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Nick Zangwill
University of Hull
ABSTRACT I defend a non-reductionist view of music, according to which music
should be understood in terms of musical beauty. I suggest that general theories of
music are legitimate, and I discuss sublimity and argue that it is a species of beauty.
Musical experience is the experience of aesthetic properties of that are realized in
sounds. Sometimes, when we are fortunate, this experience generates pleasure in
musical beauty. As Hanslick rightly insisted, there is no way to begin to understand
what music is, or to understand its value and why we value it, without putting musical
beauty in the foreground and celebrating our experience of it. This positive position has
negative consequences. Musical appreciation does not require pathologies of emotion,
spurious political narratives, intimations of religious profundity and so on. The value
is in the sounds. It is an immanent value, not a transcendent one. It is a this-worldly
value, not an other-worldly delusion, or something self-indulgently in us. Musical beauty
is there in the sounds, in “tones and their artistic combination,” as Hanslick maintained.
Keywords: music, beauty, sublimity, experience, pleasure
Music should be understood in its own terms and not reduced to something
else. My approach might be summed up, echoing Bishop Butler, in the slogan:
music is what it is and not another thing. In urging this, I follow the great
Eduard Hanslick, who, in his seminal On the Musically Beautiful (1986) rubs
our noses, and our ears, in the music itself—clearing away the intellectual clutter
of those who would prefer music to be something else. Hanslick is as important
as ever today because many contemporary thinkers seem to be running away
from a subject matter that they find problematic. There seems almost to be an
intellectual pathology: fear of music. The reason for this, I suspect, is that it is
hard to say much about music—about what it is and about why we value it.
Music is elusive. We run out of words, or else our words do not feel adequate to
Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp. 231–240. © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 2014
DOI: 10.2752/205393214X14083775795078
what it is, and to our experience of it. And this creates discomfort. In the urge
to understand music, there is, therefore, a temptation to try to understand it
in other terms—in terms of emotion, representation, politics, religion and so
on. But it is crucial to resist this temptation. Music itself is betrayed by such
theories. We should instead look the difficulty of describing music in the face,
and accept it, rather than pretending it does not exist.
It is striking that the subtle play of mere auditory sensations exerts such power
over us, and it is something that we human beings value a great deal, spending
much time and effort (and often money) on it, which could be spent on other
things. Sonic audible patterns are found extraordinarily compelling, even addictive, by almost all of the population of our planet. Is this not puzzling?
Or is this an overreaction? Someone might say that there is no real puzzle or
paradox here. Perhaps it is just a general fact about human beings, like the fact
that we have language or cook food. These phenomena are interesting, but there
is no mystery or paradox. It is just something we do, and we like doing, which
probably has a psychological or evolutionary explanation.
Still, even if we are not puzzled by the fact that we find music compelling,
even addictive, the value we accord it remains puzzling. Compare video games
or gambling: these are compelling, even addictive, to large numbers of people,
but few see these activities as having a value equal to our musical activities. Why
is music different?
Again, it might be said that this is an overreaction. Perhaps there is nothing
puzzling about the value accorded to music. We value it because it pleases us and
because of the kind of pleasure involved. Perhaps so. But if that is said, I would
point out that in saying that we are starting to philosophize.
There seem to be general questions—about what music is, about what it
is to experience it, about why we desire it and about why we value it—which,
for want of a better word, we might call “philosophical.” Philosophers typically
pursue questions that have a high degree of generality, and it seems that there
are general questions about music to be asked. That is not to say that everyone
interested in music should ask them. Someone might be more interested in music history or the details of particular musical performances or works; and that
is fair enough. There is no reason why everyone should be interested in the same
things. But the general questions seem to be there to be asked.
Or are they? I talked of “music” and our concern with it. But perhaps this already
begs questions. Is there one unitary phenomenon—a natural kind—which has
some common nature? Is there not a plurality of musical phenomena (“musics”)?
Compare love. Is love one thing? Or is there instead parental love, passionate
love, love of friends and so on? Why should a Shostakovich symphony have
anything in common with the Muslim call to prayers or Japanese bamboo flute
music or Greek rebetika? Perhaps one can only describe each as they are, and
the quest for something in common is fruitless. Perhaps. Also—perhaps not.
Poodles, dachshunds, Alsatians and Labradors are very different. Nevertheless
they are all dogs. Similarly, despite the plurality of forms that music takes, there
may be some common nature—one that a philosopher, or someone wearing a
philosophical hat, may pursue.
