Skip to main content

Music (Philosophy)

MUSIC (PHILOSOPHY)

Initially music (Lat. musica, Gr. μουσική [τέχνη]) was employed in a broad sense to signify any human art over which the nine Muses presided. It was then gradually restricted in meaning to signify the fine art of combining vocal and instrumental sounds into rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structure. It is generally regarded as the most moving emotionally of all the arts. Since the concern of philosophers with music is summarized in their attempts to arrive at ever more precise definitions, this article explores in a summary fashion the positions of a number of philosophers on the nature of music.

Greek Thought. Among available documents, the fragments of the Pythagoreans are the oldest. Their principal interest in music was to discern the mysterious role of number in the physicomathematical order. By means of this investigation, they discovered three important truths about music: (1) tonal intervals can be described by fixed numerical relations: (2) harmony is produced by contraries (namely, high and low sounds); and (3) an analogy exists between geometric and musical harmony inasmuch as (a ) musical harmony has a continuity similar to the continuity of various geometric figures and solids, and (b ) musical harmonies can involve inverted proportions. (see pythagoras and pythagoreans.)

Plato. The divine origin of harmony and rhythm was emphasized by plato. Thus God has produced in man the natural inclination to produce harmony and rhythm, not at random, but ultimately in imitation of spiritual harmony (Ion 534D, E). Mathematics, according to Plato, is of considerable help in making a clear delineation of rhythms and harmonies (Rep. 400). In the Laws (812C), he describes music as "the movement of melodies imitating the soul agitated by the passions."

Aristotle. In general, aristotle accepts what his predecessors have said about music (Pol. 1340a 1419; 1340b 510; 1341b 815, 2340). In his extended consideration of music in the Politics (1339a 111342b 33), he discusses the role of music in the education of youth, and in this context manifests certain formalities about music not previously recognized or made explicit. Aristotle agrees with the common view that music imitates the movement of human emotions (Poet. 1447a 2025; Pol. 1340a 191340b 10). But since human emotions are related to human action, music imitates artistically human action as well, and therefore should first be examined in a general consideration of all the arts (Poet. 1447a 1417).

In the extant writings of Aristotle there is not much treatment of music distinctively as an art form. In some agreement with Plato, Aristotle recognizes that the formal principles for disposing musical matter are derived from mathematics; arithmetic provides number, which ensures proportion within and among rhythms and harmonies, and geometry serves as the foundation for conceiving and achieving musical coherence (cf. Phys. 194a 8: Meta. 1004a 68). Because of this special relation between music and mathematics, music is a distinct science and art (Anal. post. 76a 915, 2325). Yet music has something in common with the arts of epic, tragedy, comedy, dithryambic poetry, dancing, and painting (Poet. 1447a 201447b 15; 1448a 118; 1449a 112). From the general science of poetics, music derives the distinction of meters and their capacity for mutual order with a view to signifying epic, tragic, or comic action (ibid. ). In this way, music can be understood to signify the order of human emotions as related particularly to these three types of action.

Since man is naturally inclined to be iambic in speech, Aristotle maintains that the iamb is the natural meter (ibid. 1449a 2427). The external use of the iamb, however, is traceable to the human inclination to resolve problems; and the iamb contains the sign of indecisiveness (the "arsis" or light measure) as its first part, the sign of decisiveness (the "thesis" or weighty measure) as its second part. Thus iambic music, or music wherein the iamb is the architectonic and regulating meter, is especially apt to help man develop his natural propensity to speak and move decisively, and, indirectly, to judge

decisively (Pol. 1340a 1619; 1340a 401340b 14; 1341a 39).

Aristotle goes on to discuss the musical "modes," which are established by the proportion of harmony to rhythm (Pol. 1341a 171342b 17). Thus the Doric mode is the best for the training of young persons because the Doric harmonies have the best proportion to iambic meter, whereas the proportion of the Lydian harmonies to the iamb is not very clear and is, therefore, more suitable for very young children and elderly persons (Pol. 1342a 11342b 30).

Plotinus and the Prescholastic Tradition. plotinus starts his examination of music by observing that its ulterior purpose is to bear the listener beyond nature, to the highest beauty, whereby the soul, being beautified, becomes like God (Enneads 1.6.6). More generally, however (and here Plotinus makes explicit a truth generally presupposed in Aristotle's discussions), music has the poetic purpose of making man attentive to some truth that should be examined (ibid. 4.4.40). This it accomplishes by binding his irrational appetites. As regards the signification of the meters, Plotinus notes that the art concerning sounds is analogous to "intelligible rhythm" (ibid. 5.9.11).

