For many years now I’ve found the distinction that Lucy Green makes between ‘inherent’ and ‘delineated’ musical meanings a useful way to think about music. It’s a dialectic between meanings that are created in and by the musical materials themselves (and she draws significantly on Leonard Meyer, another favourite theorist of mine, for this) and meanings that are attributed to music by the culture in which it subsists.
As is often the case with dialectics, the pairing has a way of constantly deconstructing itself on one hand (you find you can access the inherent meanings except through cultural filters, so do the inherent meanings really exist?) whilst still remaining a robust and useful distinction to make. I wrote about this tendency many years ago in an article that engaged with the question of whether the social meanings we find in music are carried within the music itself or simply read into it.
Through years of teaching, I’ve also observed how this distinction provides a useful way to account for how people learn music. (Indeed, I note that Lucy Green is herself a music education specialist – and one of the few who has found a dedicated readership in ‘mainstream’ musicology and music theory.)