I enjoyed this column by Terry Teachout, but I don't understand one of the questions he poses in it: 'What does music mean?' Not 'What does "music" mean?' (which would be a question like 'What does "resile" mean?') A question not about the meaning of a word, but about the meaning of the thing - music. My first reaction is to ask what the meaning of the question is.
For not everything automatically has a meaning. Words have meanings as part of wider symbolic systems in which there are rules governing the use of those words and enabling us to understand how they function: the sorts of things they refer to (like ducks), or the attitudes they signal (like surprise or pleasure), or the perfomances they enact (like greeting or warning or promising). But things, phenomena, don't necessarily have meanings. What's the meaning of a pebble, a bowl of ice cream or the paper on which this copy of the Bible is printed? Of course, any of these may be assigned a meaning by being included in some system of signification. You and I can agree, for example, that the pebble will henceforth be placed on that window ledge whenever we want to tell one another that we're out. A bowl of ice cream may come to mean, in some household, that Max and Imelda are coming over for the evening. And so forth. But, just so, as objects, things don't always have meanings.
The question 'What does music mean?' might be a question about how we explain music: explain what it does for us, what its appeal is; or explain its function or value in human communities. It might be, then, like 'What do clouds mean?' or 'What does all this ash mean?' or 'What does the failure of the banks mean?' On that basis, however, I would think that music must have many meanings, since there won't be one unilateral way of integrating it within an intelligible system of causal or functional explanation. Think of music as used in religious ceremonies, as celebrating official occasions, as privately enjoyed by an individual, as making so much noise that it stops you thinking, as background to a movie, as facilitating or prompting dance, as inexpressibly wonderful and as utterly rebarbative and mystifying.