3. The Aesthetics of Music
There is a little literature in the history of modern philosophy that is more exasperating than that devoted to the aesthetics of music. When the standard of philosophycal competence is high enough to be taken seriously, the standard of musical competence is usually (as with kant and hegel) too low for the exercise to be worthwhile. Hardly any writer troubles him self with example or analysis ,and almost all rest their case in some vast and vague abstraction,such as ‘form’ ‘imitation’ or ‘expression without explaining how a work exemplifies it, or why it would matter if it did..
Musical aesthetic has shown itself almost entirely unable to acoount for the character of auditory perception,or to explain the simplest of musical categories,such as melody rhythm and harmony. A grain of philosophical sense would suggest that no theory of musical expression, for example ,will be illuminating if unaccompanied by an explanation of those basic things. Yet even hanslick –after gurney, the most competent writer in the field ---failed to see that he had not given that explanation and that without it his theory of music as an absolute art was as unwarranted as the theories which he used it to attack.
Consider hanslick defination of music as tonend bewegte formen (forms moved in sounding ) what does it it mean to say that the forms of music ‘movie’ or are ‘moved’? it is fairly widely recognised that at some level the reference to musical moevement is inescapable (what would it be like to abolish ‘high’ and ‘low’ ,fast’,and slow,far and ‘near’ ‘approaching ‘ and ‘receding’ ‘hollow’and ‘filled’ ; from our description of musical experience? The result might still be a description of sound but if would not be adescription of tones . itis also fairly widely recognized that this reference to movement is it some sense metaphorical. For nothing in the word of sounds moves, in gthe way that music moves if that is so, however , a theory of music at all it’explain’ its subject only by blocking the path to explanation . if we allow hanslick to get away with assuming the existence of musial movement, why not allow his opponent to get away with assuming the existence of musical emotion? For although hanslick is righ to say that what we hear is neither a sentient thing nor anything like a sentient thing, it is also true that it is not a thing in motion nor anything like a thing in motion again, consider the eighteenth
Century aesthetic of “imitation”. It is well to argue that music ‘copies’ the movements of the human soul, or the gestures of the body, or whatever. But if the only grounds for saying so are that music moves in a similar way, then these are no grounds at all. For music does not move, and therefore does not move ‘in similar way’. Or rather, it does move, but only metaphorically, which is just as unhelpful. (you might as well say that batteux did prove that music imitates, but only metaphorically; or that i have refuted him, but only metaphorically). At almost every point intraditional discussions this problem emerges, and nothing has been said to solve it, partly because everything has been said to prevent it from being perceived.
A related oversight or traditional musical aesthetics has been the failure to explain the all-important notion of musical understanding. Since eighteenth-century writers first began to replace the idea of musical ‘imitation’ with that of expression, the thought has been prevalent that music-or at least significant music-has ‘a’ content, and that this content is what is understood by the receptive listener. The attraction of the theory is evident: it enables us to say for example, why music moves us and why it is important. (by contrast it is almost impossible to say why we should be interested in the fact that a piece of music imitates, say, a clock, a cuckoo, or a pair of rutting camels.) but the disadvantage of the theory of expression, in all its forms, is that it means nothing until accompanied by an analysis of musical understanding.
Only hegel, hanslick and wittgenstein seem to have recognized this point, and to have seen that it is crucial. If you take the point seriously, you see at once how inadequate are currently fashionable ‘semantic’ and ‘semiotic’ theories of musical meaning. Any body who is ingenious enough can interpret music as a language, or a code, or a system of signs; for example, by taking individual parts, structures, motifs and connections, and then correlating them with the object, feelings and attitudes that they are supposed to symbolize. All that is required for this exercise is that the music should display syntactic structure ( i.e., separately meaningful ‘elements’ which can be combined into meaningful wholes, and a ‘field of reference’ with which it can be conjoined. To express would the be to signify or stand for some item in the field of reference, according to rules of musical semantics. But of course, while the correlation of musical signs and musical ‘meanings’ is a task that any critic can set himself, it is not at all clear that it bear on the understanding of music. The real question is not whether this programme can be carried through (say, in the naive and illuminating manner of deryck cooke, or in the sophisticated and vacuous manner of Nattiez2), but whether it provides a genuine description of what is understood by the cultivated listener. An account of musical semantics
The real question is not whether this programme can be carried through (say, in the naive and liluminating manner of deryck cooke, or in the sophiscated and vacuous manner of nattiez2), but whether it provides a genuine description of what is understood by the cultivated listener. An account og musical semantics
Must also be an account of musical ‘competence’ : but without a theory of understanding it is quite uncertainly what musical competence amounts to. Maybe it has nothing whatsoever to do with the sematic analsis that have been proposed for it; maybe the relation between them is no closer than relation between ability to ride a horse, and the semantic interpretation of piebald markings ( which could be dressed up, if you chose, as a kind of horsey syntax ).
What, then, should a serious musical aesthetics attempt to do? It seems to me that it ought first to tell us what sounds are; the preoccupation of modern philosophy with the visual has been so overwhelming that the nature of sounds, as objects of perception, remins almost completely obsicure. It ought also to tell us what tones are, and how, if at all, they are distinct from sounds. It should tell us what it is to perceive tones as organized, in the way that music is ( or appears to be ) organized: into rhythms, melodies, and harmonies. ( what for example, a harmony, and what distinguishes it from a cluster of simulation tones?) it should also attempt to display the nature of musical understanding, and its relation to musical expirience, to musical analysis, and to aesthetic interes.
Only then, when all those foundations are laid, will it be possible to make sense of such terms as ‘expresion’, ‘emotion’, and ‘form’ as applied to music. However, a real begining could then be envisaged, in this subject which has been for so long victim of philosophical impetuosity. The chapters in this section explore some of problems presented by such a ‘foundational’ approach to musical aesthetics. The first there – reprinted from the New Grove Dictional of Music – describemajor difficulties presented by the available ways of interpreting and criticizing wastern music. they survey the history of music theory, and attempt to summarize the present perspectives which a philosopher might take. There follws an article on reprentation in music, which argues that there are grounds for treating music in terms which distinguish it from literature and painting. It emerges tahat the crucial notion to be analyzed in a foundational aesthetic of music is that of musical undersatanding. The final chapter is devoted to a consideration of that idea.