The contributions of St. augustine to traditional doctrine on music are considerable. Observing the proportion between musical continuity and the muscular control exercised by the singer, he describes music as "the science of good modulation." Since this proportion has a similar effect upon the listener, he goes on to say that music is the science moving man "by the preserved dimensions of tempi and intervals" (Musica 1.23). On the basis of the foregoing, music is a principle whereby man can know, analogously, the harmony of God's government (Epist. 166.5.13); and, from the knowledge of the immutable numbers in music, one can analogize to immutable Truth (Musica 6; Retract. 1.11).

In addition to his extensive consideration of the relation between mathematics and music, boethius distinguishes three types of music: (1) mundane, found especially in the phenomena of the heavens; (2) human, which gives the incorporeal vivacity of reason to the body and reconciles the rational and irrational parts of the soul; and (3) that which enables instruments to serve melody (De instit. mus. 1. 2). According to his description of "human" music, then, one purpose of music is to counteract sluggishness in the body and its faculties (ibid. 5.2).

Whether Boethius arrived at this conclusion on his own or because of his close friendship with cassiodorus is hard to discern. One of the best read and most extensive writers on music during the early Middle Ages, Cassiodorus was more interested in proportion and harmony as achieved in musical works than under their strictly mathematical aspects. He describes music as "the discipline which examines the differences and accords among mutually congruous things, that is, sounds" (Comm. in Ps. 97 ). The suggested analogous supposition of the term "sounds" is confirmed by his tenet that sonorous music is the symbol of all physical and moral harmony (Epist. ad Boeth. ). This harmony is readily discerned in the firstaccomplished, although nonprimary, effect of music, namely, pleasure in the experience of bodily well-being and of the soul's love for the body. Indeed, there is a mysterious bond between musical pleasure and supreme happiness, because aesthetic joy is a symbol of happiness in heaven; the satisfaction of the soul in music is especially analogous to the beatific vision because of the similarity in the respective effortless acts of the intellect (De anima 12).

Within its own scope, music frees man from the cares of life, distracts him from his occupations and preoccupations, and raises him to fully interesting activities (Epist. ad Boeth. ). Cassiodorus held that, by promoting fortitude, the Dorian mode promotes also modesty and chastity. By the use of harmonies of a range lower than those employed by the Greeks, the Phrygian mode can animate the soul to fight against evil, while the Lydian mode comforts the person who feels defeated (ibid. ). According to Cassiodorus there are three parts of music, namely, harmony, rhythm, and meter (ibid. ). Vocal music should observe the notes, pauses, accents, pedal melody, and "composition" of the phrase (ibid. ). Finally, he mentions the fact that natural overtones and natural undertones are contained in the human voice as focused on distinct mid-range tones, and that this fact constitutes the basic meaning of "symphony" (or "sounding together").

High Scholasticism and Grosseteste. Most of St. albert the great's important observations on music are contained in his Commentary on Aristotle's Politics (bk. 8). In addition to his many references to Aristotle's doctrine on music. St. thomas aquinas made a theological application of the Aristotelian summation, with further analyses, in his Commentary on Psalm 32.

The coherence of the tradition concerning music up to and including Aquinas is rather clear. robert grosse teste, however, introduced a subtle confusion that served to obscure this solid tradition for at least 6 centuries. As summarized by De Bruyne (Études d'Esthétique médiévale 3: 139148), Grosseteste teaches that there are five fundamental proportionalities, identically repeated in a whole, from which is derived "all beauty, that is, all 'concord,' whatever the magnitudes may be." This fundamental, universal, metaphysical principle is as true of plastic beauty as it is of sonic beauty (De luce 59). The five proportionalities are at the basis of harmony in the musical arts: music, dancing, and poetry (ibid. ). Both sonic and visible forms can be represented by simple figures (De gen. sonorum 8). All these forms are reduced to movements, which can be measured and ordered according to the principles of spatial proportionality, as well as by time measures (De artibus liberalibus 2). One and the same discipline concerns the proportions in singing and in the movements of the body (ibid. 3). All artistic compositions, however, are regulated by the number ten and the simple relations that it contains, and the ethical effects of music are based upon the concordance between the proportionality in the soul and the proportionality of sensible nature (ibid. ).

thomas of york and roger bacon extend Grosseteste's position, Bacon holding that music is the fundamental art, since, without it, grammar and the other arts of the trivium cannot possibly be learned with any thoroughness (Opus majus 4).

