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Music, aesthetics of

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2
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Published
2011
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/music-aesthetics-of/v-2

Article Summary

Philosophical reflection on music goes back in the West at least as far as the Pythagoreans and Plato, and has undergone an exceptionally fertile period within analytic philosophy since the 1960s. It encompasses issues pertaining to defining music; the ontology of musical works; musical meaning and understanding, including music perception and cognition of musical form; musical expressiveness; musical arousal; musical representation; musical performance; the aesthetics of song and opera; the value of music; and the aesthetics of popular and non-Western music.

In defining music, organized sound is a necessary condition of music, though clearly not sufficient, as not all organized sounds are music. With regard to the ontology of musical works, there is broad agreement that these are abstract entities that can be performed and recorded on many occasions, and are not to be identified with manuscripts or scores, even though the existence of its manuscript may suffice for a musical work’s existence. Debate centres, then, on the nature of the abstract entity that is the musical work - whether it is a class or a kind or a type or some other sort of abstracta - and whether musical works are mere sound-structures or such things as instrumentation and musico-historical context of creation are somehow integral to their identity. There is also debate over whether musical works are created, or whether they are timeless abstract entities that are discovered, neither created nor destroyed. Music is also often said to have meaning, which is what we understand when we understand a musical work. This leads to issues about musical understanding: whether it is essentially a verbalizable, propositional knowledge, a know-that, or it is instead a know-how, a skill of following how the music goes. Recent years have also seen challenges to the traditional claim that musical understanding is architectonic, consisting in the apprehension of large-scale musical forms, by concatenationists, who contend instead that musical understanding is more moment to moment and local.

Much debate within musical aesthetics has been about musical expressiveness. Given that music is without life, consciousness and mental states, it seems philosophically puzzling that many listeners, trained and untrained, readily and immediately hear a lot of music as, say, sad or happy, which music cannot literally be. Amongst other possibilities, it has been suggested that music cannot express emotions and that its beauty is instead only a function of its form; or that music is expressive of the composer’s or performer’s mental states; or that it is expressive of the mental states of the musically aroused listener; or that it is only metaphorically expressive or sad or happy; or that music resembles our vocal and bodily expressive behaviour and the affective feel of mental states; or that it is expressive of the mental states of an imagined, indeterminate agent in the music, the music’s persona; or that music is merely imagined to be sad or happy in a variety of ways. A related issue concerns musical arousal. There is disagreement over whether music arouses mental states in listeners because of its aesthetic features, or because listeners empathize with the mental states of an imagined persona in the music. There are also questions over whether music arouses full-fledged emotions in listeners, or instead merely quasi-emotions such as excitement, awe and wonder.

A different issue pertains to whether music without words can represent such extramusical things as bird calls, bubbling brooks, thunderstorms and steam locomotives or somehow narrate a programme or tell a story with the aid of sounds and perhaps also a title. Musical performance raises issues as to why and to what degree performers should be faithful to the composer’s intentions as specified in the score, and what justifies performers’ interpretive freedom. Also, some wonder why period music should be played on authentic, historical instruments, especially if it sounds better on modern instruments. As regards song, there is the question of how the marriage of music and words is to be understood. And some have claimed that opera falls between two stools, necessarily failing either musically or else dramatically. A different issue concerns the value of music, to which musical beauty, expressiveness, development, originality and subtlety are thought to contribute. Some claim that music can liberate us from our everyday concerns, or somehow have cognitive value in reinforcing messages or telling us things about mental states or human nature. Finally, questions about music besides Western classical music have been raised recently. With regard to rock music, for example, it has been claimed that it has its own aesthetic that stresses recording, loud volumes, noise, rhythm and beat.

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Citing this article:
Trivedi, Saam. Music, aesthetics of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/music-aesthetics-of/v-2.
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