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December 2, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review August 3, 2006 / 9 Menachem-Av, 5766

Why is there no workable philosophy of music?

By Paul Johnson


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http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Why, exactly, do we find Beethoven's last quartets so moving and powerful? What are the mental and neurological processes which produce those spine-tingling reactions to Wagner's Ring? No answer to these questions. It is significant but not surprising that Charles Darwin, in investigating the evolution of humanity, had almost nothing to say about music, and Freud, in explaining our psyche, even less.


The most remarkable thing about musical sounds is the abyss that separates them from verbal sounds, an abyss bridged not by understanding but by antagonism. There is no generally agreed philosophy of music. Well, you may say, there is no consensual philosophy of anything. Maybe; but we can philosophise easily about painting (vide Ruskin or Pater, passim) and to plunge into a philosophy of literature we have only to read a page or two of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria to get started. But music being, at its best and purest, abstract does not, perversely enough, lend itself to philosophical abstraction because of the verbal barrier.


Discussing this point, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor-pundit, laid down in Elsie Venner (1861), the best of his 'medicated novels' combining biology and fiction: 'By music we reach those special states of consciousness which, by being without form, cannot be shaped by the mosaics of the vocabulary.' But that does not get us very far. All the attempts to describe the ability of music to move us (so much more powerfully than painting) begin and usually end in negatives. I have looked through the 20 volumes of my copy of Grove's Dictionary of Music without finding any entry on musical philosophy or kindred topics. The big Oxford English Dictionary has over five dense columns on music but its head-definition is feeble: 'That one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion.' Actually Gower in 1390 did rather better. 'The Science of Musique,' he wrote, 'that techeth upon Armonie A man to make melodie' - an analysis that at least gives food for thought.


Music can be described only by metaphor even in its elementals. Take 'pitch', for example. The big new Grove definition is hopeless: 'The peculiar quality of a sound (e.g., an individual musical note) that fixes its position in the scale.' The old five-volume Grove does much better, bringing in the concept of 'the scale of acuteness and gravity', its position being determined by 'the number of double vibrations per second which produces that sound'. The terms 'high' and 'low' are metaphors, even more so than acuteness and gravity. To be accurate, it says, we should define pitch by vibration-number.


The need to use metaphors all the time in describing music, and their limitations and deceptions, explains why the philosophy of music has been so slow to develop and remains unsatisfactory. Edward Hanslick - the great 19th-century German music critic who was the first to try to set down a systematic philosophy of music - denied the expressionist view that music (like painting) is a language of the emotions, but when he put forward an alternative argument it was strangled in metaphor: a translation by G. Payzant, published by the University of Indianapolis in 1986 as On the Beautiful in Music, is available.


The opposite point of view - that music is a, indeed the, language of the emotions - was put half a century ago by Deryck Cooke in The Language of Music (1959), in which he uses musical phrases, tonalities and chordal progressions as translations of particular emotional states. Which composers would agree with that approach? Wagner certainly, for his leitmotif system is the kind of interpretive glossary Cooke wrote about. And it is no wonder that Hanslick was fundamentally opposed to everything Wagner tried to do.


But Beethoven would have been hostile, for though he was quite capable of writing emotional programme music, as in his Pastoral Symphony, at his most serious, as in Opus 131 and Opus 133, he moves strictly in the realm of an abstraction so absolute that words are helpless to describe it. It is interesting that Stravinsky, another who was capable of writing to programme, and whose Rite of Spring is musical visualisation as well as emotional expression, denied that music was the designation of anything whatever.


These points, and other theories, have been much discussed recently, and you can follow the arguments in such periodicals as the Musical Times and Music and Letters. Last year Jennifer Robinson put the emotional case in Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music and Art (OUP). Aaron Ridley, in The Philosophy of Music (Edinburgh 2004), is closer to Stravinsky, in so far as I understand him. And a scientific approach by Steven Mithen, who is not primarily a musicologist or a philosopher, is provided by The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (Weidenfeld 2005). This too puts the emotional case, since he provides a contrasting definition of language, a 'communication system specialising in the transmission of information', and music, 'a communication system specialising in the expression of emotion'.


I hate the purely emotional explanation because it makes, for instance, some of the best of Bach meaningless. On the other hand, if you discount it you are driven, as Hanslick was, to a dynamic approach, in which music gets (abstractly) better and better, just as between the 13th and 16th centuries painting became closer and closer to perfect representation, and then was forced to take refuge in the emotionalism of mannerism and the baroque. Hanslick dismissed virtually all music before the 17th century as barbarous, and said he would rather see all Palestrina's works destroyed than one major piece by Mendelssohn. He also asserted that all the concertos and sonatas of Bach were unquestionably less valuable than the quartets of Schumann and Brahms. Once you begin to make relative evaluations of first-class musical works you run into the central problem of musical philosophy: the inability to find words to convey meritorious meaning.


It might be helpful if physiologists would devote more attention to the parts of the brain which deal with musical sounds (as opposed to purely verbal ones). I learn from Mithen that brain damage need not impair musical consciousness.


I believe that those suffering from Alzheimer's who are unable any longer to read or even to speak can still, apparently, enjoy music. Someone who was once very close to me but who is now what used to be called senile can still, I know, appreciate art. I paint her pictures of birds which she will hold in her hands, and peruse again and again for hours with evident pleasure. Her hearing is still acute. She once sang in the Oxford Bach Choir. Music is still getting through to her, I think, though she cannot confirm this. Attempts to devise musical philosophy have hitherto begun with the music and progressed to human beings.


Perhaps we should reverse the process and start with the brain. Does it matter, anyway? Can a true philosophy of music actually increase our enjoyment of a Beethoven quartet? No. But it might help me, for instance, either to get the point of Schoenberg, or conscientiously to drop him for good as worthless.

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Previously:

07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty ones
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle

© 2006, Paul Johnson

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