As I said, there is more in life than pursuing a general understanding of
something. People can be interested in different things. But suppose we do wish
to understand music in a general way. Well, suppose we want to understand
anything—minds, mathematics, cabbages and kings. One approach is to show
that and how the thing in question is a case of some wider phenomenon. What
is a dachshund? It is a kind of dog, only with distinctive characteristics that not
all dogs share. Somewhat similarly some of those who have been labelled “New
Musicologists” think that music conveys meanings, like literature or paintings,
only with sounds rather than words or paint (for example Kramer 1990, 2010).
It is not just that they think that music sometimes does other things, which is
hardly controversial, but that embodying meanings is what is distinctive and
interesting about much music. That is controversial. And they look to literary
methods as the primary means of understanding music. Music is reduced to literature. But reduction is fraught with risks. For one may turn what one wants to
understand into something else, which it is not. This is misunderstanding, not
understanding. By contrast, a non-reductionist takes the thing in question to be
a thing of its own kind, and it aims to characterize the thing in terms of what
is distinctive of it, not in terms of what it shares with other things of a broader
kind. A non-reductionist approach aims to understand music on its own terms.
On such a view, music is not reducible to something else.
This is Hanslick’s approach, and in his hands it goes with the emphasis on
musical beauty and pleasure in musical beauty, as the core of what is distinctive
about music and of what it is to experience music with understanding. If there
were no musical beauty, or if beauty had merely an incidental role in music, then
we might understand music by seeing it as a case of representation emotional
stimulus or expression, meanings, political symbolism, religious intimation and
so on—as some think. But one can only do that by overlooking the most important thing, the main reason that anyone bothers with music in the first place:
musical beauty, and the pleasure we take in it. This is not to deny the other
things that music sometimes does for us. It is to say only that it would not do
those other things for us if it did not also have beauty and give us the pleasure in
appreciating that musical beauty. The other aspects of music must be understand
in non-musical terms, of course, but those other aspects need to be integrated
with what is distinctively musical, and understood in the light of that.
The right route to understanding music is the non-reductionist one. Music
is music and not something else. And what is distinctive of music is its sonic
beauty (at least in good cases), and the fact that it has been designed for sonic
beauty. The other things that music sometimes does are partly to be understood
in non-musical terms, but without an understanding of what music does as
music, the role of the non-musical functions of music is unintelligible.
It is true that the presence of beauty is a more general fact, and the aesthetic
appreciation of beauty is a more general fact. But the beauty of music is beauty
that is realized in sound, and that is distinctive and unlike visual beauty, or
what we find of value in narratives. It is distinctively sonic beauty. The sound of
music. That is the distinctive point of music, without which anything else that
it does would not be possible.
Emphasizing the beauty of music goes hand in hand with emphasizing the
pleasure we take in musical beauty. That is why musical beauty is important to
us. I do not equate beauty with pleasure or with a disposition to induce pleasure. Nevertheless, beauty and pleasure are intimately connected. Here I follow
a tradition that includes Plato, Aquinas, Hume and Kant, among many others.
The intellectual hard work is to isolate the kind of pleasure in question. I believe
that Hume and Kant have much to teach here (Hume 1985; Kant 1928). On
an “aesthetic realist” view, pleasure is our mode of access to beauty, which exists
independently of the pleasure by which we know it. Other views tie beauty and
pleasure differently. All plausible views, however, connect beauty and pleasure in
one way or another. Pure value, sitting out there in the stratosphere, needs to engage with our desires, emotions and pleasures if it is to give us reasons (Williams
1983), and musical beauty can do this by yielding pleasure, and pleasure of a
particularly compelling sort. Hence we have the basis for our rational concern
with making, preserving and consuming music.
