Music, aesthetics of

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

3. Musical meaning and understanding

It has been held that music has meaning, experiences of music often being felt to be meaningful; and attempts have been made to explain musical meaning in terms of such concepts as expression and representation (see §4 and §6 below). Musical meaning has also been said to be the object of musical understanding, what we understand when we understand music (Scruton 1987). This in turn raises questions about musical understanding.

On one view, musical understanding consists in a kind of propositional knowledge where one can describe linguistically what one has heard, even if not in precise, technical, musicological terms (Davies 1994). An opposing view, however, holds that musical understanding need not be verbalizable and consists only in a skill that involves being able to follow the music as it unfolds over time (Levinson 1996). There is broad agreement, however, that there can be different levels and kinds of musical understanding, and different kinds of music may require different sorts of musical understanding.

There has also been debate over whether musical understanding involves apprehension of large-scale musical forms such as sonata form, as held traditionally by architectonicists. Concatenationists challenge this view and instead regard musical understanding as involving the apprehension of local, small-scale or moment-to-moment connections (Levinson 1998). It is possible, however, that these two views may be reconciled following an analogy with architecture, where appreciating a building with arches involves apprehending its overall, large-scale structure as well as the local connections within its arches.

Musical understanding also involves perception of musical form, amongst other things. Recently, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have done a lot of empirical work on what goes on in the brain in hearing musical form, in grasping musical patterns and contours, and in being musically aroused to mental states. Empirical work worthy of philosophical attention has also been done on memory, attention and unconscious processing in perceiving musical form (Peretz and Zatorre 2003; Serafine 1987; Sloboda 1985, 2005).

Citing this article:
Trivedi, Saam. Musical meaning and understanding. Music, aesthetics of, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

Related Articles