Music Aesthetics

Music aesthetics involves defining the properties of music that make it so special and magical. Music is man-made, but it can have so much beauty it seems sublime. Plato and other ancients wrestled with the idea of musical aesthetics and wondered what made one composition more beautiful than another. They were curious about the mechanics of music and how music could give man so much pleasure.

The Greeks spoke about rhythm and harmony as musical properties only in terms of their success. The term the Greeks used for this was eurhythmy. The prefix eu means good or successful. The problem with this approach to music is that it is subjective. Who is to say that the music of Bob Dylan is successful while the music of Bach is less so? The final arbiter of these matters is taste.

This example outlines the difficulty in studying the relative merits of various types of music and assorted musical compositions. The philosopher cannot apply simple logic to the problem of music aesthetics with any precision. It is not possible to qualify what it is that makes X lovelier than Y, or why this is so. These word and math games are insufficient for the purposes of explaining music aesthetics.

However, we can still express music aesthetics using some form of verbal logic. We can do this by applying statements of fact to the subject of music and using these statements to help us hone our definition of the music aesthetic. Here are some examples of facts we can state about the music aesthetic:

1) Music is not a representational art form. Music is not expressed by objects as are many other applied arts.

2) Music is meaningful, and its content can be understood.

3) Listening to music is an act that expresses aesthetic interest. We understand music through the aesthetic experience of listening to music.

4) No formal rules or structures exist by which we can decode the truth of music, unlike, for instance, generative syntax such as can be applied to the study of linguistics.

5) The most important aspects of musical content are its emotive and expressive qualities.

While no one can pinpoint why music is so compelling, it is clear that the Greeks were not far off in describing music as a successful harmony or rhythm. Music is distinguished by the manner in which the melody, the rhythm and the harmony interact. It is clear to those who appreciate music that the delightful interplay of these musical properties is something of value.

Furthermore, music is a form of knowledge that allows the musician a manner of self-expression that could not otherwise be realized. The world of music is ordered but emotive, filled with discipline and freedom. It seems that music aesthetics must have some form of structure. If it were possible to define the mechanisms or structures of these aesthetics, it might be possible to comprehend what makes a composition great, even when it is not to everyone's liking.

To some measure, we can break down the structure of music to understand the aesthetic interest it generates. A Bach fugue, for example, can be broken down into themes and parts. There may be a single theme that echoes throughout the piece in various forms. In a fugue, these echoes are voiced through the musical tools of stretto (overlapping sections), inversion, transposing a phrase from a minor to a major key and so forth. In the same way, Mozart is famous for applying endless variations on the English nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

But this leads back to the question of value. Is it the complexity of the variations on a theme that lend value to a composition, or is it rather the simplicity of the theme that represents the genius potential through which all variations can be realized? Perhaps the value is found in both, or perhaps there are other contributing factors to the music aesthetic, such as the proper balance between complexity and simplicity so that a composition arrives at a point of optimal beauty. All this leads the scholar of music aesthetics back to the ancient Greeks and the concept of eurhythmy.

Lending strength to the concept of eurhythmy is the idea that the famous number 1.618, also known as phi or the golden ratio, is present in all items celebrated for their aesthetic appeal. Perhaps this famed number is the reason that an atonal Gregorian chant is pleasing to the ear. Maybe it is this golden ratio that is responsible for the universal appeal of the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or the reason the music of The Beatles created such a huge sensation. In the field of music aesthetics, only one thing is certain: Every path of inquiry leads to many correct answers.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Philosophy & Aesthetics of Music
Edward A. Lippman.
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
Contemplating Music: Source Readings in the Aesthetics of Music
Ruth Katz; Carl Dahlhaus.
Pendragon Press, vol.2, 1987
Three Classics in the Aesthetic of Music: Monsieur Croche the Dilettante Hater, by Claude Debussy; Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, by Ferruccio Busoni; Essays before a Sonata, by Charles E. Ives
Claude Debussy; Ferruccio Busoni; Charles E. Ives.
Dover Publications, 1962
Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music
Simon Frith.
Oxford University Press, 1998
The Language of Music
Deryck Cooke.
Oxford University Press, 1963
The Perception of Music
Robert Francès; W. Jay Dowling.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988
Greatness in Music
Alfred Einstein; César Saerchinger.
Oxford University Press, 1941
Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music
Lewis Rowell.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "Comparative Aesthetics: India and Japan"
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