Some Peculiarities about Musical Aesthetic Qualities

By Porter, Roosevelt | The Review of Metaphysics, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Some Peculiarities about Musical Aesthetic Qualities


Porter, Roosevelt, The Review of Metaphysics


Intuitively, we recognize at least two broad ways in which we talk about musical performances. On the one hand, we talk about them as (1) lasting twenty minutes, (2) having a tempo of 120 quarter notes per minute, (3) being a string quartet, (4) loud or soft, (5) sounding like a trumpet rather than a comet, and (6) out of tune. These descriptions refer to the nonaesthetic properties of musical performances. On the other hand, we talk about musical performances as (1) being expressive of sorrow, (2) sounding thematically unified, (3) having a swinging rhythm, (4) portraying the harshness of living under economic distress, (5) representing the howling of a wolf, and (6) placid. These descriptions refer to the aesthetic qualities of musical performances.(1)

Talking about musical performances in these ways seems to represent two separate ways of attending to musical performances.(2) The former way of talking about musical performances exclusively concerns sonic properties, how long they occur, how often they occur, their sources, dynamics, timbres and pitches, whereas the latter way concerns our appreciation of musical performances, which involves something more than just hearing their sonic properties. What exactly comprises that "something more" is one of the subjects of this paper. Briefly, the core of this investigation consists of answering two basic questions: (1) Is hearing sonic properties a necessary condition for appreciating the aesthetic qualities of musical performances (the necessity claim)? (2) Do the sonic properties of musical performances sufficiently determine their aesthetic qualities (the sufficiency claim)?

Responding to these questions should begin to show what is involved in aesthetically appreciating musical performances. For if hearing the sonic properties of a musical performance is not necessary for determining its aesthetic qualities, aesthetically appreciating a musical performance could occur while attending to something other than its heard sonic properties. Aesthetically appreciating a musical performance might, for instance, occur while attending to a critical review of the musical performance. If, however, hearing the sonic properties is necessary for determining aesthetic qualities, then this is not a possibility. In addition, if the sonic properties of a musical performance are sufficient for determining its aesthetic qualities, aesthetically appreciating a musical performance might then be only a matter of hearing its sonic properties. Otherwise, regarding something other than its sonic properties might be necessary for aesthetically appreciating a musical performance.

Before proceeding, however, a word of caution may be useful. It is important that we do not conflate two ways of talking about the necessary and the sufficient conditions for the aesthetic qualities of musical performances. One way of talking about these conditions involves wondering if a particular aesthetic quality requires and/or is sufficiently determined by certain sonic properties. This way of talking, for example, asks if there is an occurrence of sonic properties in musical performances which is necessary or sufficient for the presence of a particular aesthetic quality - say, sorrow. Is a slow tempo, flattened pitches and a minor key, for example, necessary or sufficient for its being the case that a musical performance is aesthetically sorrowful? This sort of question does not concern me here. Rather, I shall be asking whether aesthetic qualities in general require or are sufficiently determined by hearing sonic properties. My investigation thus focuses primarily on disentangling the connection between the totality of aesthetic qualities of musical performances and the heard sonic properties it depends on.(3)

I

Looking at the necessity claim. It initially seems trivial to state that appreciating the aesthetic qualities of musical performances is necessarily dependent on hearing the sonic properties of musical performances. …

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