To reify something means to make something that is abstract seem real and concrete. Marxians use the term reification to refer to situations in which people see qualities of social relations as being qualities of abstract objects derived from those relations.

Of all the terms that have arisen to explain the impact of capitalism, none is more vivid or readily grasped than “reification”-the process of transforming men and women into objects, things. The principle of reification, emerging from Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, provides an unrivaled method for understanding the real effects of capital’s impact on consciousness itself.

Our point is that contemporary perceptions of sense and reality have been reified, and that aesthetics can express why this is the case, with major consequences for understanding the role of music. If you can harness the trappings of a style — taking its surface level idioms and cliches, while deliberately leaving behind any emotional authenticity to be a backing track that helps someone sell something, you’re probably half the way there.

Reification signs are proliferating around us-from the branding of products and services to ethnic and sexual stereotypes, all manifestations of religious faith, the rise of nationalism, and recent concepts such as ‘spin’ and ‘globalization.’

Reification of religious symbols enables a person to hold a religious identity that is at odds with their everyday life practices, values, and beliefs. Money is a concept independent from the economic transactions from which it derives. Is a diploma or degree more important than the education it is supposed to represent? Which would a student work harder for? In the military which matters more: expertise or rank? How can a credential be more important that the thing it is intended to indicate? It seems our culture is one that values, it seems, the credential over the education, he writes. The religion of reified symbols is another form of tribal totem, he says. It is a tendency for formal religious institutions to see their religious symbols per se to be sacred. At its extreme this becomes idol worship: the belief that the symbol is itself a god.

Reification of Music

Reification is the mental process of transforming the non-concrete into something concrete, a ‘fact’ The US national anthem will be a perfect example of a reified piece of music. Music can provoke vague and difficult to define emotions. It can exist without communicating anything specific and can mean different things to different people. Many say that the allure of music is that you can say things with it that you never could with spoken language. The mind does not go off on an interpretive journey when we hear it — this music means USA, we know it is the national anthem, and this is the only way we can really understand it. The word itself is reified to construct an approximation of experience to work around the limitations of our senses and leave out a whole world of information in doing so.

So, if you’re wondering where I’m going with this — here it is. A shorthand description: When music is reified, it behaves a lot more like a spoken language. It means something specific. It can be described easily. It is unable to change because its meaning (or for semiotics people, its signifier) is fixed. The melody of the US National anthem doesn’t require me to engage with the non-conceptual. I know what it is.

So one good way of telling whether a piece of music is overly reified or not is if you’re able to describe it easily in words. They have all in different ways become a thing. A known musical object. This is of concern to composers because we recognize the value of the abstract nature of music, which allows us to communicate in a way that the spoken language is often unable to do.

If you have problems wrapping your head around this how the iconic banjo duel scene in the movie ‘Deliverance’ caused a powerful association with his instrument that has overpowered how audiences listen to it ever since. In this case, it’s not any particular melody or song that’s reified but the instrument itself and it’s also worth noting that it’s happening against the musician’s will. In the example of the banjo — it is no longer free to communicate musically — instead becoming a humorous shorthand for backwardness.

And the US national anthem represents its country so strongly that it can’t be mistaken for anything else. In all these examples, interpretation is resisted and the music is unable to change.

There are so many other ways that music can be reified: rules for example can lead to reification — for example the idea that chorus must always follow verse or that the opening movement of a symphony must use sonata form. Over-reliance on rules or patterns may create repetitive musical artifacts that do not engage the listener but merely remind them of what they’ve heard before. Especially in music, lyrics are a kind of reification by people like Taylor Swift who use them to convey to the listener what they should feel, in case they turn their brains on to perceive meaning for more than five seconds.