Philosophy of music

Philosophy of music

Philosophy of music is the study of fundamental questions regarding music. The philosophical study of music has many connections with philosophical questions in metaphysics and aesthetics. Some basic questions in the philosophy of music are:

  • What is the definition of music? (what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for classifying something as music?)
  • What is the relationship between music and mind?
  • What does musical history reveal to us about the world?
  • What is the connection between music and emotions?
  • What is meaning in relation to music?


Philosophical issues

Definition of music

One common definition of music is "organized sound". However, this definition is rather unsatisfactory since it is too broad; there are many types of organized sound that are usually not considered music such as human speech or the beeping of an alarm clock. Other definitions, such as "music is organized tones", as suggested by some early philosophers, are too narrow, because there are many forms of music that do not use a tonal scale. Percussive music and atonal music are good examples. There are many different ways of denoting the fundamental aspects of music which extend beyond tones: popular aspects include melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. However, Musique concrète often consists only of sound samples of non-musical nature, sometimes in random juxtaposition. Ambient music may often consist merely of recordings of wildlife or nature. The arrival of these avant-garde forms of music in the 20th century have been a major challenge to traditional views on music, leading to broader characterizations. Some people[who?] consider these forms to no longer be musical, and better categorized under the broader label of "sound art".

A preeminent figure in the development of avant-garde music in the 20th century was John Cage. His work, 4'33" is a central test case for any definition of music. In it, a performer(s) sits on stage for four minutes and thirty three seconds and produces no sounds. Cage intended the piece to not be produced by the performer, but by the environment around the performer. After all, there are always sounds around us no matter where we go, and no concert hall is perfectly quiet. John Cage believed that any sounds could be considered as music, and this idea is reflected in many of his works.[1]

Absolute music vs program music

"Absolute music" refers to music that is not about anything and is non-representational. "Program music", by contrast, is intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, images in the mind of the listener by musically representing a scene, image or mood. Since absolute music cannot have any external meaning, the meaning must be derived from the very essence of the music itself. There is debate over the sense in which absolute music can really exist and whether all music is "programmatic" in nature be it intended or not.

There was intense debate over the matter during the late Romantic Era, with the majority of opposition to absolute instrumental-based music coming from Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Wagner's works were chiefly programmatic and often used vocalization, and he said that "Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone." Nietzsche wrote many commentaries applauding the music of Wagner and was in fact an amateur composer himself.[2] Hegel went so far as to say that "Instrumental music is not strictly art at all."[citation needed]

Other Romantic philosophers and proponents of absolute music, such as Johann von Goethe saw music not only as a subjective human "language" but as an absolute transcendent means of peering into a higher realm of order and beauty. Some expressed a spiritual connection with music. In Part IV of his chief work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), Arthur Schopenhauer said that "music is the answer to the mystery of life. The most profound of all the arts, it expresses the deepest thoughts of life." In "The Immediate Stages of the Erotic, or Musical Erotic", a chapter of Either/Or (1843), Søren Kierkegaard examines the profundity of music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the sensual nature of Don Giovanni.

Meaning and purpose

Today there is still much debate over how music gets its meaning. Of course, music can be interpreted many different ways by different listeners, but there are many general emotional characteristics which appear to be universal to music. A central question is how much of these characteristics come directly from the music itself and how much from cultural association. The sciences of neurobiology and evolutionary psychology and the field of ethnomusicology are slowly making progress in answering this and related questions. People may associate certain sounds with certain emotions based on cultural conditioning, but some fundamental types of sounds are probably naturally pleasing or displeasing.

Also being investigated is the question of why music developed in the first place. The first attempts to put music in an evolutionary framework were made by Charles Darwin who said in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, "Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex." Today there is active research in the evolution of music, with some evidence supporting Darwin's hypothesis that it was used for mating and other evidence suggesting that music was a means of social organization and communication in early cultures. A few leading evolutionary psychologists argue that music has no adaptive purpose at all, but simply manages, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has written, to "tickle the sensitive spots"[citation needed] in areas of the brain that evolved for other purposes. In his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Pinker dubbed music "auditory cheesecake" a phrase that in the years since has served as a challenge to the musicologists and psychologists who believe otherwise.[3]

Aesthetics of music

The study of the aesthetics of music revolves around the question "what makes music pleasurable to listen to?". Views on what is "good music" have changed dramatically over the centuries as new musical forms have arisen and others have fallen out of favor. This fact shows the cultural dependence of a person's ability to interpret and enjoy music. Of importance is the difference between art music and popular music. Popular music is music that mass audiences find accessible and is thus heavily dependent on culture and time period. Art music is music that is cultivated by relatively small groups and must be practiced and studied in order to be fully appreciated.



  • Kivy, P: Introduction to the Philosophy of Music, Hackett Publishing, 1989.
  • Malcolm Budd: "Music and the Expression of Emotion", Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 19–29.
  • Goehr, Lydia. 'The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. An Essay in the Philosophy of Music' Oxford, 1992/2007.
  • Scruton, R: The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press, 1997.

External links

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