Philosophy of Music: An Introduction

by R. A. Sharpe
187 pages,
ISBN: 0773529276

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Scoring Music
by BTla Szabados

The great philosophers were not much interested in music as a philosophical subject, except for some notable exceptions such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and more recently, Wittgenstein and Adorno. Wittgenstein had a life in music and an acute sense of the development of European classical music, but he disliked anything after Brahms. He was noted for whistling Schubert, though none of his friends was reported to have asked him to "cut that out!" By contrast, Adorno, who was wedded to Schoenberg's serialism and Marxian critique, might have told Wittgenstein not only to cut it out, but may also have suspected his interest in Schubert as a sign of elitism.
But times, they are a-changin'. Philosophy of music has become big business in recent analytical philosophy, yet introductions to it have been plodding and less than engaging. R.A. Sharpe's refreshingly different book is lively by contrast. It consists of four movements framed by an introduction and a coda. Sharpe's approach is problem oriented, and in the first chapter he contextualises the problems as he sketches a history of musical theorising. He begins with the Greeks who thought of music not only as something played and heard, as frenzied or civilising, but also as a representation of the harmonious nature of the world, and hence as having metaphysical significance. Sharpe's discussion then focuses on the pioneers of formalist musical aesthetics, Eduard Hanslick and Edmund Gurney, who forged the question of musical meaning for modern musical aesthetics. They also raised a related question: is music an autonomous, abstract art form or does its importance lie in its connections outside the world of music? Sharpe is not a backer of musical formalism and carefully argues for the significance of music's cultural connections.
The first question discussed is what it means for a work of music to be considered art. Four theories of art are introduced: the "procedural theory" emphasises institutional or performative roles; the "functional theory" counts an artifact as art when it fulfills functions such as pleasing or producing aesthetic experience; the "historical theory" designates a work as art if its creator intended it to belong to a tradition of artifacts; and finally, the "recognitional theory" puts a premium on how the artifact is received or appreciated by the public. These theories are all vulnerable to counter-examples, so no single overarching account will do. There are many varieties of music, so many different types of analyses are necessary.
Sharpe also reminds us of the ontological complexity of music: of scored, improvised, live, recorded, classical, jazz, pop, country, and even 'silent music'. John Cage's "4'33", the musical analogue of Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain", receives an amusing critique: Can you play it again Cage? There is the crucial issue of authenticity in music. It is argued that we have a prima facie obligation to play a piece of music as its composer intended it, unless it can be trumped by an interpretation that sounds best and brings out what's in the piece. Ironically, to make such assessments we need to hear various interpretations including the composer's.
Is the work of music the score or the performance? Surely the work exists between performances, and there can be a bad performance of a good work. However, if the score is lost and a pianist performs it from memory, the work still exists. One sort of realist holds that the work exists distinct from its performance, while constructivists identify the work with its interpretations¨for example, the Brahms piano concerto as interpreted by Gould. While this highlights the fact that we always hear music as interpreted by someone, it also gives a whole new meaning to "endless melody"! Sharpe is primarily interested in music as a humanist art, constructed in analogy with language and rhetoric as a model. This kind of music can be described in expressive terms like 'melancholy' or 'exuberant'; it can be given meaning, and it can be followed. Not all music as a fine art offers this. Schoenberg's serialism and the music of the second Vienna School cannot be followed in the way that classical music and jazz can.
This leads to the principle theme of the third chapter: can music have meaning, and if so, in what way? Sharpe examines an array of answers, and concludes that no one account accommodates the wide range of predicates used in the description of music. We need different answers for different contexts. Absolute music cannot acquire meaning through reference to the world, since it does not say anything. Another option is "expressionism", which proposes that music expresses moods, feelings, or other states of mind: a piece of music is sad because the composer was sad while he wrote it. But in describing the music's character, it is not necessary to discover a composer's particular state of mind while he worked on his composition. We tend to listen to sad or melancholy music as if there were "an imaginary persona" who is sad or melancholy. And yet such props are also superfluous, because we can be absorbed in the music without them.
Sharpe's positive suggestion is that the application of expressive language to music is "a modest extension of the way we describe human beings and animals." To speak of what someone meant by a certain gesture, by a certain tone of voice, or by acting in a certain way is natural and meaningful, and in this way we can speak of a passage by Schubert as consoling, or melancholic. What is more, music that is deemed profound, is thought to be so because it offers the possibility of a multiplicity of interpretations, and because it places demands on the interpreter and listener.
The final chapter is concerned with musical value and its attributions. Is value to be equated with individual taste or can the greatness of, say, Bach's Mass in B minor be thought of as an objective measure that is independent of human judgement? If the realist's view¨that artistic values exist independently of any listener¨is absurd, then what do value judgements about the stature of a work of music amount to? Sharpe rejects answers along the objectivist/subjectivist divide, since "neither position looks plausible," and points to our need for a way of distinguishing between the real merit of a work of music and judgements made about it. Following general criteria for judging whether a work is elegant, for example, may be problematic. Such a label may even be inappropriate in a craggy work, such as Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. Nor can an ideal listener, one who discounts his own prejudices, clinch the matter, since the purging of certain opinions may still depend on the consensus of other qualified listeners. Not even the joint verdict of well-qualified critics is "the true standard of musical taste," because the experts themselves assess works on the basis of the music's features and their effects on us listeners. The consensus of the experts is simply a means of finding out how a piece has been rated, leaving open the possibility that it does not merit that rating.
Sharpe eventually embraces a particularist perspective: judgements about musical value are irreducibly particular, and such single judgements by qualified listeners take precedence, without the exclusion of other useful rules. Even consensus is based on single judgements of experienced and qualified listeners, a view which sits happily with the existence of unresolvable differences (e.g., Tchaikovsky's PathTtique Symphony variously heard as powerful or garishly sentimental.)We may hanker after a consistent conceptualisation of musical value, but we best keep to the rough ground and recognise that our concepts arise as a result of different pressures and contain conflicting ideas of different ancestry.
There is a selective bibliography at the end with such noteworthy Canadian connections as Francis Sparshott's nourishing lectures on musical aesthetics in What is Music?, Geoffrey Payzant's insightful translation of Hanslick's On the Musically Beautiful and Stan Godlovich's pioneering book Musical Performance. There is also the surprising gift of a discography. The treatment is insightful throughout and it is characteristic of the author to shed new light on whatever he touches. For example, despite being read as eschewing all talk of the musical expression of emotions, Hanslick is quoted as saying that music can be "arrogant, peevish, tender, spirited, yearning." Many insist that music should be beautiful, but Sharpe argues that there is valuable music that is not beautiful, and a preoccupation with beauty may diminish our appreciation even of Mozart, if we neglect the distorted or melancholy expression on his face.
As full of life as a beehive, Sharpe's book is both an introduction and an original contribution; it presents an illuminated map of the Western musical terrain, and simultaneously addresses and builds on a striking variety and range of concrete musical examples from Bach to Shostakowich, from Count Basie to Miles Davis, and even Harry Champion's Henry the Eighth, I Am. By turns witty and ironic, quirky and insightful, this book engenders a loving yet critical appreciation of music as it engages, challenges, and delights the reader. ˛

BTla Szabados is past president of the Canadian Society for Aesthetics. His essay "Wittgenstein Listens to Mahler" is forthcoming in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review.

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