Music is an art form of organized sound [See SOUND]. The Oxford English Dictionary defines music as “the art or science of combining vocal or instrumental sounds to produce beauty of form, harmony, melody, rhythm, expressive content, etc.” This description of music as a litany of components – which could be extended to include electronic sound, recorded sound, and tone color – indicates the vast range of sounds that can characterize music. Hence, the difference between music and other sound, including other sound art such as spoken poetry and sound collage, is subtle and oftentimes contested.
According to the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, music is characterized by, “the sensuous beauty of sound and tone and of combinations of tone or the sensuous beauty of rhythmic successions of sound or tone.” This description brings to light the fact that music is largely understood as being composed of two dimensions: a tonal dimension and a temporal dimension (see time, space [See TIME/SPACE]). To unite these two definitions, observe that melody indicates the movement of the tonal across the temporal, harmony refers to the tonal properties in a given instance, and rhythm refers to the more or less isolated properties of the temporal dimension.
Musical Structure (or Lack Thereof)
The 20th century American composer Aaron Copland contends, “Music has four essential elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color…It is their combined effect – the seemingly inextricable web of sound that they form – with which listeners are concerned for the most part.” In particular, he declares, “the melody is generally what guides the listener.” Copland refers to what may generally be defined as structure [See STRUCTURE] in music. This structure comes accompanied with a fairly detailed technical vocabulary, at least within the Western tradition.
However, the conception of musical structure that Copland espouses was contested in the 20th century. The question of what constitutes music, and hence musical structure, was brought to the foreground by John Cage’s piece, 4’33”, which is to music what Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is to the fine arts. 4’33” is a three-movement piece consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of apparent silence [See SILENCE], during which the performer is instructed by the score not to play her instrument. The first performer of the piece closed the keyboard lid of his piano at the beginning of the piece, marked the movements with arm gestures, and reopened the keyboard lid at the end of the piece.
In particular, 4’33” problematizes the question of musical structure because it is composed not of rhythm, melody, harmony, and so on, but ostensibly of silence. The philosopher Stephen Davies argues that the piece is intended to focus the audience’s attention on ambient noise [See NOISE]:
“Cage’s goal is to get the audience to attend to whatever can be heard as the work is performed – the shuffling of feet, the murmur of traffic from outside the auditorium, and so on. The content of the performance consists in whatever sounds occupy the designated period, not solely of silence as such. Cage supplies the frame so that the audience can focus on the noises it encompasses”
Davies makes the assumption that “it is a necessary condition for something’s being music that it be organized sound.” Since 4’33” serves only as a framing device, Davies asserts that “neither Cage nor the performer he directs is responsible for organizing (selecting, appropriating) the sounds that constitute the contents of any of the work’s performances,” and therefore concludes that 4’33” is not music but rather a “performance piece about music.” Nonetheless, there is no consensus on whether or not 4’33” is a work of music.
Copland observes that “the simplest way of listening to music is to listen for the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself,” so he is not numb to the aesthetics [See AESTHETICS] of Cage’s piece. However, he argues that “the sound appeal of music” should “usurp a disproportionate share” of the listener’s attention. For this reason, he refers to Cage’s piece as the creation of “an undissolvable license to the composer and performer to create and perform as the spirit moves.” This effectively frames the question at hand: when is the composer creating music? The answer lies in the unresolved discussion of musical structure.
Finally, it may be noted that Cage’s piece problematizes the issue of performance [See PERFORMANCE]. Davies notes that musical performance generally requires “significant creative input from the performers,” but that “Cage’s piece required no performance skill, apparently.” This begs the question of what the performer is indeed creating.
Music as a Performance Medium
Music is foremost a performance medium. Sometimes music is prescribed in the form of a score, but music can also be improvised. Some, as we will see, argue that performance requires some creative [See CREATIVE/CREATIVITY] input on the part of the performer, and thus all performed music is to some extent improvised. In either case, there is an element of a preexisting structure that the performer follows. For example, jazz music is largely improvisational, and jazz soloists largely follow the chords and rhythms that are played by the rhythm section. One could imagine that a composed piece is performed in the setting of the score, whereas an improvised piece is performed through the conventional structure established for improvisation.
