Music and the Emotions: The Philosophical Theories

By Malcolm Budd | Go to book overview

VI

MUSIC AS UNCONSUMMATED SYMBOL

1 The significance of music as an art-form has often been thought to derive from the fact that some or all musical works are symbols of states of mind or character, attitudes to life and other kinds of extramusical phenomena. In particular, many pieces of music have been considered to be symbols of the emotional life and to acquire their special importance from their symbolic function. Now this thesis about the significance of music requires amplification, not acceptance or rejection. For the common idea of a symbol is not something clear and distinct: it is a vague, fluctuating, uncertain concept. If a symbol is understood as anything which stands for or represents something else, our understanding of the idea of a symbol will be only as definite as our understanding of the idea of one thing’s standing for or representing another. If a symbol must stand for or represent something in some particular way, what is needed is a specification of the required mode of representation. In either case, since the expressions ‘stands for’ and ‘represents’ have many different uses, some strict and some loose, an explanation of the idea of a symbol merely in terms of one thing’s standing for or representing something else fails to clarify the idea of a symbol to any significant degree. Moreover, it is clear that the class of items to which the term ‘symbol’ is applied—or, more accurately, the set of relations in which something that is thought of as a symbol stands to what it signifies—is heterogeneous.

Some symbols stand for what they represent in virtue of a convention. It is in this sense that a ring can be a symbol of one person’s commitment to another: it is an outward and visible sign of a state of affairs that cannot be directly perceived, and its symbolic function stems from the

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