Music, Philosophy of

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Since the veritable renaissance of aesthetics and philosophy of art in the 1960s, there has been a clear tendency to deal with the individual arts as presenting philosophical problems peculiar to themselves. This is not to say that philosophy of art in general has not also been pursued. Ambitious theories of art, attempting to encompass all of the fine arts in synoptic definitions, have occupied some of the best philosophical minds of the period, and brought much needed clarity and rigor to the discipline. But alongside of this more traditional, Socratic project there has flourished a busy community of philosophers exercising their analytic skills on the individual problems of arts such as literature, painting, dance, photography, cinema, drama, architecture, and, of course, music, the topic here.

Music and the Emotions

The oldest and most persistently scrutinized philosophical question with regard to music is the question of its emotive character. Plato expressed the view that music has the power to engender emotive states in the listener. Aristotle made the intriguing, though puzzling, suggestion that music "imitates" or represents the emotions. But we know little, if anything, about what their music sounded like. And without that knowledge we are at a loss to know what these philosophers were talking about, and consequently what they were really saying about it.

Modern speculation on this matter began at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the inventors of opera began to speculate about music as the source of emotive expression in the newly minted dramatic form. But the problem did not take on the form in which contemporary aesthetics deals with it until, in the late eighteenth century, instrumental music emerged as a major musical genre and the major genre in the philosophy of music.

In the past seventy years, the question has taken a schematic form: What are we saying when we say "The music is sad "? Some answers have been that the music makes us sad; that the music expresses the composer's sadness; that the music somehow symbolizes or represents sadness; that the music possesses sadness as a perceptual quality, just as an apple possesses redness; some combination of the above; and finally, that the music just is not sad and it is nonsense to say that it is. The majority view, at the turn of the century, is that the emotive properties of music are perceived properties of it, although opinion is divided about whether it also arouses the emotions it is expressive of. Those who argue against arousal (Peter Kivy, for example), argue that emotions are aroused in ordinary life by beliefs formed about states of affairs, which the appropriate emotions then take as intentional objects, and that music cannot provide the necessary conditions for such arousal, nor is there evidence that listeners are so aroused. In contrast, those who argue for arousal (Stephen Davies and Jerrold Levinson) maintain that because the emotions aroused by music are not full-blooded emotions, but close enough to be taken for them, music does indeed have the power to arouse emotions, though these emotions do not give rise to the normal behavioral responses of real-life emotions.


While the topic of music and the emotions has perhaps been the most talked about in music aesthetics since time out of mind, it is arguable that the vital center of philosophy of music has been, since the end of the eighteenth century, the debate over musical formalism. Immanuel Kant seemed to entertain no doubt that pure instrumental music, "absolute music," as it came to be called, was a purely formal art (although he acknowledged its emotive aspect), and because it lacked ideational content, he was reluctant to consider it one of the fine arts at all.

Arthur Schopenhauer pretty much settled the issue in favor of absolute music as a fine art. He did so by considering music a representational art form, and thus an art form conforming to the eighteenth-century dogma of mimesis (imitation). But the cost was heavy, for the cumbersome metaphysical underpinnings of his theory would hardly be countenanced by philosophers with modern philosophical sensibilities.

The first full-blown formalist account of absolute music, that of Eduard Hanslick (18251904), followed not too long after. In musical aesthetics, formalism, as Hanslick construed it and as it continued to be construed until the 1980s, is the doctrine that absolute music, as an art object, must be considered a purely formal structure in sound, with no emotive significance at all. But when some writers came to see that the emotive properties of music could themselves be construed as perceptual properties of music, they saw that a formalism with emotive properties as part of the formal structure is, in spirit, a formalism as well. This view has come to be called "enhanced formalism."

As things stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are those, particularly in historical musicology, who find even enhanced formalism too pallid, and views of absolute music as a "narrative without words" are surfacing in great profusion. What had seemed to many to be an issue firmly settled in favor of formalism has now become an issue very much in doubt.

Musical Understanding

Closely related to the concept of musical form is that of musical understanding. Whether or not one is a formalist, one has to assume that understanding the pure musical fabric is a prerequisite for understanding anything beyond the pure fabricnarrative content, for example. In other words, one must hear what one is listening to as music before one can hear it as a story in music.

It is generally agreed that understanding music is a matter of hearing it as a connected series of events that makes musical sense to the listener. How this basic musical understanding is to be recognized and construed are contentious questions. Furthermore, there is substantial disagreement about whether or not musical understanding requires knowing and attending to the large structural elements of musical compositions and the musical techniques that may govern the connections between events. This disagreement extends to whether or not knowledge of what is known in the trade as music theory has any relevance to the appreciation and enjoyment of absolute music. In the 1990s these questions were hotly disputed. In Music in the Moment, Jerrold Levinson maintained that normal listening requires attention merely to the connections between short segments of musical texture present to immediate perception, in what he calls "quasi-hearing." In the opposite camp, Peter Kivy, in Music Alone and elsewhere, has argued that music-theoretical knowledge, though not essential to minimal musical understanding, enlarges the intentional object of musical understanding, thus increasing by orders of magnitude the satisfaction of the musical experience.


