Tag Archives: Philosophy

Wrong Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Fidelity to the score is a defining characteristic of classical music. Pitches, values, tempi, volumes, and articulations are clearly written for meticulous enactment. In translating these symbols into sound, the musician ensures the piece’s survival even centuries after the composer’s death. There is, of course, room for (slight) variation. Because elements such as dynamics and tempo markings are at least moderately open to interpretation, no two performances will be exactly the same. Still, the faithful and accurate rendering of notes is key to the integrity—and the very existence—of a classical piece.

The foregoing outlines the nominalist theory of classical music, which defines a work in terms of concrete particulars relating to it, such as scores and performances. Because a musical piece is an audible and experiential phenomenon, which is symbolically represented in the score, it can only truly exist in performance.

This position raises two issues. The first concerns “authentic” performance. Is it enough to simply play the notes as indicated, or do those notes have to be played on the instrument(s) the composer intended? Does a cello suite played on double bass or a reduction of a symphony played on the piano qualify as an instance of the same work? How essential is the use of appropriate period instruments? These questions look for elements beyond the written notes.

The second issue centers on the notes themselves. Most performances of concert works include several wrong notes. However, we generally do not discount these performances for that reason (and we may not register the wrong notes as they are played). If all of the notes are wrong, then the work has not been performed, even if the intention is sincere. But what percentage of the notes can be wrong for the performance to qualify as the work? We might argue that the work is independent from any performance of it; but that does not satisfy the nominalist’s position.

Most discussions of musical ontology—addressing the big question, “Do musical works exist?”—are confined to classical music. Score-dependent arguments do not lend themselves to jazz, for instance, where the improvising performer composes on the spot, or certain kinds of folk music, where embellishments are commonplace and written notation is absent.

Questions about music’s ontological reality do not have easy answers, and the various philosophical camps have their weaknesses: nominalists, Platonists (who view musical works as abstract objects), idealists (who view musical works as mental entities), and so on. Whatever fruits such discourse might bear, it points to the uniquely “other” nature of music, which is both recognizable and ineffable, repeatable and singular.

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

Goal-Directed Movement

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music listening is an unfolding experience. Without prompting, the listener naturally follows the direction of a piece, traveling through its curves and contours in a linear progression toward completion. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato comments on the ability of this temporal movement to “charm” the inner life of the listener. Roger Scruton contends that the mind moves sympathetically with motion perceived in music, such that they are felt as physical motion. These and other observations address the goal-directed movement of music. The whole piece is not revealed at once or in an order or manner that the listener chooses. Musical developments, whether simple or complex, lead auditors from beginning to end.

In contrast to print communication, which can be read and reread at any pace the reader wishes, music imposes its own duration and agenda. In pre-recording days, this necessitated formalized repetitions and recapitulations to get certain messages across, hence the use of sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), the doubling schema of keyboard partitas (AA/BB), the verse/chorus form of folksongs (and later commercial songs), and so on. Michel Chion notes: “This enormous redundancy—which means if we buy a recording of Bach’s English Suites that lasts an hour, we only get thirty minutes of ‘pure’ musical information—clearly has no equivalent in the visual arts of the period.” Audio recordings afford greater freedom in terms of playback and repeated listening, but each listening remains a temporal experience.

The situation is not sidestepped with printed notation. Although a score can be read and studied, similar to a book or article, the notes on a page are essentially illusory. The paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in L’Imaginaire, a treatise on imagination and the nature of human consciousness, that music is never located in the silent symbols of a musical score, however detailed. Using Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as an example, Sartre explains that the inability of written notes to capture music is rooted in the nature of sound itself. Unlike something that is empirically real—defined by Sartre as having a past, present, and future—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Each performance is basically a new creation, and, we might add, each exposure to a recording is a new experience, due to changes in the listener and her surroundings from one hearing to the next.

Time, not paper, is the fundamental surface upon which music is made. Music involves a linear succession of impulses converging toward an end. Whereas a painting or sculpture conveys completeness in space, music’s totality is gradually divulged, sweeping up the listener—and the listener’s inner life—in the process.

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

To Jargon or Not to Jargon

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art historian Bernard Berenson described the transformative potential of gazing at visual art, “when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and colour. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness.” Berenson compared this moment to a flash of “mystic vision,” when the workaday mind is muted and perceptive faculties transcend their ordinary functions.

