I went to hear a classical pianist last week – my first live classical music in many, many years. 

The concert reminded me that music, like words, can create meaning that goes far beyond what the writer intended.

I grew up in a home where classical music played every day, but my parents also encouraged me to find my own musical passions, which didn’t include much classical. 

Still, when I hear classical today, I can identify the melody and composer at least half the time. 

I was evidently paying attention back then, but there is more to it. My recall of the music has much to do with the images I formed of the composers: snippets of who they were as people and the times in which they lived; together with scraps of information from the single music theory class I took as a teen.

So I wasn’t surprised that I could appreciate the differences between Beethoven and Liszt and Mendelssohn. When the pianist began his final piece, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, I followed the first and second movements with the same familiarity I’d felt all evening. 

But when he got to the third movement I was dumbstruck. He was no longer playing Chopin. He’d switched to The Doom Song – the tune they played when Bugs Bunny, Sylvester or another of the Looney Tunes characters was in BIG trouble!

It was probably just a second before I realized that the pianist had not abandoned Chopin; that he was indeed playing the famous Funeral March. But for that brief time, I’d forgotten that the melody was of classical origin.

Did I forget? While I was hearing The Doom Song, my image of the composer was crystal clear: a guy on the back lot of the Warner Brothers Studio, hunched over the piano with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a single bulb above his head. The producer had told him to write something to use when the end was (almost) certain. My composer worked hard to get it right.

The Funeral March says, “the end is here” as clear as any sentence ever written. But it also reminds us that, no matter how clear the message we can’t control what our listeners hear.

My momentary lapse was of zero consequence. Are there consequences if your audience brings a fundamental misconception to your message? What are you doing to make sure they get it right?