I follow Hanslick in making beauty central. Moreover, I connect beauty with
pleasure. However, there is a question about the centrality of beauty, among
the aesthetic properties of music. Perhaps some music is sublime or interesting
without being beautiful? I am using “beauty” to be equivalent to “aesthetic
value,” which is somewhat stipulative. Jerrold Levinson has an interesting paper
in which he carefully delineates a narrower notion of musical beauty. He writes:
“Among the features that seem to conduce to such beauty are these: moderate
tempo, even dynamic level, legato articulation, limited dissonance, major mode,
symmetrical phrasing, and slow harmonic rhythm.” Levinson adds “some degree
of novelty or unexpectedness” to this.1 Now such a notion of beauty would be
important, but would not have pre-eminence in our experience of music, given
much discordant, unpretty, but impressive music. Examples from the Western
classical tradition include: many works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schoenberg,
and the heavier passages of Beethoven. From other traditions: much Spanish
flamenco, Argentina’s Oswaldo Pugliese, Mexico’s Chavela Vargas, Egypt’s Oom
Kalsoom. Examples from Western “pop” music include many recordings by
Johnny Burnette and his Rock “n” Roll Trio, the Rolling Stones and the Sex
Pistols. John Lee Hooker’s early solo recordings are an example from Blues. Is
the music of these people beautiful? Perhaps it is sublime rather than beautiful?
This is an important question, but I will sidestep the issue, by making “beauty”
stand proxy for generic “aesthetic value.” In that sense, beauty in the narrower
Levinsonian sense is just one aesthetic value among many.
In thinking about this issue it is not helpful to draw attention to non-aesthetic values in music, such as innovativeness, since that is plausibly not an aesthetic
value at all, even though it is perhaps an artistic or musical value, in a broad
sense.2 Something does not have more or less aesthetic value by being more or
less innovative. But this is a separate issue from whether there could be other
kinds of aesthetic excellence apart from beauty. (Two sonically similar stretches
of music could differ in innovativeness, being written at different times, while
being aesthetically equivalent.)
In the sense in which I am using the word “beauty,” there cannot be aesthetic
excellence apart from beauty in the broad generic sense. (I believe that Hanslick
used the word “Schöne” in the same broad way.) What, then, should we say
about the unpretty, discordant but wonderful music, which falls outside what we
might call narrow “Levinsonian beauty,” which some say is sublime rather than
beautiful? I prefer to say that things have different kinds of beauty, rather than
distinguishing beauty from other aesthetic values. It is important that listening
to unpretty, discordant but powerful and excellent music, of the sort indicated
above, may also be pleasurable, and many characteristics of this pleasure are
shared by pleasure in Levinsonian beauty. Thus I say that sublimity in music is
a kind of musical beauty. The heavier passages of Beethoven, for example, are
sublime and beautiful, and they are beautiful in virtue of being sublime; they are
not sublime rather than beautiful. This is an untraditional view, but I think that
it is the best way to understand the sublime.
Going in the other direction, away from sublimity, it might be said that not all
music aspires to beauty, some merely aims at what Kant would call the agreeable.3 An example would be the music of the Swedish pop band ABBA as well as
most Japanese and Korean pop music. It is true that this music aims at pleasure,
but the question is what kind of pleasure it is. I do not think that easy pop of
this kind should be consigned to the merely agreeable, for it is pleasure in certain
harmonious melodies and rhythms. But the notions of melody, harmony and
rhythm are already aesthetic notions. So any properties that they determine are
also aesthetic, in a word, beauty or ugliness. It may be a somewhat simple beauty,
a predictable and unchallenging beauty. And it may be beauty of a lesser degree
than the beauty of other music. (Things can be more or less beautiful.) But it is
beauty nonetheless that easy and catchy pop music aspires to, and the pleasure
it generates is aesthetic pleasure, not pleasure in the merely agreeable, such as
we have from drinking Canary wine (Kant’s example, Critique of Judgement,
Section 7).
Being “interesting” is a different idea, and is a complex and varied notion. In
some senses, being “interesting” may not be aesthetic. For example, music may
be interesting because it is innovative. Or the music may be interesting for the
way notes spell out words, or are the same forwards and backwards (a musical
palindrome). That might be an interesting factor in some music, but it is not
aesthetically valuable even if it is clever or perhaps valuable in other ways. This is
non-aesthetic interestingness. But if the music is aesthetically interesting, then it is
an aesthetic virtue, and a way of being beautiful in the broad sense.
Thinking about the variety of positive musical values prompts us to say
something about their opposite. Perhaps the worst music I have heard is that
of the Canadian pop-rock singer Bryan Adams. What is interesting is that one
would not want to say that this music is ugly in the sense of being jarring and
unpleasantly discordant. Instead, it is all too sickly smooth and bland, rather
like very sweet artificial-tasting fizzy drinks. Perhaps there is even something
superficially agreeable about it, of the kind that might generate the catchy addictiveness of tunes that get stuck in one’s head against one’s will. However,
Bryan Adams clearly intends his music to have aesthetic value, which is part of
what is so cringe-making about it. How should we describe it? It is not ugly in
the sense of being the opposite of Levinsonian beauty. But I think it is ugly in a
more generic sense, although quite what makes it so ugly needs further analysis.
