Philosophy of music

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Napalm Death play an extreme genre of hardcore punk called grindcore that uses heavily distorted guitars, grinding overdrive bass and incomprehensible growls and high-pitched shrieks for vocals. While the band has been dismissed as "mindless noise",[1] the respected BBC journalist John Peel was an "ardent supporter" of the band and appreciated their music.[2]

Philosophy of music is the study of "...fundamental questions about the nature of music and our experience of it".[3] Unlike some philosophies associated with academic fields, such as philosophy of science, which examines a subject that most people are not familiar with, most people are familiar with music because musical culture and songs are a central part of their lives.[3] 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? (in the 19th century there was a debate over whether instrumental music could convey emotion)
  • What is meaning in relation to music?

Philosophical issues[edit]

Definition of music[edit]

Main article: Definition of music

"Explications of the concept of music usually begin with the idea that music is organized sound. They go on to note that this characterization is too broad, since there are many examples of organized sound that are not music, such as human speech, and the sounds non-human animals and machines make."[3] There are many different ways of denoting the fundamental aspects of music which are more specific than "sound": popular aspects include melody (pitches that occur consecutively), harmony (pitches regarded as groups—not necessarily sounding at the same time—to form chords), rhythm, meter and timbre (also known as a sound's "color"). However, noise music may consist mainly of noise. Musique concrète often consists only of sound samples of non-musical nature, sometimes in random juxtaposition. Ambient music may consist 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 of music as being based around melodies and rhythms, leading to broader characterizations.[citation needed]

Absolute music vs program music[edit]

Main articles: Absolute music and Program music

There was intense debate over absolute music versus program music during the late Romantic Era. Advocates of the "absolute music" perspective argued that instrumental music does not convey emotions or images to the listener. They claimed that music is not explicitly "about" anything and that it is non-representational.[4] The idea of absolute music developed at the end of the 18th century in the writings of authors of early German Romanticism, such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann.[4][5] Adherents of the "program music" perspective believed that music could convey emotions and images. One example of program music is Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, in which the fourth movement is the composer's depiction of a story about an artist who poisons himself with opium and then is executed. The majority of opposition to absolute instrumental-based music came from composer Richard Wagner and the philosophers 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.[6]

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[edit]

In his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker dubbed music "auditory cheesecake",[this quote needs a citation] a phrase that in the years since has served as a challenge to the musicologists and psychologists who believe otherwise.[7] Among those to note this stir was Philip Ball in his book The Music Instinct [8] where he noted that music seems to reach to the very core of what it means to be human: "There are cultures in the world where to say 'I'm not musical' would be meaningless," Ball writes, "akin to saying 'I'm not alive'." In a filmed debate, Ball suggests that music might get its emotive power through its ability to mimic people and perhaps its ability to entice us lies in music's ability to set up an expectation and then violate it.[9]

Aesthetics of music[edit]

Main article: Aesthetics of music
The symphony orchestra is not only the main large ensemble used in classical music; one work for orchestra, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been called the supreme masterpiece of the Western canon.[10]

In the pre-modern tradition, the aesthetics of music or musical aesthetics explored the mathematical and cosmological dimensions of rhythmic and harmonic organization. In the eighteenth century, focus shifted to the experience of hearing music, and thus to questions about its beauty and human enjoyment (plaisir and jouissance) of music. The origin of this philosophic shift is sometimes attributed to Baumgarten in the 18th century, followed by Kant. Through their writing, the ancient term aesthetics, meaning sensory perception, received its present-day connotation. In recent decades philosophers have tended to emphasize issues besides beauty and enjoyment. For example, music's capacity to express emotion has been a central issue.

Aesthetics is a sub-discipline of philosophy. In the 20th century, important contributions were made by Peter Kivy, Jerrold Levinson, Roger Scruton, and Stephen Davies. However, many musicians, music critics, and other non-philosophers have contributed to the aesthetics of music. In the 19th century, a significant debate arose between Eduard Hanslick, a music critic and musicologist, and composer Richard Wagner. Harry Partch and some other musicologists, such as Kyle Gann, have studied and tried to popularize microtonal music and the usage of alternate musical scales. Also many modern composers like La Monte Young, Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca paid much attention to a scale called just intonation.

