Music, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved May 17, 2022, from

4. Musical expressiveness

There has been much debate about the problem of musical expressiveness, the problem of how music without words or an associated programme or story can be heard as sad or happy, or in terms of other mental states, when it consists merely of sounds - which do not have life, consciousness or mental states. One response, formalism, denies that music can be expressive of emotions (Hanslick 1891), for emotions require intentional objects, whereas music cannot be about anything outside itself as it lacks propositional content and the evaluative judgements often seen as the cognitive component of emotions (see Emotions, nature of §2). Even so, it is still possible that music may be expressive of nonintentional mental states such as moods or affects; and in any case formalism fails to account for the experience of many listeners who readily and immediately hear music as expressive (Trivedi 2006).

It has also been claimed that music is only metaphorically sad, appealing to such notions as metaphorical exemplification and metaphorical transfer (Goodman 1968; Scruton 1999), which however themselves cry out for further elucidation. A third response claims that sad music is expressive of the sadness of the composer or performer, but this is empirically false as happy musicians can write and perform sad music, and sad ones have often produced happy music. A fourth view suggests that sad music is expressive of the sadness of the musically aroused listener (Ridley 1995; Matravers 1998), but seems to conflate expressiveness and arousal. For just as it is one thing for us or an actor to be expressive and another to have the effect thereby of arousing emotional responses in others, similarly expressiveness is a (usually aesthetically positive) property of the music itself, whereas arousal is a matter of its effect on listeners.

Some philosophers have tried to explain musical expressiveness in terms of music’s resembling the vocal, bodily and behavioural expressiveness of human beings (Kivy 1989; Davies 1994), or the affective feel of mental states (Budd 1995), but while this gives us the causal story behind what makes some music expressive, it does not tell us how something without life and mental states such as the abstract art of music can be heard as sad. A different solution suggests that music is heard as expressive of the sadness of an indefinite, imagined agent in the music, the music’s persona (Levinson 1996, 2006), though many deny they always hear music in such a way, even if it is not highly foregrounded. It has also been claimed that music is only imagined to be sad, happy and the like in various ways we are not always aware of, and this includes treating the music as animate, imaginatively projecting life and mental states onto it (Trivedi 2001, 2006).

There has also been debate as to whether music can also be expressive of such cognitively complex mental states as hope, shame and guilt (Levinson 1990; Putman 1987).

Citing this article:
Trivedi, Saam. Musical expressiveness. Music, aesthetics of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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