Whether ugliness is just the lack of beauty or its opposite is a profound question
that I shall not explore here.
Let us now focus on musical experience and musical understanding, and from
now on, by “beauty” I mean either absolute or non-absolute beauty, unless I
specify otherwise. I take it that we understand music when we do justice to it in
what we say, think and feel. If music is primarily an art of sonic beauty, among
other things, then musical understanding is at least in part a matter of appreciating that beauty. Musical understanding is not separate from musical experience
of the right sort. That experience is one that does justice to the music, and to the
value of the music, as realized in the sounds that constitute it. Musical experience, then, is of fundamental importance.
It might be thought that we should ask: what is musical experience? The
trouble with this question is that experiences of music vary a great deal. Some
music may remind me of a childhood event, for example. A slightly better question seems to be: what is the nature of the experience of music when we are
listening to it as music—that is, in a way that is appropriate to it as music? But
this question is also problematic. For there may be a variety of answers given
both the variety of kinds of music, and also the variety of appropriate experiences of music.
In order to make progress, we should recognize that there is a core kind of
experience of music, which is the basis for the variety of actual and appropriate
experiences of music. They are only possible because of the core kind of experience, which is explanatorily prior. This fundamental or core kind of experience
is the aesthetic experience of music. The aesthetic experience of music is explanatorily fundamental in that we could not understand other kinds of experience
of music, unless there were the aesthetic experiences of music. The other things
that music does for us piggyback on the aesthetic experience of music.
There is the aesthetic experience of absolute music, and there is the aesthetic
experience of non-absolute music, music with a non-aesthetic function, such as
music for marching, dancing, praying, marching or shopping, and also some socalled “programme” music, or music that accompanies a text. Of course, absolute music also has a function—the function of delineating pure musical beauty
that is realized in particular sonic forms, which may be appreciated in aesthetic
experience. The word “music” is unhelpfully ambiguous between a use, according to which song is a kind of music, and a use where there is a contrast between
the words and the music of a song. The notion of the aesthetic adds clarity.
The core experience of music is the aesthetic experience of beauty, whether of
absolute or non-absolute music.
The absolute/non-absolute distinction may help to explain why music
comes in many forms; but whatever form it takes, it is never merely something
else. It is true that the experience of non-absolute music needs to be informed
by knowledge of non-musical matters. But that extraneous knowledge is never
sufficient for musical understanding, since it omits the beauty of the way that
non-musical matters are musically embodied or realized. This insufficiency is
a flaw with some writers in the “New Musicology” tradition, who retreat to
extrinsic matters, never to return to the music.4 It is undeniable that some music
has aspects that must be understood in non-musical terms, but there is almost
always a more or less pleasing fit between the music and non-musical functions.
In particular, the fit between the sonic face of music and non-musical functions
is an aesthetic matter (Kant’s dependent beauty). Furthermore there is only a fit
between musical and non-musical functions because the music also has aesthetic
virtues that are independent of those other functions. The problem with writers
who overemphasize non-musical “meanings” of music is that the question of
how the non-musical alleged “meanings” are sonically realized—in some ways
rather than others—drops out of view. The implication is that the sonic realization is arbitrary, but it clearly is not. This is one reason why the attempt to
understand music as literature is a disaster.5
The central question we face is: what is musical experience? The answer, for
a large range of cases, is that musical experience is the experience of aesthetic
properties of sounds. Of particular importance is beauty—something that gives
us a distinctive kind of pleasure when we experience it, and which we think has
a distinctive value.
As Hanslick rightly insisted, there is no way to begin to understand what music
is, or to understand its value and why we value it, without putting musical
beauty in the foreground and celebrating our experience of it. This positive position has negative consequences. Musical appreciation does not require pathologies of emotion, spurious political narratives, intimations of religious profundity
and so on. Focus on the music! Do not get distracted! That is where the value
is—there in the sounds. It is an immanent value, not a transcendent one. It is a
this-worldly value, not an other-worldly delusion, or something self-indulgently
in us. Musical beauty is there in the sounds, in “tones and their artistic combination,” as Hanslick maintained.6,7
Nick Zangwill is Ferens Professor of Philosophy at Hull University. He taught previously
at Durham, Oxford and Glasgow Universities. He is the author of The Metaphysics of
Beauty (Cornell, 2001), Aesthetic Creation (Oxford University Press, 2007), co-editor of
Scruton’s Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Music and Aesthetic Reality (Routledge,
2014). [email protected]
1. Jerrold Levinson, “Musical Beauty.” Teorema, XXXI(3) (2012): 133.
2. See Nick Zangwill, The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
2001), pp. 107–8.
