Music, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved May 22, 2022, from

2. Musical ontology

A lot of recent musical aesthetics has dwelt on the ontology of musical works, seen usually as entities that admit of multiple instances such as performances (and perhaps also appropriate, complete playings of full and correct recordings). It has been claimed that musical works are abstracta and debate has revolved around the nature of the abstract entity that is the musical work; though it has also been claimed that musical works are merely fictional, and that the only things that exist are concrete scores, performances and recordings (see Art works, ontology of).

It seems clear that musical works are not to be identified with any given performance of them, for they can exist unperformed, and a performance can be bad while the work is good. Nor are musical works to be identified with manuscripts or scores, for they can exist unscored, as in the case of jazz and music in oral traditions.

Some have held that musical works are classes of correct performances of them (Goodman 1968), but one problem here is that while classes grow or expand every time a new member is added to them, a musical work itself does not grow with new performances of it. A second view holds that musical works are universals or kinds or pure sound-structures, and those subscribing to this view have also usually held that musical works are eternal entities that are neither created nor destroyed (Wolterstorff 1980; Dodd 2007). Against this Platonism, it has been objected that it runs counter to musical practice, which it unhelpfully regards as secondary (Davies 2009). Additionally, two musical works can have the same sound-structure and yet be different due to their different musico-historical contexts of origin, consisting of being created by different persons at different times and places; for example, two works composed completely independently of each other may have the same sound-structure and yet one might be brash, while the other composed much later in musical history might not. A third view accordingly has claimed that musical works are qualified or contextualized types, tied essentially to their creators, times, places and cultures of origin (Levinson 1990).

There has also been debate about whether instrumentation is integral to the identity and individuation of at least some works, or instead all that matters here is the sounds and timbres of the work regardless of how these are produced (Dodd 2007). More recently, it has been claimed that musical works do not admit a uniform ontology, but rather one that varies, depending on the kind of music: some music is meant to be improvised, some for live performance, some for studio performance and some just for playback rather than performance (Davies 2004).

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