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Music, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M030-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved June 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Article Summary

Philosophical reflection on music goes back historically in the West at least as far as the Pythagoreans and Plato, and has undergone a very 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, organised sound is a necessary condition, though clearly not sufficient, as not all organised 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 whether 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 verbalisable, propositional knowledge, a know-that, or whether it is instead a know-how, a skill of following how the music goes. There have also been challenges to the traditional claim that musical understanding is architectonic, consisting in the apprehension of large-scale musical forms, by concatenationists, who argue 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 trained and untrained listeners readily and immediately hear a lot of purely instrumental music as, say, sad or happy, which music cannot literally be. Amongst other possibilities, it has been suggested that music cannot express emotions and 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 empathise 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, exhilaration, awe, and wonder.

A different issue pertains to whether music without words can represent such extra-musical things as bird-calls, babbling 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. With regard to rock music, for example, it has been claimed that it has its own aesthetics that stresses recording, loud volumes, noise, rhythm, and beat.

Citing this article:
Trivedi, Saam. Music, aesthetics of, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M030-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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