The question of whether instrumental music is capable of anything like pictorial representation is not high on the list of questions that philosophers of music at the beginning of the twenty-first century concern themselves with, although in the heyday of nineteenth-century Romanticism it was much discussed as a matter of "practical" music aesthetics and was closely associated with the issue of absolute versus program music. There are those who claim that music in principle cannot pictorially represent but can only imitate sounds, which is obviously a very different matter. Others maintain that there are instances of pictorial representation in music, although of a very minimal kind. Those committed to more or less elaborate narrative interpretations of the canon of absolute music are committed, at least implicitly, to some more liberal view of music's representational capacities, although little philosophical light on the issue has been forthcoming from that quarter.

Words and Music

As questions in musical practice, how words are set to music and what role words and music play in this give-and-take enterprise have been argued vigorously, sometimes acrimoniously, since the last half of the sixteenth century, with opera as the major motivating force. Whether these are philosophical questions is debatable. Nonetheless, in the literature after 1990 those who do think of themselves as philosophers have shown an increase in interest in opera as an art form worthy of separate scrutiny. Among the issues raised have been whether opera is basically a musical form or a literary form with music, how we are rationally to understand a drama with characters who sing rather than speak, how drama can accommodate itself to musical form, how we are to understand, on rational grounds, the ubiquitous orchestral presence in the sung drama, and what capacity the music in opera has of "saying" things, beyond the capacity of the libretto to do so. These debates have blurred, in an intellectually healthy way, the boundaries between philosophy and various musical disciplines. At the same time, those outside both the philosophical and musical academic communities have made substantial contributions to the philosophical discourse.

Perhaps the central philosophical issue in the words-music debate is best revealed by the title that Joseph Kerman, a musicologist by trade, gave to his groundbreaking, widely admired book Opera as Drama. On Kerman's view, opera is to be viewed, at its best, as principally a form of drama, dramma per musica, in the venerable Latin phrase. Taking the opposite view, Peter Kivy, in Osmin's Rage, has put the emphasis, not on opera as drama, but rather on opera as music, drama-made-music, as he terms it.

The Work

Whatever one may think about the philosophical credentials of some of the questions that philosophers of music interest themselves in, the question of the ontological status of the musical work seems unequivocally philosophical. Who else but a philosopher, it might well be asked, would raise such a question, or be interested in the answer?

Musical ontology emerged in the 1960s in the form of two opposing answers to the question, What is a musical work? The term "art object" clearly suggests the kind of artwork that can, at least on first reflection, be identified with a physical object, locatable in space and time. But if the "object" in question is a musical work, it seems clear that it is not located anywhere. The Mona Lisa is in the Louvre. Where is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ?

Nevertheless, there are physical objects, broadly speaking, associated with musical works, namely their performances. One direction in which musical ontology went was the Platonic direction, taking musical works as universals or types, performances as their instances or tokens. The other direction, eschewing the specter of timeless, nonphysical Platonic entities, identified the musical work with the class of its performances. Both directions have problems, but the Platonic model, somewhat surprisingly, has been the one most exploited.

The major problem of musical Platonism has been the apparent conflict between two basic intuitions. Platonic entities are timeless, and hence cannot have come into being, whereas musical works do indeed come into being, are created, through the labor and inspiration of their composers. Platonists of the more doctrinaire kind have tried to argue that we can preserve our notion of composers as inspired, "creative" artists, in some sense or other, while biting the Platonic bullet and affirming that musical works are discovered rather than brought into being. Other, more moderate Platonists have opted for a kind of universal or type that comes into being in the composer's creative act but, in other respects, preserves the character of a Platonic universal or type so as to make the universal/particular or type/token distinction suitable for what they want to say about the relation between works and their performances. The latter approach seems to be more popular at the beginning of the twenty-first century, while the attempt to identify works with classes of their performances seems just about dead in the water.

The Performance

Since the most popular analyses of the musical work construe it as some kind of universal, with performances as the particulars, one would expect a substantial literature on musical performance. But until the late 1990s, this had not been so, it being assumed that performers and performances are philosophically transparent, presenting no conceptual puzzles. Then in the 1990s a movement in the practical world of performer and performance, the movement for so-called "historically authentic performances," began to generate considerable interest among philosophers in the relation between performance and work, performer and composer. The historicist project in musicology, so long directed at establishing musical texts that are historically authentic, became, in the 1990s, directed as well at the historical authenticity of the musical performance of that authenticated text, the practical result being that more and more performances of music composed prior to the nineteenth century are attempts to reproduce, both physically and in interpretation, the kind of performance that the composer himself had in mind when he composed it.