It is often thought that music has the ability to affect our emotions, intellect, and psychology; it can assuage our loneliness or incite our passions. The philosopher Plato suggests in the Republic that music has a direct effect on the soul. Therefore, he proposes that in the ideal regime music would be closely regulated by the state (Book VII). There has been a strong tendency in the aesthetics of music to emphasize the paramount importance of compositional structure; however, other issues concerning the aesthetics of music include lyricism, harmony, hypnotism, emotiveness, temporal dynamics, resonance, playfulness, and color (see also musical development).

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c Andrew Kania, "The Philosophy of Music", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2014 edition, edited by Edward N. Zalta.
  4. ^ a b M. C. Horowitz (ed.), New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ISBN 0-684-31377-4, vol.1, p. 5
  5. ^ Dahlhaus, Carl (1991). The Idea of Absolute Music. University of Chicago Press. p. 18. 
  6. ^ "Nietzsche and Music". Retrieved 17 May 2011. 
  7. ^ Bennett, Drake (2006-09-03). "Survival of the harmonious". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2008-03-15. 
  8. ^ Ball, Philip (2012). The Music Instinct. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199896429. 
  9. ^ How The Light Gets In, 2013. "Music's Mystery". The Institute of Art and Ideas. Retrieved 19 November 2013. 
  10. ^ Nicholas Cook, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Cambridge Music Handbooks), Cambridge University Press (24 June 1993). ISBN 9780521399241. "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is acknowledged as one of the supreme masterpieces of the Western tradition. More than any other musical work it has become an international symbol of unity and affirmation."


  • Pinker, Steven. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393045358.

Further reading[edit]

  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1976. Introduction to the Sociology of Music, translated by E.B. Ashton. A Continuum Book. New York: Seabury Press. ISBN 0816492662.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1981. In Search of Wagner, translated by Rodney Livingstone. [London]: NLB. ISBN 0860910377.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1992. Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Verso Classics. London and New York: Verso. ISBN 0860913600 (cloth); ISBN 0860916138 (pbk) ; ISBN 1859841597 (pbk).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1998. Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts, edited by Rolf Tiedemann; translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735158.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 1999. Sound Figures, translated by Rodney Livingstone. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804735573 (cloth); ISBN 0804735581 (pbk).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2001. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, edited and with an introduction by J. M. Bernstein. Routledge Classics. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415255341 (cloth); ISBN 0415253802 (pbk).
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2002. Essays on Music, selected, with introduction, commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert; new translations by Susan H. Gillespie. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520231597.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2006. Philosophy of New Music, translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816636664.
  • Adorno, Theodor W. 2009. Night Music: Essays on Music 1928–1962, edited by Rolf Tiedemann; translated by Wieland Hoban. London and New York: Seagull Books. ISBN 1906497214.
  • Arena, Leonardo V., La durata infinita del non suono, Mimesis, Milan 2013. ISBN 978-88-575-1138-2
  • Barzun, Jacques. 1982. Critical Questions on Music and Letters, Culture and Biography, 1940–1980, selected, edited, and introduced by Bea Friedland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-03863-7.
  • Beardsley, Monroe C. 1958. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. New York, Harcourt, Brace.
  • Beardsley, Monroe C., and Herbert M. Schueller (eds.). 1967. Aesthetic Inquiry: Essays on Art Criticism and the Philosophy of Art. Belmont, Calif.: Dickenson Pub. Co.
  • Bloch, Ernst. 1985. Essays on the Philosophy of Music, translated by Peter Palmer, with an introduction by David Drew. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521248736 ISBN 0521312132 (pbk).
  • Bonds, Mark Evan. 2014. Absolute Music: The History of an Idea. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-934363-8.
  • Budd, Malcolm. 1985. Music and the Emotions: The Philosophical Theories. International Library of Philosophy. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710205201 (cloth); ISBN 0415087791 (pbk).
  • Budd, Malcolm. "Music and the Expression of Emotion", Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 19–29.
  • Chadwick, Henry. 1981. Boethius, the Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 019826447X (cloth); ISBN 0198265492 (pbk.)
  • Clifton, Thomas. 1983. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300020910.
  • Goehr, Lydia. 'The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. An Essay in the Philosophy of Music' Oxford, 1992/2007.
  • Kivy, P. Introduction to the Philosophy of Music, Hackett Publishing, 1989.
  • Langer, Susanne K. 1957. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, third edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674665031.
  • Lippman, Edward A. 1992. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803228635 (cloth); ISBN 0803279515 (pbk).
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 1967. The Birth of Tragedy, and The Case of Wagner, translated, with commentary, by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0394703693 (pbk).
  • Rowell, Lewis Eugene. 1983. Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0870233866.
  • Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press, 1997.