Tag Archives: Arthur Schopenhauer

Musical Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aesthetics is classically defined as the study of the beautiful in art. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Victorian biologist best remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog,” set the definition as a list: a beauty in appearance, visual appeal, an experience, an attitude, a property of something, a judgment, and a process. This expanded meaning touches on the original Greek aisthesis, which deals with feelings and sensations. Aesthetics, in this sense, is not limited to the thing itself, but rather is a holistic term encompassing the focal point—the object, performance, atmosphere, etc.—and the experience of and response to that focal point.

However, Huxley’s elucidation, like many others, suffers from an over-emphasis on beauty. While aesthetic engagement often involves perceptions of beauty, this is not the only (or even foremost) criterion of artistic merit. Art can be aesthetically satisfying without necessarily being “beautiful” in the conventional sense of eliciting pleasure.

Applied to music, aesthetics might be conceived as the relationship of music to the human senses. Rather than judging whether or not a composition is beautiful, or why one piece is more beautiful than another, attention shifts to the interplay between musical stimuli and the interior realm of sensations. The onus of appraisal moves from the cold tools of theoretical analysis to the auditor.

For some thinkers, this is the only appropriate location for aesthetic assessment. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music taps into channels of pure emotions: “Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.” T. H. Yorke Trotter, founder and principal of the Incorporated London Academy of Music, echoed Schopenhauer in a 1907 lecture, stating that, while other art forms awaken ideas and images that act on the feelings, music directly stirs “dispositions which we translate by the vague terms, joy, sadness, serenity, etc.”

In this revised view, aesthetic value does not depend on the micro or macro features of a piece, per se, but on how one responds to those features. Emotional arousals are instant aesthetic judgments. It is no accident that the perceived qualities of a piece or passage mirror the responses induced: joyful, mournful, serene, and so forth. The intensity of the emotion might separate one piece from another, but the immediacy of the music—as Schopenhauer and Yorke described it—seems to defy such classifications. Among other things, integrating (or equating) aesthetics with emotions underscores the subjectivity of the topic, and highlights the interconnectedness and simultaneity of stimulus, experience, and evaluation.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Chronologic Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music has been called the chronologic art. In contrast to the plastic arts, which are presented in space and with the impression of completeness, music involves a temporal succession of impulses converging toward an end. The character of a piece—its shape, purpose, temperament, quality, etc.— is divulged gradually through linear progression. Musical information is performed and perceived through the passage of time and the ordering of sound within it.

The idea of music unfolding in time is a staple observation in the philosophy of music. Schopenhauer viewed tempo as the essence of music. Hegel understood music as sound which retains its temporality, but is liberated from the spatial and material. Time, in other words, is as crucial to a musician as canvas to a painter, wood to a carver, stone to a sculptor, paper to a poet. It is the fundamental surface upon which the art is created and experienced.

Music’s relationship with time can be thought of in two distinct yet interconnected ways. The first is real or ontological time, which consists of organized elements such as duration, rhythm, meter and tempo. Duration is the length of a note. Rhythm is a regular and repeated pattern of sound. Meter refers to the number of beats and time value assigned to each note in a measure. Tempo involves the rate at which music is performed. These time-centered parts are the basic properties with which music is made.

Music’s second temporal component is psychological time, or the listener’s perception of music as it is played in real time. How we experience time is not always in accordance with the clock. Engagement in time is shaped by a slew of factors, including but not limited to physical surroundings, inner disposition and momentary circumstances. Feelings such as boredom, excitement, anxiety, anguish, expectation and pleasure set life at different paces. Similarly, moods and sensations derived from music convey temporal movement that seems to exist apart from meter and tempo. The seconds that pass slowly during a dreary piece are the same as those that fly quickly during a scherzo. Their psychological effects create the illusion of independent clocks.

Musical time, then, exists both within and outside of measurable temporal units. The music itself can be divided according to ordered parameters, and is subject to mathematical dissection and scientific analysis. Yet the movement of time becomes less mechanical and more impressionistic as the sounds travel from their source, through the auditory system and into consciousness. Ontological time makes possible and gives way to psychological time.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.