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Jewish World Review
August 3, 2006
/ 9 Menachem-Av, 5766
Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
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
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
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
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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© 2006, Paul Johnson