Thinking about the Philosophy of Music


Shoko Kinosita
Shoko Kinoshita was born in 1988 in Nagano Prefecture. She started playing the piano at the age of five and later graduated from the Piano Department of the Toho Gakuen School of Music. Currently, Ms Kinoshita is enrolled in the Master’s Program of the Graduate School of Letters of Keio University where she is studying analytical philosophy and aesthetics, while teaching piano in Tokyo.

cover_digitalbook_1-07I studied piano at university but last spring I enrolled in the Graduate Program of the Department of Philosophy. The reason for my decision was not that I wanted to search for some fundamental truths about the nature of music that would help me play the piano. I must admit that I didn’t know then and I do not know even now what music is. However, I believe that being able to express with words what music is, does not necessarily make you a good musician. I just thought it would be interesting to try to explain some of the aspects of routine musical practice.

For instance:
What exactly is a musical composition?

We say things like “I like Mahler’s The Giant” or “You will enjoy Jeux d’eau” on a daily basis.

However, the name does not make it clear what the object of the musical composition is. If a painting is called “Mona Lisa” we know that it is a painting of Mona Lisa; if a sculpture is called “The Thinker”, we know what concrete object the bronze image represents. In the case of music, however, what exactly is in itself a composition called “The Giant”? Surely not a physical object. Is it then the performance of the piece? But which performance? Is it the sum of all previous performances? If we assume that for 10 years after being completed “The Giant” was never performed could we say that it did not exist? Hardly. Could we say then that the musical notes written by Mahler are the composition? Since the composer wrote in his own hand, we could probably regard the score as the composition “The Giant”. But if the score is burned, would “The Giant” cease to exist? Such reasoning does not sound right either. In the end, it seems that a musical composition cannot be considered a physical object.

Actually, a lot of contemporary philosophers think that a musical composition is abstract. In other words, like letters or numbers, a musical piece does not have spatial or temporal dimensions. Therefore, we can say that literary works such as novels or poetry are similar to musical compositions.

However, if we look at things from an esthetic perspective, literary and musical works have some very different characteristics. When we appreciate a literary work, we perceive an abstract work through a material medium – the paper on which a magazine or a book is printed and that is how we are able to enjoy it. Physical factors such as the quality of the paper, the ink or the font and size of letters are irrelevant to the appreciation of the work (well, there are poetry anthologies that are particular to the quality of the paper but those are exceptions).

In other words, the object of appreciation is always the work as an abstraction.

However, when we appreciate a musical composition we cannot say that we enjoy it by simply perceiving the abstract structure of sound. What we are enjoying is rather the physical sound that allows us to perceive the abstract object of appreciation. And when we evaluate a musical composition, we do not evaluate it as an abstract object. Rather we evaluate the sound which is a physical object.

When we listen to a musical piece we are familiar with, we sometimes think: “I didn’t think it was such an interesting piece!” or “It wasn’t supposed to be such a boring piece!” That happens because our judgement of whether it is a fascinating work or not depends to a great extent on the performer.

In other words, it is not clear what exactly we could call a musical composition. However, I have reached the end of the page and my strength, so I will stop here. The field philosophy of music deals with such issues. Maybe after reading this, some of you will feel that such problems are not in the least interesting. But the fault lies with the writer who could not express herself eloquently and not with the philosophy of music. There are people who could present philosophy in a more appealing light. Just dismiss my essay as a “bad performance” and boo me off the stage.


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この投稿文は次の言語で読めます: Japanese