The concept of music as autonomous form is one which has been explored by a number of philosophers, most of whom have taken the stance that form is the be-all and end-all of music's meaning. Leonard Meyer, however, takes an alternate position: that expressionism and referentialism are not inextricably united, and that "absolute expressionism" need not be a contradiction in terms.
To explore Meyer's position to any satisfying degree, it is first necessary to expound on his definitions for such terms as "referential" and "absolute" within the context of his broader theories. Referential, as the word's literal meaning suggests, describes extra-musical meaning that is tied to outside experiences and ideas. Conventions in other art forms, such as symbolism, metaphor, and allusion, are based on this referential form of meaning. Conversely, the "absolute" in terms of musical meaning is that which is inherent in the formal relationships that compose a piece of music. These, argues Meyer, are the sorts of significances that are genuinely relevant to musical meaning.
This distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic meaning, however, seems to support rather than negate the common criticism of formalism that questions how music can express anything whatsoever if its true meaning lies only in its form and not in its implications. Meyer counters this criticism with the concept of "absolute expressionism." He characterizes the expressive quality of music as "affect," or the "felt quality of emotion," rather than any specific emotion or emotional experience. The basis for distinguishing between formally-achieved "affect" and referentially-induced emotive expression is that affect is the state of arousal that characterizes any and all emotions, and is not bound to outside experience as any specific emotion must be. Thus, affect is elicited through purely formal stimuli, and is absolutely expressive.