Here one has an attempted philosophical justification of formalistic music, that is, music without pulsation (or genuine modulation). The truths partially contained in Grosseteste's position are that the proportions established by number do regulate artistic production; that geometry is a discipline that enables the artist to establish coherence (taken in its full analogous meaning) in the work he produces; and that what is directly imitated is natural movement (especially human motion). But by reducing all these truths to mathematical proportions, Grosseteste tends to destroy the hierarchy of artistic signification.

Renaissance and Modern Developments. A reaction against this position was manifested early in the renaissance by M. ficino, who held that "love is the master of all the arts," including music. Later G. vico taught that, like poetry, music has divine and heroic characteristics; it is the expression of "the most violent passions of the nascent human race," and that, therefore, music is the first expression of man, coming before words and the reflections of the "pure mind" (Scienza nuova ). Apparently, then, Vico was restoring the analogous signification of music; yet his dialectical language prevents one from establishing this point with certainty. He arrived at Roger Bacon's cited position, yet based upon another principle.

For G. W. leibniz, music is "a hidden arithmetical exercise of the mind not knowing how to number itself" (Epist. 154). According to Immanuel kant, music is "a charming game concerned with the sensations of hearing" (The Critique of Judgment 1). He doubts whether it is truly an art, since it is "the pleasure which culture incites [the game of thoughts being the effect of a quasi-mechanical association] and, judged by reason, it has less value than any of the other beaux-arts " (ibid. ). Finally, music is "a continuous commotion and excitation of the soul" (ibid. ).

Friedrich Schlegel seems to revive Vico's position by holding that, since music expresses the most profound sentiments, it is analogous to philosophy. Arthur schopenhauer expands this doctrine by teaching that music has an absolute primacy over the other arts because of its inconfutably metaphysical character. Unlike the other arts, music represents the will, rather than ideas. It is an immediate objectivization. Richard wagner rejects Schopenhauer's conclusions, but agrees with him in his general position that music manifests the profound essence of things, especially the tragic aspect of human existence. Friedrich nietzsche carries the implicit pessimism of these tenets to its logical extreme by holding that, since music is a Dionysian rather than a plastic-Apollinean art, it is concerned with the world of drunkenness and dreaming.

Recognizing that the foregoing positions involve almost a complete denial of music as a discipline, Eduard Hanslick maintains that the expression of sentiments does not constitute the content of music, and that specifically musical beauty consists only in sounds and their artistic arrangement. Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky have espoused Hanslick's theory as accenting the most important aspect in the act of composing.

The Nature of Music. As is evident from the foregoing, direct contributions to an essential definition of music seem to have ended with the propagation of Grosseteste's ultimate reduction of music to mathematics. From his predecessors, however, one can glean its basic elements and say that music is the art which, through the use of modulation and the mathematical delineation of rhythms and harmonies (and, possibly, with the aid of established modes), imitates human emotions as engaged in epic or dramatic action, with the direct aim of recreational contemplation, which indirectly promotes man in the moral good. This definition corresponds with the general position taken by critics and others on the nature of music.

Mention should finally be made of scholars and composers who have developed the science of music under its mathematical and acoustical aspects. In fact, a knowledge of this development, together with a thorough acquaintance with the works representing the whole history of music, and a knowledge of contemporary acoustical research, are all needed for a full appreciation of the philosophical tradition concerned with this subject.

See Also: art (philosophy); liberal arts.

Bibliography: j. portnoy, The Philosopher and Music: A Historical Outline (New York 1955). e. de bruyne, Études d'esthétique médiévale, 3 v. (Bruges 1946). a. m. moschetti, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:770779. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe, 3 v. (4th ed. Berlin 192730) 2:190191. w. d. allen, Philosophies of Music History (New York 1939, repr. 1962). History of Music in Sound, ed. g. abraham et al., 10 v. (New York 195359). o. thompson, ed., The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, rev. n. slonimsky (5th ed. New York 1949).

[f. c. lehner]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Music (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Music (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/music-philosophy

"Music (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 15, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/music-philosophy

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.