how the audience is arguably the most important part of creating images. The context of images matters, and it influences the meaning of the images. Which means it’s impossible for the artist to have full control of the meanings seen in their images.

The same thing goes for musicians. When they write songs, they have a certain meaning in their head. Then when the song is released and received by millions, the meaning changes based on the audience’s reactions.

Meaning In The Music

Sometimes, an artist will release a commentary to go along with an album to explain the meanings of their songs. Take this song by Twenty One Pilots, for example. Try listening to the song, even if you’ve heard it before. Think about the meaning you are deciphering from the song.

Now read the commentary by Twenty One Pilots’ Tyler Joseph.

“The content is something I worked very hard on…everything kind of came together. I actually did have a headache the day that I was writing it. But that wasn’t really the point, you know? I was trying to make that a metaphoric thing where, you know, there’s a lot going on in his head…As a songwriter, I like to just emit some sort of message, almost like a ripple in the water. And when I feel that ripple bounce off of someone else who resonates with what it is I’m going through, it starts coming back at me. It’s a really cool feeling of, you know, I’m not alone in what I’m going through. Migraine is…almost a distress call type of song, lyrically.”

Was your understanding of the song different from Tyler’s explanation? Probably. But does that mean that Tyler was unsuccessful in conveying meaning? Not at all.