The first question about performance is that of authenticity. Oftentimes, but not always, the composer and the performer are distinct people, in which case there is some question as to whether the performer is giving a rendition that the composer would approve of (see agency [See AGENT/AGENCY], aura [See AURA], and authenticity [See AUTHENTICITY]). The philosopher Nelson Goodman argues that a performance is authentic if and only if it is completely faithful to the score:
“Since complete compliance with the score is the only requirement for a genuine instance of a work, the most miserable performance without actual mistakes does count as such an instance, while the most brilliant performance with a single wrong note does not…The innocent-seeming principle that performances differing by just one note are instances of the same work risks the consequence – in view of the transitivity of identity – that all performances whatsoever are of the same work”
Goodman is disinclined to yield that a valid performance can allow even one missed note, lest we be compelled to accept any two musical performances as belonging to the same piece. The philosopher Peter Kivy demurs slightly, arguing that, “a performance is, at least, a compliance with a score,” so that compliance is merely a necessary condition for authenticity. Davies, on the other hand, supports “a view closer to common sense: like natural kinds, musical works can have malformed instances.”
Nonetheless, these philosophers concede that there is an element of quality relevant to musical performance. Goodman notes that “an incorrect performance, though therefore not strictly an instance of a given [musical work] at all, may nevertheless…be better than a correct performance.” But what advantaged would such a rendition have? Kivy supplies the missing component:
“When we look more closely at what, in the case of modern notation, it means ‘just to play the notes as written, no more, no less,’ we see that it is in the nature of music as a performing art to allow the performer a large degree of freedom as regards how, in what manner he or she is to obey the injunction just to play the notes as written. For the notes, as written, allow for very different interpretations”
Kivy observes that musical sound is subtle enough that the score does not express all of the sonic possibilities of performance (see analog/digital [See ANALOG/DIGITAL]). If Kivy is correct, then a good performer must be sensitive to the interpretation that his or her performance embodies in order to fully realize the score. Davies takes this a bit further:
“If ‘authentic’ means ‘accurate’, then many different-sounding performances could be equally and thoroughly authentic. Moreover, because the performer’s contribution to the work’s realization is by no means fully determined, authenticity and creativity in performance will be complementary rather than exclusive. If one cannot perform the work at all except by exercising one’s creative skills as an interpreter and realizer of the material provided by the composer, then one cannot perform the work authentically except by being creative”
Thus, Davies lends the performer an active creative [See CREATIVE/CREATIVITY] agency – that is, that the performance is itself a creative act.
Besides a good technical interpretation of the score, the performer must contend with the issue of historical authenticity. Davies regards musical works as “socially constructed,” meaning that musical performance both is and is subject to social custom. Hence, he concludes that, “musical works are not viewed as pure sound structures.” Davies thus implies that many factors, including instrumentation and setting, may be relevant to the piece. For example, perhaps the authentic rendition of a particular Bach piece can only be played on a harpsichord. Kivy would not subscribe to this notion, as he asserts that, “the best way to produce the historically authentic Bach sound may be not on Bach’s instruments in Bach’s manner but on our instruments in our manner.”
Sometimes the performer may be required to improvise in one section in an otherwise detailed score. One example is that of figured-bass notation [See NOTATION], in which that performer of a keyboard piece must, to some extent, improvise the left-hand accompaniment. Goodman argues that the figured bass is “not truly notational,” and therefore regards a score including figured-bass notation as not a true score. Kivy, on the other hand, attempts to resolve this issue by arguing that figured-bass improvisation is a type of composition. The issues of historical authenticity and improvisation overlap with regard to cadenza, which was invented during the eighteenth century when composers indicated passages where an instrumental soloist was to improvise. However, cadenzas were eventually standardized, with certain performers’ renditions becoming canonical.
Recorded music and electronic music raise the issue of there no longer being an absolute need of a performer in some pieces. Goodman observes that “some composers of electronic music, with continuous sound-sources and means of activation, and with the human performer dispensable in favor of mechanical devices, seek to eliminate all latitude in performance and achieve ‘exact control,’” so that there is no longer a question of authenticity in performance. Brian Eno, a composer, espouses this approach, adding that recording technology “makes repeatable [See REPETITION] what was otherwise transient and ephemeral” and allows the composer to “[work] directly with sound.”
Emotion, Meaning, and Adaptation in Music
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Immanuel Kant argues that instrumental musical works without text are “free beauties.” This means that judgment of such works is neither influenced “by the object’s sensory or emotional appeal,” nor “contingent on a certain concept’s applying to the object.” If we regard instrumental music to be music in its purest form, then the aesthetic effects of music is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint.
First of all, there is substantial disagreement about whether or not music expresses emotion in the first place. As seen above, Kant does not believe this to be the case. Davies disagrees, arguing that, “music does refer beyond itself, in that it is expressive of emotions,” and that “if music were expressive of some emotion, we would be dubious of the claim that the person understood the piece…if he failed to notice the expressiveness of the music.” On the other hand Kivy argues that music does not necessarily exhibit “garden-variety emotions,” like sorrow, joy, fear, hope, and so one cannot characterize it as an emotional medium.
