In this essay, Umberto Eco describes a special kind of musical works that can be organized and re-organized by the performers before they are played to the audience. He then applied this idea of "open works" to literary texts and other works of art.

Every work of art can be read, according to Eco, in three distinct ways: the moral, the allegorical and the anagogical. Each is not only distinct but can be fully anticipated and directed by the author (or the artist) of the work. An example of this kind of reading is found in the stories by Kafka, in which his symbolic actions cannot be read in one definitive way; each reading will end up with similar and multiple meanings.

The reader will read a certain work differently every time, depending on his/her emotional state, physical state and political world view. We can find an example of this in plays written by Brecht , which are "open" in the same way that an argument between two people is open: both sides (the actors and the viewers) want and anticipate a solution at the end, but no solution ever comes, leaving us to wander to find meaning.

Umberto Eco makes a distinction between these kind of works, which are "open" in their interpretation, to the musical works from the beginning, which are open in their structural sense. These kind of "openness" is not only for musical works, it might be any kind of artistic work (painting, poem, performance etc.)

This kind of "openness" is derived from the science of the time, he says. When people believed in a geocentric world, they expected every work of art to have only one definitive interpretation, but as people found out about the universe and the magnitude of stars in the sky and their hierarchy, they began to expect more ideas to be interpreted from every work.