In this chapter I consider whether music is representational, and I conclude that it is rather limited in what it can depict. I approach the topic by comparing music with realistic paintings, for these provide our paradigms of representational art works.
As a visual art form, paintings represent that which can be seen. They do so via a particular medium—pigment, canvas, and the like. The viewer remains aware of the medium of representation even as she observes the subject in the picture, so that, in appreciating a representation as such, she does not mistake the pictured subject for itself.
The medium of music is sound. If music is representational, one would expect it to depict that which can be heard and to do so in a fashion that prevents the listener from mistaking the sound-as-represented for itself. Some alleged examples of musical representation fit the model just described. It is said that musical works contain the calls of birds, the ticking of clocks, claps of thunder, the hiss of steam engines, the sighing of wind, gunfire, and so on.
It might be thought that, even in these simple cases, there is room to doubt that music is representational. Appearances usually are individuated in terms of that which produces them. As a result, a painting can represent a person by re-creating his appearance. But if sounds are individuated in their own right—as bangs and crashes, for instance—and not by reference to the things from which they issue, and if music merely reproduces sounds in trying to represent them, musical representation must fail for the want of a distinction between subject and medium. In this view, music generates an instance of the given sound but does not thereby depict the sound or its source. Music is capable only of re-presenting, not of representing, sounds.
I think the key premise of this argument—that sounds usually are individu-