The Philosophy of Music

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What is it

Most people enjoy music daily and have strong listening preferences. Music – along with love – is often thought of as a universal language. But what makes a collection of sounds a piece of music as opposed to just noise? Can music teach us anything? And is the value of music objective? John and Ken explore what philosophy has to tell us about music – and vice versa – with Peter Kivy from Rutgers University, author of Sounding Off: Eleven Essays in the Philosophy of Music.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by trying to pin down an exact definition for music. Ken proposes that it is a collection of organized sounds, although realizing that there are many organized sounds in the world which we usually don't consider music. John accordingly notes that philosophers and musicologists might consider organization a necessary but not sufficient condition for a set of sounds to be musical. For a long time music was accompanied by voice, but John points out that historically we don't know that much about the details of music except those musical traditions surrounding religion or tradition that were written about or passed on.

Ken points out that music has a lot of emotional power over us, but differs a lot from other forms of art. In a novel or a play the emotions are linked to the world represented to the observer, but in music it is harder to understand where the emotions come from. Sad music almost universally makes people sad, but is it something in the music or in us that moves us so? John points out that music was one of the first art forms to be thought of as non-representational, and that it has a stronger universal connection to our emotions than other non-representational forms like abstract visual art. John explains the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and philosophy and relates them to the emotional response we have to music. Ken thinks that there is something internal to music that determines its effect upon us, noting that small structural changes in a piece can drastically alter our emotional experience.
 
John and Ken introduce the guest, Peter Kivy; Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy from Rutgers University, also author of many article and a book concerning the philosophy of music. Peter Kivy begins by noting that the given definition of music as a collection of organized sounds is troublesome in contemporary times with the rise of random and atonal musical styles, though Jon wonders whether anyone actually listens to such music. Peter Kivy points out that a lot of music out there doesn't get listened to anyway! In order to see how hard it is to define music, John and Ken play the beginning of Mozart's 41st Symphony and compare that to Varese's Ionization piece. Ken points out that music may be one of those things that you know when you experience it, but cannot precisely define. Peter Kivy mentions a piece called Talking Fugue where the "music" consists of overlaid conversations. John concludes that music seems to be a concept with paradigm cases we all recognize and fringe cases which may seem musical to one person but not to another. Ken further suggests that calling something music is an honorific title that shows we appreciate it.
 
Next Ken and John ask Peter to explain how the non-representational art of music, especially wordless music, can produce such passionate emotional responses in people. Peter Kivy believes that it doesn't! Or, at least, that the emotions evinced by music are not the garden variety emotions, but rather a specific love and enthusiasm for the music, an emotional response which does not really have a name. Kivy argues this point through the distinction of good and bad sad music, and how good sad music arouses a stronger feeling of sadness than bad sad music. Ken challenges Peter Kivy with examples of music enhancing garden variety emotions like fear and excitement in movies. Peter acknowledges that the music combined with the film can arouse fear, but points out that the soundtrack alone does not have the same effect. John brings up examples of historically meaningful and patriotic songs as well as anthems which arouse contradictory emotions. Peter Kivy argues that these feelings arise from associations and are not quite aesthetically relevant.
 
Callers discuss Peter Kivy's theories on the garden variety emotions and music as well as the relationship between mathematics and music, music in movies, and other styles and subjects. Kivy suggests that individuals in other fields may experience the same sort of emotional experience with their subjects that musicians and music-lovers do when they appreciate great pieces. Finally, John and Ken discuss the relationship between the culture of music and ethics, morality, and civilization with Peter Kivy, concluding that music really is an important part of societies around the world.
 
  • The 60-second Philosopher (seek to 4:47): Ian Shoales speeds through the subject of "earworms" or musical jingles that worm into your brain and get stuck in your head forever.
 
 

Peter Kivy, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University

 
 
 

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