To some extent, the aesthetic effects of music arise partially from an unemotional plane, as suggested by Kant. Copland describes this as the “sheerly musical plane” whereby “music does exist in terms of the notes themselves and of their manipulation.” Kivy is likely to be thinking of the same thing when he declares, “what deeply moves me emotionally by music is just that very beauty, or magnificence, or other positive aesthetic properties it may possess to a very high degree.” Both authors assert that the aesthetic effects of music are not limited to the emotional.
Just as there is disagreement about emotion in music and the aesthetic effects of music, there is disagreement about what constitutes meaning in music. John Cage said, “I don’t like meaningful sound. If a sound is meaningless, I’m all for it.” Kivy asserts that music does not communicate meaning, and that therefore we need to ask what else it has to offer. On the other hand, Copland is emphatic that there is meaning in music, but is reluctant to attempt an explanation:
“My own belief is that all music has an expressive power, some more and some less, but that all music has a certain meaning behind the notes and that the meaning behind the notes constitutes, after all, what the piece is saying, what the piece is about. This whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer to that would be, ‘Yes.’ And “Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.’ Therein lies the difficulty”
This dissent may arise from conflicting definitions of meaning. Leonard Meyer asserts that “there has been a propensity to regard all meanings arising in human communication [See COMMUNICATION] as designative, as involving symbolism of some sort” – that is, a tendency to regard meaning as necessarily semiotic [See SEMIOTICS]. He counters that meaning is anything that “is connected with, or indicates, or refers to, something beyond itself.” This definition may include the “purely musical” effects that Copland and Kivy describe. With this extended definition, Meyer attacks the problem of musical meaning using the tool of psychology:
“Embodied musical meaning is, in short, a product of expectation. If, on the basis of past experience, a present stimulus leads us to expect a more or less definite consequent musical event, then that stimulus has meaning. From this it follows that a stimulus or gesture which does not point to or arouse expectations of a subsequent musical event or consequent is meaningless. Because expectation is largely a product of stylistic experience, music in a style with which we are totally unfamiliar is meaningless”
Meyer essentially asserts that musical cognition is a conditioned response (see stimulus/stimulation [See STIMULUS/STIMULATION]). In particular, this might suggest that Western listeners may be conditioned to hear music in a major key as cheerful, and to hear music in a minor key as melancholy.
Davies takes issue with what he believes is Meyer’s claim that emotion arises from music assertorially – that is, that music acts like a language [See LANGUAGE] indicating emotion. Instead, he posits that, “the emotion is announced through the music rather than described by the music.” He supports this assertion by noting that, “musical meaning is unlike linguistic meaning in that whereas the latter depends on the possibility of truthful assertion, the notion of truth plays no part in the determination of the former.” He concludes that, “musical reference to emotions is natural rather than conventional.”
Meyer’s analysis provides a plausible explanation for an individual’s perplexed reaction to unfamiliar music. Goodman provides an example of the phenomenon with an anecdote of a traveler hearing solemn music in India: “I confess that, listen as I might, I was unable to hear anything particularly mournful or serious…in the piece.” According to Meyer’s conclusions, the traveler had not been conditioned to respond to the music. Meyer asserts that music needs “a set of gestures common to the social group” and “common habit responses to those gestures,” and therefore that musical communication [See COMMUNICATION] “arises out of the universe of discourse which in the aesthetics of music is called style.” In other words, a given work of music is appreciable only to those already steeped in its style.
Copland takes this view further, arguing that one can understand unfamiliar music through repeated listens, which allows one to become versed in its style. He refers to the oftentimes unapproachable tendencies of 20th century art music in suggesting that, “if, for example, you find yourself rejecting music because it is too dissonant, it probably indicates that your ear [See EAR] is insufficiently accustomed to our present-day musical vocabulary, and needs more practice – that is, training in listening.”
Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. New York: Mentor, 1988.
Davies, Stephen. Themes in the Philosophy of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Eno, Brian. “The Studio as a Compositional Tool,” in Readings in Audio Culture ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum, 2004.
Ginsborg, Hannah, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/kant-aesthetics/
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1976.
Kivy, Peter. Introduction to a Philosophy of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Kozinn, Allan. “John Cage, 79, a Minimalist Enchanted with Sound, Dies.” The New York Times, August 13, 1992. A1, New York Edition.
Meyer, Leonard. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
“Music,” The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly. Online Edition.
“music, n.”The Oxford English Dictionary. Draft Revision, 2009. Oxford University Press.
Ross, Alex. “Taking Liberties: Reviving the Art of Classical Improvisation.” The New Yorker, August 31, 2009.