3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford:
Oxford University Press. 1928), Section 3.
4. An example of a musicologist who, I think, wants to escape from the dreaded sound
of music, never to return is Kramer (Lawrence Kramer, Music as a Cultural Practice
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990); Interpreting Music (Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press, 2010)); see also the survey of recent musicology
in Georgina Born, “For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity,
Beyond the Practice Turn.” Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, 135 (2007):
205–43. For such writers, music is really literature. There are also others who are
broadly within the “New Musicology” genre who indulge in postmodern philosophy
or abstruse psychoanalytic theory, which has scant relevance to the music. This kind
of flaw in not present in most of Susan McClary’s writings, since she tries to bring
the extra-musical matters to bear on the sonic surface of the music. See, for example,
Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minnesota, MN:
University of Minnesota Press, 1991). For McClary, most of the time, music is still
music, and not literature. Another writer who keeps his eyes (or ears) on the music is
Richard Taruskin. See, for example, History of Western Music, 6 Vols (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2005). Note in particular a sensitive and insightful brief passage on
Hanslick in Vol. 3, pp. 441–2.
5. For example, Evan Rapport argues that we should think of punk pop music as following the blues tradition (“Hearing Punk as Blues,” Popular Music, 33 (2014): 39–67).
To show this, punk is analysed in terms of the predictable political categories of race,
gender and sexual orientation (“Hearing Punk as Blues,” p. 42), although surprisingly
without discussion of Ruth Padel’s I’m a Man (London: Faber & Faber, 2000). The
analysis is primarily hermeneutic. But this allows him to overlook obvious formal
innovations in punk pop that are entirely foreign to anything in blues. For example,
the Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK, has a tonic C major, but moves to F major and
(unusually) E major and before returning to C major. Or it moves from C major
up to G major, then F major, E major (unusually), D major (unusually) and back
to C major. This is a kind of bloody-minded musical anarchy in that it is playing
the major chords instead of the notes of the major scale. The point is that too much
hermeneutics can blind one to the music. Of course there is something to be said
about the integration or fit between formal innovation, and the meanings and political stances, or rather poses, of punk pop. But, as Hanslick would say, without the
musical aspect, the non-musical aspect would be uninteresting.
6. Eduard Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful. Trans. Geoffrey Payzant (Indianapolis,
IN: Hackett, 1986), Chapter 3.
7. Many thanks for written comments from Jerry Levinson, Tom McCauley and Gintare
Stankeviciute. Part of this introduction was given in a for-and-against session at the
Music and Philosophy Study Group conference in London, where Lawrence Kramer
was my interesting opponent in the debate. Responding to my invocation of Butler’s
dictum, he began his comments with the striking claim: “Nothing is what it is; everything is always other than what it is.” Quite often metaphysical differences are the
source of other intellectual differences, and this may be such a case.
Born, Georgina. 2007. “For a Relational Musicology: Music and Interdisciplinarity,
Beyond the Practice Turn.” Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, 135: 205–43.
Hanslick, Eduard. 1986. On the Musically Beautiful. Trans. Geoffrey Payzant. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Hume, David. 1985. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In Eugene Miller (ed.) Essays: Moral,
Political and Literary, pp. 226–49. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty.
Kant, Immanuel. 1928. Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Kramer, Lawrence. 1990. Music as a Cultural Practice. Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press.
Kramer, Lawrence. 2010. Interpreting Music. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Levinson, Jerrold. 1998. Music in the Moment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Levinson, Jerrold. 2012. “Musical Beauty.” Teorema, XXXI(3): 127–35
McClary, Susan. 1991. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minnesota, MN:
University of Minnesota Press.
Padel, Ruth. 2000. I’m a Man. London: Faber & Faber.
Rapport, Evan. 2014. “Hearing Punk as Blues.” Popular Music, 33: 39–67.
Taruskin, Richard. 2005. History of Western Music, 6 Vols. Oxford: Oxford University
Williams, Bernard. 1983. “Internal and External Reasons.” In Moral Luck, pp. 101–13.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zangwill, Nick. 2001. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.