Music, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 28, 2023, from

Article Summary

The aesthetics of music comprises philosophical reflection on the origin, nature, power, purpose, creation, performance, reception, meaning and value of music. Some of its problems are general problems of aesthetics posed in a musical context; for example, what is the ontological status of the work of art in music, or what are the grounds of value judgments in music? Other problems are more or less peculiar to music, lacking a clear parallel in other arts; for example, what is the nature of the motion perceived in music, or how can the marriage of music and words best be understood?

Attempts to define the concept of music generally begin with the fact that music involves sound, but also posit such things as cultural tradition, the fulfilment of a composer’s aims or the expression of emotions as essential features of music. Perhaps any plausible concept, though, has to involve the making of sounds by people for aesthetic appreciation, broadly conceived. In deciding what is meant by a musical work, further considerations come into play, such as might lead to the identification of it with a sound structure as defined by a given composer in a particular musico-historical context.

In what sense can a piece of music be said to have meaning? Some hold it has meaning only internally – in its structure as an arrangement of melodies, harmonies, rhythms and timbres, for instance – while others have claimed that its meaning lies in the communication of things not essentially musical – such as emotions, attitudes or the deeper nature of the world. The most popular of these beliefs is that music expresses emotion. This is not to say, however, that the emotion expressed in a work is necessarily experienced by those involved in its composition or performance: composers can create peaceful or furious music without themselves being in those states, and the same goes for the performance of such music by performers. Also, the emotions evoked in listeners seem of a different nature from those directly experienced: negative emotions expressed in music do not preclude the audience’s appreciation, and in fact commonly facilitate it. Ultimately, a work’s expressiveness should be seen as something directly related to the experience of listening to that work. Music is often said to have value primarily in so far as it is beautiful, its beauty being whatever affords pleasure to the listener. But the quality of a work’s expressiveness, its depth, richness and subtlety, for example, also seems to form an important part of any value judgment we make about the work.

    Citing this article:
    Levinson, Jerrold. Music, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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