Philosophy of Music

The philosophy of music involves a study of basic questions regarding music, such as what music really is, what are the conditions that classify something as music (as opposed to noise, for example), how does culture influence music, how music is perceived as pleasurable and what is the relationship between music and emotions.

While music has been defined as organized sound, many people maintain that this definition is too broad, as human speech and the noise produced by machinery are also organized sounds. Music can refer to a printed piece of paper, sound waves traveling through the air to reach the listener's ear, magnetic tape or a CD (the physical object the music is recorded on), the electrochemical changes occurring in the brain when music is listened to or the action of fingers strumming across guitar strings. Although music can be defined as the art or science of combining instrumental, vocal or both instrumental and vocal sounds together to produce beauty and harmony, many pieces of music are neither beautiful nor harmonious. The lack of harmony has been described as a rebellion against traditional European musical values.

Ambient music, a term coined by Brian Eno in the mid-1970s, refers to non-traditional music that can be listened to or ignored. Used as soundtracks for films, television shows and video games, ambient music often consists of random sounds of nature, industrial machine noises, echoes and reverberations. Some controversial musical compositions have consisted of silence or of various background noises of a restive audience fidgeting and wondering when the real music is going to start.

When investigating the factors that make music pleasurable to listen to, it should be noted that throughout history, different types of music have become popular while others have faded into oblivion. The outside culture strongly influences the type of music that individuals choose to listen to and to enjoy. Related to how culture influences music is how people interpret music. The general emotional associations that people feel when listening to certain types of music can be functions of the music itself or due to how they were culturally conditioned.

William Butler Yeats claimed that you cannot separate a dancer from the dance, and there are those who maintain that you cannot separate the musician from the music, and that the composer and the player of the instrument that provides music both draw out from their own being and infuse the composition with a part of themselves. Whether instrumental music can have meaning behind it is open to dispute, but when music is called the "universal language" it supposes that music can refer to concepts other than itself. Even when composers title a piece with a number (for example, Brahms' Symphony No. 1), audiences attempt to give the piece a literary name, perhaps to force meaning into the piece.

Some philosophers look at music as having the power to arouse and express emotions. This arousal or expression of feelings could be the goal of music, as well as most of the arts, with the musician or composer communicating his or her feelings through the music, fulfilling their social role or connecting with their audience. Through listening to music, people are sometimes better able to understand their emotions, and according to Leonard B. Meyer, a music philosopher, music is not directed to the senses. Rather, it is directed through the senses to the mind.

As far as evaluating whether a piece of music is "good" or not, the general consensus seems to be that it is not the job of the philosopher to determine the worth of a composition, but that of the music critic. What philosophers sometimes do, however, is to focus on the criteria that others use to evaluate music, such as the properties that the composition has. Values such as harmony, melody and rhythm sometimes take a back seat to less aesthetic values, such as how the piece of music reflects the culture from which it springs, the history of the piece, social value (national identity, solidarity with others, historical consciousnesses, whether the work promotes moral values, etc.), its effect on the listeners, originality (although originality actually says more about the artist than about the quality of a piece of music, which could be original but not particularly "good") and international influence.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Hits: Philosophy in the Jukebox
Peter Szendy; Will Bishop.
Fordham University Press, 2012
U2 and Philosophy: How to Decipher An Atomic Band
Mark A. Wrathall.
Open Court, 2006
A Humanistic Philosophy of Music
Edward A. Lippman.
Pendragon Press, 2006 (Revised edition)
Works of Music: An Essay in Ontology
Julian Dodd.
Oxford University Press, 2007
Thinking about Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music
Lewis Rowell.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1984
The Philosophy & Aesthetics of Music
Edward A. Lippman.
University of Nebraska Press, 1999
Philosophical Perspectives on Music
Wayne D. Bowman.
Oxford University Press, 1998
The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music
Bruce Ellis Benson.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Don Drummond and the Philosophy of Music
McKenzie, Earl.
Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 4, December 2010
The Quest for Voice: On Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy: The 1997 Ernest Bloch Lectures
Lydia Goehr.
Clarendon Press, 1998
The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?
Michael Talbot.
University of Liverpool Press, 2000
Musical Perceptions
Rita Aiello; John A. Sloboda.
Oxford University Press, 1994
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