After the turn of the century, philosophers began to cast an analytic eye on the concept of the historically authentic performance and on the aesthetic imperative that supposedly drives it. What is a historically authentic performance? One that reproduces a physical object or an intentional one? Does the integrity of the musical text require a historically authentic performance, or does the text survive an unabashedly modern one? Is the performer an artist in his own right, as tradition would have it, or is he the composer's machine? Is there an ideal performance of a work, and is it the historically authentic one? These questions have begun to generate articles and books of interest not only to the philosophical community but also to the musical community as well. Moreover, what the musical community has written about performance is now undergoing philosophical scrutiny. The results are not yet in.

The Rewards of Listening

Finally, what contribution of value does the art of absolute music make to the human experience. What kind of satisfaction does it provide? Schopenhauer argued that since absolute music satisfies in the same manner as the other fine arts, which are unquestionably representational arts, absolute music too must be a representational art. He then cast about for an object that absolute music might represent, fixing on the metaphysical willa result that few today would find plausible. Be that as it may, those who interpret the absolute-music canon in narrative terms are implicitly committed to Schopenhauer's general argument, if not to his conclusion about music's relation to the will. For the quest for stories in symphonies assumes that the satisfaction provided by such music requires an account, and since the satisfaction of temporal art forms lies in their story-telling capacity, the same must be true for the temporal art of absolute music. (Schopenhauer himself, however, does not carry his argument to this extreme.)

Formalists, of course, must find other sources for the value and satisfaction of absolute music. One answer, distinctly in the spirit of Schopenhauer, is that absolute music provides a kind of escape, a liberation from the world, from this veil of tears, into a world of pure sonic forms. The narrative and representational arts, anchored in this world as they are, cannot provide this liberation. Another answer simply rejects the question. There is no mystery about the satisfactions of absolute music. They lie simply in all the components of absolute music that music critics, analysts, and theorists talk about. It is obvious why these components please us. No further answer, it is claimed, is either needed or available.

Is the satisfaction of absolute music a mystery or a pseudomystery? Whatever the answer, absolute music, since the mid-1950s, has become a topic of intense interest in the philosophy of art, and the philosophy of music has become a recognized subdiscipline of the field. The interest shows no signs of abating.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Art, Definitions of; Art, Expression in; Art, Formalism in; Art, Ontology of; Art, Representation in; Art, Style and Genre in.


music and the emotions

Aristotle. Politics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. Book 8, chapter 5.

Davies, Stephen. Musical Meaning and Expression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. Chapters 46.

Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful. Translated by Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1986. Chapters 1, 2, and 4.

Kivy, Peter. The Corded Shell: Reflections on Musical Expression. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key. New York: Mentor Books, 1959. Chapter 8.

Levinson, Jerrold. Music, Art, and Metaphysics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. Chapter 13.

Levinson, Jerrold. The Pleasures of Aesthetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Chapter 6.

Plato. Republic. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963. Books 3 and 10.

Pratt, Carroll C. The Meaning of Music. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1932.

Strunk, Oliver, ed. Source Readings in Music History: From Classical Antiquity through the Romantic Era. New York: Norton, 1950. Section 8.


Gurney, Edmund. The Power of Sound. London: Smith, Elder, 1880.

Hanslick, Eduard. On the Musically Beautiful. Translated by Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1986. Chapter 3.

Kivy, Peter. The Fine Art of Repetition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Chapters 18 and 19.

Kivy, Peter. Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Chapter 3.

Meyer, Leonard. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

Newcomb, Anthony. "Once More 'Between Absolute and Program Music': Schumann's Second Symphony." Nineteenth-Century Music 7 (1984): 233250.

musical understanding

Kivy, Peter. Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. Chapter 6.

Levinson, Jerrold. Music in the Moment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Tanner, Michael. "Understanding Music." Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 59.


Kivy, Peter. Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Robinson, Jenefer. "Music as a Representational Art." In What Is Music? edited by Philip Alperson. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. Chapter 6.

Scruton, Roger. "Representation in Music." Philosophy 51 (1976).

words and music

Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.

Kivy, Peter. Osmin's Rage: Philosophical Reflections on Opera, Drama, and Text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Levinson, Jerrold. The Pleasures of Aesthetics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Chapter 4.

Robinson, Paul. Opera and Ideas from Mozart to Strauss. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

the work

Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968. Chapters 4 and 5.

Ingarden, Roman. The Work of Music and the Problem of Its Identity. Translated by Adam Czerniawski. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Kivy, Peter. The Fine Art of Repetition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Chapters 24.

Levinson, Jerrold. Music, Art, and Metaphysics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990. Chapters 4 and 10.

Wollheim, Richard. Art and Its Objects: An Introduction to Aesthetics. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. Sections 139.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Works and Worlds of Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Part 2.

the performance

Davies, Stephen. Musical Works and Performances: A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001.

Dipert, Randall R. "The Composer's Intentions: An Evaluation of Their Relevance for Performance." Musical Quarterly 66 (1980).

Godlovitch, Stan. Musical Performance: A Philosophical Study. London: Routledge, 1998.

Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

the rewards of listening

Budd, Malcolm. Values of Art: Pictures, Poetry, and Music. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Kivy, Peter. Philosophies of Arts: An Essay in Differences. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Chapter 7.

Peter Kivy (2005)