The Philosophy of Music

Introduction from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Oliver Sacks, 2007)
In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria — once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music — was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music."

1.0 Definitions
1.1 The philosophy of music debates the definitional, ontological, and epistemological status of music. It seeks to define what exactly is music, and it's ontological status as part of and within others forms of aesthetics, and especially with technological mediation. As an epistemological question it raises the issue of what sort of knowledge does music provide.
1.2 A usual definition comes from Edgard Varèse, the twentieth century composer, who described music as "organised sound" (now the name of a musicology journal from Cambridge), which implies subjectivity in discerning the organisation. Following phenomenological influences, Tony Clifton (Music As Heard, 1983) follows up with a description of music as "an ordered arrangement of sounds and silences whose meaning is presentative rather than denotative ... as an end in itself, [distinct] from compositional technique, and from sounds as purely physical objects... "
1.3 Definitions have historical, cultural, and artistic challenges; whilst music is a cultural universal, in both native American and African there are languages that have no word for "music" as is understood by European cultures. The Aztecs used the the term "In xochitl-in kwikatl" to represent a complex of rhetoric, poetry, dance, and instrumental sound. Futurist Luigi Russolo (The Art of Noises, 1913) proposed the introduction of industrialised sounds in a dissonant manner, which was taken up a number of composers and provided some foundation to 'musique concrète' of the 1940s and contemporary industrial music. Some musicians deliberately provide the structure of music without sound (e.g., John Cage's "4'33'" which has three movements marked by gestures but no sound, Crass's "The Sound of Free Speech", and the cover of the latter by Dresden). As a question of technology, music is beginning to reach the point where the sound limits is not the the instrumentation, but the human capacity.

"Arseny Avraamov's composition Symphony of Factory Sirens involved navy ship sirens and whistles, bus and car horns, factory sirens, cannons, foghorns, artillery guns, machine guns, hydro-airplanes, a specially designed steam-whistle machine creating noisy renderings of Internationale and Marseillaise for a piece conducted by a team using flags and pistols when performed in the city of Baku in 1922." (Joseph Nechvatal, "Immersion Into Noise", 2011)

2.0 Ontology of Music
2.1 Sound is a physical vibration from a wave of pressure and displacement, typically through the air but also through wave medium such as plasma and water as compression waves, and, in the case of longitudinal (alternating pressure deviations from an equilibrium) and traverse waves (alternating shear stresses), through solids. In physiology and psychology, 'sound' is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain; the human range is between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz and decrease with age; a high dynamic range compared to some species (e.g., dogs can perceive vibrations higher than 20 kHz, but are deaf below 40 Hz.). Sound pressure levels are typically measured in decibels, a logarithmic unit used to express the ratio between two values of a physical quantity, often power or intensity.
2.2 All scale systems are based on the octave, a pitch of frequency, suggesting a neurological factor. Perception of music has physical constraints; short-term memory span sets a limit on perception of an auditory pattern (musical palindromes are difficult to perceive, visual ones are easy), pitch-interval requires a minimum time (Palestrina, the 16th composer, recognised the need for step-wise motion after a melodic leap), familiar tunes can become unrecognisable when notes are transposed in new octaves. Notes can appear to separate into co-existent tunes, depending on pitch and tempo (e.g., Bach's solo violin partitas). Perception of pitch and psychoacoustic timbre "timbre is what makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness. For instance, it is the difference between a guitar and a piano playing the same note at the same loudness") on the spectral characteristics of the complex wave form.
2.3 In pragmatic terms, music has both a physical representation which can be explained factually and a subjective experience which matches the individual's sense of pleasure or beauty. In other words, it is part of aesthetics - where it is ordered in aesthetics is a matter of debate (e.g., is it equal to poetry, painting, etc or is it greater). The notion of "musica universalis", the harmony of the spheres proposed that mathematical relationships express qualities or "tones" of energy which manifest in numbers, visual angles, shapes and sounds - all connected within a pattern of proportion (c.f., Pythagoras). In Book IV of The Republic, Plato notes how music, with its emotional content, can be used in ceremonial purposes for the benefit of the good of the State, and offers a warning; "..any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited", although contrary to popular belief, the tritone "diabolus in musica" was never banned. In contrast some of Shostakovich's performances were denounced, and then most of his works banned in the post-WWII anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union. Johann von Goethe described architecture as "petrified music". Schopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation, 1819) wrote that "music is the answer to the mystery of life. The most profound of all the arts, it expresses the deepest thoughts of life."

3.0 Epistemology of Music
3.1 Music precedes languages and is found in courtship and to establish group cohesion in animals but also for individual expression (e.g., the singing of mice) suggesting that music cuts across ontology and epistemology in providing emotional sound which the singer seeks to impart a vibrational emotional expression as an impression to listener by which they can have an empathic relationship.
3.2 How does the subject know that they are experiencing music? There is an argument that music has a grammatical structure and therefore musical knowledge is akin to language acquisition; even an untutored person acquires a sense of the grammar from exposure (e.g., silence in music is the pauses in speech or space and writing). As with language salience in rhythmic groupings is memorised, and tunes ending in cadence are easier to remember than those which are harmonically inconclusive. As a recorded memory, musical notation has existed since 2000 BCE, being first found in Nippur in Sumer. Notation was also used in ancient Hellenic society, ancient India, ancient China, the Byzantine Empire, and early medieval Europe and Japan.
3.2 There was significant debate in the Romantic era concerning the meaning and purpose of music. Starting from Kant's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790), the Absolute Music supporters argued that music is not "about" anything; it is non-representational, and therefore formal and foundational in its own right (e.g., Eduard Hanslick, "Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound", Ludwig van Beethoven said of his 1808 Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral) that the "whole work can be perceived without description – it is more an expression of feelings rather than tone-painting"). This position was opposed by supporters of "Program Music", such as Richard Wagner, who argued in favour of an extra-musical narrative (e.g., Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique was a musical narration of a hyperbolically emotional love story he wrote himself) and encouraged vocalisation.
3.4 As musical analysis (e.g., Schenker, Tovey, Keller, Cone) engages in segmentation and compositional analysis, the unification of harmony and counterpoint to the fundamental structure, etc, the question is raised of what sort of knowledge does music give us? If there is legitimacy in musical analysis and review, then there must also be some means of at least engaging in qualitative assessment, both positive and negative, beyond being competently or incompetently performed. The latter only recently is being discussed in academic circles typically noting a lack of variety and development, repeating rhythms of short repetition, causing the development of "earworms". Frith includes social attributes; inauthentic, in bad taste (c.f., kitsch), and stupid, which concurs with Adorno's previous criticisms of popular jazz. (c.f., and

Presentation to The Melbourne Philosophy Forum, December 7, 2014


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Follow up discussion on Rocknerd Notes on the Accounting of Musical Taste