Tag Archives: Postmodernism

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 1875 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.

Essence and Non-Essence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The absence of essentialism is a recurring motif in postmodern philosophy. In that line of thinking, there are no foundational or inherent characteristics that distinguish one entity, object or idea from another. Whatever essence or defining substance there appears to be is an illusion shaped in the mind of the perceiver. Even the concept of human nature comes into question. Without confidence in our suppositions or in data derived from reason and observation, there cannot be a stable or set core of human characteristics. Our personalities become a malleable matrix of personal and socially constructed thoughts, perceptions and experiences.

The notion that we are the product of dispositions and circumstances can be overstated. Physical and elemental properties, scientific laws, genetic encoding and other measurable aspects of the material world inform who we are and what we know. Still, the practice of critical self-reflection—the “post-modern pause”—does help us confront tendencies, proclivities and prejudices we unknowingly possess, and realize the degree to which the beliefs we hold are grounded in subjective consciousness. Whatever the limits of the postmodern position, it does force us to examine and re-examine our assumptions.

This is particularly valuable for subjects rooted in aesthetics, such as music. For the strict postmodernist, music has no essence defining its fundamental nature. Rather, it exists in boundless varieties, each with culturally based particularities and expectations.

It is hardly novel to suggest that musical reactions and assessments are dependent upon the listener’s prior conditioning and exposure. Musical conventions, like a modulation or turn of phrase, arouse generalized emotions for listeners familiar with those devices. Music tied to a holiday or special event brings entire communities into shared sentiments connected with that day. Melodies are often linked to one’s past, stirring feelings and memories of a particular time, place or relationship.

But these observations can be taken too far. Even without the questioning voice of postmodernism, it is clear that how we think and feel about music is largely the product of our composite identities. Yet postmodern claims are softened by the fact that musical signatures and strains are felt in similar ways across wide audiences (within a cultural setting). If we concede that musical appraisal is essentially subjective, then consensus response is a valuable rubric. Musical conventions, figurations, parameters, conclusions and expectations were not forced upon us or dictated from on high. They developed over time through an organic and collective process of experimentation, consolidation and familiarization. As such, standard reactions and attitudes toward musical stimuli are firmer than postmodernists would contend.

No experience, musical or otherwise, is entirely pure or unadulterated. However, this does not mean that qualities attributed to music are simply imaginary. Music appreciation occupies a middle ground, in which sounds are inextricably combined with multi-dimensional experiences. The music’s essence is both intrinsic and entangled with the listener’s personal history. The two cannot be separated.

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