This articulation of experientialism, which values experience as a source of truth, contrasts with intellectualism, where knowledge is derived from reason. The latter is characteristic of Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, whose studies of the arts comprise over half of his oeuvre. Adorno used his considerable intellect to criticize jazz, the “in-the-moment” art par excellence, and popular music, which encourages pre-rational engagement. In fairness, he was less concerned with the substance of “pop” than with its capitalist producers and passive consumers. He viewed popular music as evidence of a devious hegemony rooted in the “industrialization of culture,” which conditions passive listeners to hardly listen at all.

This argument has some validity. Listening habits are standardized through exposure to “hits” and popular styles, such that listeners essentially know what will happen in a song before they hear it. As R. C. Smith, a philosopher of science and defender of Adorno, notes: “In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting.”

What these social critiques overlook is the music’s experiential impact. The transcendence Berenson described can occur with any art form, regardless of its origins, intentions, or predictability. In the subjective, spontaneous, and totalizing moment, all that exists is the experience itself. Analysis is as impossible as it is superfluous.

Experientialism finds its opposite in Adorno’s writings, which have been called “excessively negative,” “excessively ornamented,” and “excessively difficult.” The complexity of his German prose made early English translations unreliable, and his esoteric vocabulary can obscure his insights. Adorno was critical of this tendency in others, as evidenced in his attack on the language of Martin Heidegger (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit). Yet he admitted in a footnote to that work: “Even he who despises jargon is by no means secure from infection by it—consequently all the more reason to be afraid of it.”

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

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“It must not be argued about taste”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

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

Childlike Ears

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Childlike wonder is for many an idealized virtue. Aristotle’s inquiries often begin with innocent amazement. Poet and scholar Kathleen Raine advised, “rather than understanding nature better by learning more, we have to unlearn, to un-know, if we hope to recapture a glimpse of the paradisal vision.” J. Krishnamurti, the self-styled twentieth-century sage, was moved to tears at the sight of withering branches. These approaches simulate a pre-jaded, pre-cluttered stage of life, when openness and sensitivity are natural conditions. The shiny new brain is neither capable of boredom nor stress. It is receptive to all shades of experience, unconcerned with the illusion of self, and attentive to the world as it is.

Intellectual maturation and social conditioning quickly do away with this pristine state. The schoolchild is taught to label and conform. A grown man weeping at a tree is abnormal. But, say the romantics, by retrieving (or reconstructing) childlike innocence, we can salvage a life-enhancing sense of awe.

The distance between the child’s perception and our own can be demonstrated musically. Unlike adults, young children do not typically describe or define music. They derive benefits from the music they make and listen to—joy, solace, safety—but to them, music just is. Infants instinctively move to the beat and respond wide-eyed to lullabies and infant-directed song-speech. However, as children mature, their ears become more discerning, and the external influence of family, peers, and consumer culture narrow tastes and heighten judgments. By middle childhood (ages 6 to 12), spontaneous engagement is typically replaced with self-consciousness. Words begin interfering with experience.

Vladimir Jankélévitch romanticizes infant ears in his 1961 classic, La Musique et l’Ineffable (Music and the Ineffable). An exceedingly perceptive and prolific contributor to the philosophy of music, Jankélévitch nevertheless admits the uneasy application of words to the musical experience: “Directly, in itself, music signifies nothing, unless by convention and association. Music means nothing and yet means everything.” He espouses “a great nostalgia for innocence,” promotes “a return to the spirit of childhood,” and reminds us that “music was not invented to be talked about.” This is not a contradictory position. Musical subtleties were of great interest to Jankélévitch; he was captivated by the slightest gradations of sound. Yet, his responses were more testimonial than analytical or explanatory. Study led him to a profound gratitude best expressed in silence. He encouraged readers to enter the “mystery” for themselves.

Like Aristotle, Raine, and Krishnamurti, Jankélévitch was a deep thinker aware of both the merits and demerits of the thinking brain. It affords exploration and reflection, but obstructs the purity of experience. His desire was to reenact the clean exposure that is unconsciously swept aside with accumulating years. From such a state, fresh and novel insights are possible.

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

Default Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The history of philosophy is filled with attacks on what John Searle dubs “default positions”: pre-reflectively held assumptions about the world and our involvement in it. For example, most people would agree that a tree exists independently from our thoughts or experiences of it, that the meaning of the word “tree” is reasonably clear, that we can see and touch it, that its existence can be proven true or false, and that striking an axe against it will have consequences. Yet, philosophers have challenged each of these positions. George Berkeley rejected that physical things exist outside our perceptions (summed up in the popular expression, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”). Descartes considered sensory information unreliable. Hume questioned the reality of cause and effect.

