What Is Music?

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

- Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare (1864), Part I, Book II, Chapter IV

Podcast of the Day

The age of a great movement of ideas, the Enlightenment, was also a great age of music: Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn. But how did Enlightenment thinkers reflect on music and how does their belief in progress relate to our views of art today?

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode on Music and the Enlightenment

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Short Article of the Day

It’s easy to think about music as just a sequence of sounds – recorded and encoded in a Spotify stream, these days, but still: an acoustic phenomenon that we respond to because of how it sounds. The source of music’s power, according to this account, lies in the notes themselves. To pick apart how music affects us would be a matter of analysing the notes and our responses to them: in come notes, out tumbles our perception of music. How does Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah work its magic? Simple: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…

Yet thinking about music in this way – as sound, notes and responses to notes, kept separate from the rest of human experience – relegates music to a special, inscrutable sphere accessible only to the initiated. Notes, after all, are things that most people feel insecure about singing, and even less sure about reading. The vision of an isolated note-calculator in the brain, taking sound as input and producing musical perceptions as output, consigns music to a kind of mental silo.

But how could a cognitive capacity so removed from the rest of human experience have possibly evolved independently? And why would something so rarified generate such powerful emotions and memories for so many of us?...

Continue reading Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis' article: Music is in your brain and your body and your life

Further Reading

Music is perhaps the art that presents the most philosophical puzzles. Unlike painting, its works often have multiple instances, none of which can be identified with the work itself. Thus, the question of what exactly the work is is initially more puzzling than the same question about works of painting, which appear (at least initially) to be ordinary physical objects. Unlike much literature, the instances of a work are performances, which offer interpretations of the work, yet the work can also be interpreted (perhaps in a different sense) independently of any performance, and performances themselves can be interpreted. This talk of “interpretation” points to the fact that we find music an art steeped with meaning, and yet, unlike drama, pure instrumental music has no obvious semantic content. This quickly raises the question of why we should find music so valuable. Central to many philosophers’ thinking on these subjects has been music’s apparent ability to express emotions while remaining an abstract art in some sense...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on The Philosophy of Music by Andrew Kania

Related Topics

Aesthetics | Culture | Literature | Poetry

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