Postmodern philosophy has multiplied these challenges beyond our ability to count them. Seemingly everything is a target for deconstruction. If a counterexample or conceptual weakness can be found, then we must discard what we thought we knew. Stretching the brain in this way can be healthy and even enlightening, but there comes a point when the questions themselves need to be questioned. Why would anyone dispute the existence of a tree, the properties of liquid water, or the movement of tectonic plates? For most of us, basic evidence is enough.

Searle stands out among contemporary philosophers for arguing that, in general, default positions are true and that attacks on them are usually mistaken. (The main exceptions being commonplace supernatural assertions, such as the independence of the mind/soul from the body.) If these presumptions were as false as the philosophers contend, then they would not have persisted through human history. Indeed, our daily existence revolves around “external realism”: an unconscious confidence in the realness of worldly phenomena, both natural (molecules, marmots, mountains) and human-dependent (money, marriage, mountaineering).

Music is no stranger to deconstructive inquiry. In the past, “What is music?” was answered in one of three ways: theoretical/mathematical, symbolical/mystical, or aesthetical/cultural. The question, if it was explicitly asked at all, was a launching pad to examine aspects of music and its reception. A good example is Isaac Leopold Rice’s 1886 book, which takes this question as its title. In current discourse, asking what music is can create a kind of barrier. Instead of an invitation to explore, it is an opportunity to dismantle. This tendency, combined with a hyper-focus on outliers, has subjectified music to the point of doubting its external reality.

To be fair, most modern-day scholars (including myself) recognize that no definition of music can satisfy all possibilities. Yet, while dispelling some generalizations, this does not prevent writing on music, let alone performing, identifying, and responding to it. When anthropologists observe that all human societies have music, it does not mean that all music is identical, or that we necessarily hear all music as music. The same could be said for almost anything made by human beings: chairs, homes, games, clothing, food, and so on. It can be fun to contemplate the astounding variety, but even the question “What is music?” presupposes that there is such a thing as music.

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

Music and the Myth of Free Will

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Pulling an album off the store shelf, dialing through the radio, buying a concert ticket, constructing a playlist, clicking around a music streaming site, pledging allegiance to a band or musician—these are exercises in musical freedom of choice. Few decisions are more personal or more decisive than selecting the music we want to hear. It is a process guided by the peculiarities of taste and spontaneity of gut responses. It is a display of volition over sound. It is an act of self-assertion. But how much control do we really have? Like most aspects of our lives, lay theory—the common-sense assumption about our behaviors—tells only part of the story. There is much more than meets the ear.

The question of free will has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for over two millennia. Precisely what free will is and how much or little we actually have is a topic too vast to summarize here; but contributions from naysayers shed intriguing light on musical decision-making.

Put simply, critics (known as incompatibilists) hold that free will cannot exist in a universe governed by cause and effect. This means that, try though we might, our choices can never truly be unimpeded by prevailing factors. This philosophical position has gained support from neuroscience in recent years. Sam Harris, in his controversial but perfectly reasonable book Free Will, gives the major points. First is that the brain has already determined what we will do before we decide on doing it. We only think we are making a conscious decision. Second, everything occurs in a chain of events. The sensation of free choice results from a “moment-to-moment ignorance” of the accumulating factors leading up to it. Third, free will can only exist if we are in control of all the variables that determine our thoughts and actions, including physical and emotional states, genetic traits, cultural conditioning, personal experiences, environmental settings, and so on.

Musically, this suggests that we have little say in our choices: we like what we hear before we even hear it. Short-term choices—like playing a CD while doing laundry—and long-term affinities—like a favorite piece or recording artist—are not entirely rational or voluntary. Whenever we encounter a song with glee, apathy, or repulsion, the reaction is predetermined. There are physical and psychological conditions: headaches, mood states, full bladders, deprivations, etc. There are personal histories: memories, prejudices, upbringings, peer groups, etc. There are environmental constraints: musical delivery systems, selections to choose from, cultural setting, socio-economic standing, etc. These and other elements swirl together behind the scenes in the subconscious. Their collective influence is such that before we engage in deciding, our minds are already set.

In the scheme of things, the absence of true free will does not matter all that much. Whether we actively direct our actions or are directed by background forces, the perception of freedom is a powerful thing.

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