I was looking at an obscure piece of writing about music the other day: the first few pages of an Introduction to The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works by Lydia Goehr (1992). Her argument, which is apparently still all the rage in some circles, goes something like this: we treat pieces of music as artefacts that anybody can listen to if they wish; before they were composed, like human beings before they were born, bits of music did not exist; they are not just constructed like tables and chairs or brick walls, but are unique products of a special, creative activity; the tonal, rhythmic, and instrumental properties of works make up integrated wholes that are represented by the scores composers concoct; they persist after their composer has died.
On the other hand, Lydia Goehr appears to be asking the interesting philosophical question which goes something like – what is music since it comes and goes and can therefore only be pinned down temporarily?
In order to feel excited enough to read on, one might have to prevent the widespread objection that ‘…people who stick to philosophy become strange monsters, not to say utter rogues; even the best of them are made useless by philosophy’ from contaminating one’s thinking. ‘Socrates admits that [the objection] is true in the world as it is, but maintains that it is the other people who are to blame, not the philosophers. In a wise community the philosophers would not seem foolish; it is only among fools that the wise are judged to be destitute of wisdom. (Bertrand Russell: History of Western Philosophy, Chapter 15)
Having accepted Socrates’ assertion, one does now read on regardless…
Musical works, says Lydia Goehr, only exist in the crudest sense as concrete, physical objects; nor do they exist as private ideas in the mind of a composer, a performer, or a listener; nor do they exist in the eternally existing world of ideal, uncreated forms, as Plato might have said they did; they cannot, in any straightforward sense, be physical, mental, or ideal objects. Since musical works are forever open to interpretation, not a bit like the score markings in all sorts of ways, they cannot possibly be identical to any one performance of them; in score form all the sections exist all at the same time but a performance stretches them out in real time; individuals in a group of listeners will experience a musical work in a different way.
So, Lydia Goehr argues that since there is ‘…no obvious category of object within which works [can be] comfortably placed… just how then do they exist?’ I may well be a strange monster or an utter rogue but this does strike me as an interesting philosophical question.
In spite of all these philosophical ramblings, there still exists in the general unphilosophical mind the concept of a musical work – a ‘work-concept’, as it seems now to be called, an ideal something or other that lives ‘out there’ as a limited notion rarely, if ever, attained as it might have been intended in practice.
As a result of tussling with Lydia Goehr (well, you know what I mean), I returned in my inner Being to the very first book of philosophy I ever read; I do not know what it was but it started off with the question WHAT IS A TABLE? If you take away all its attributes which are , of course, purely accidental – shape, colour, texture, solidity, height, width, weight, density, reflective qualities perhaps, material nature – what are you left with? Plato’s answer: the essence of Tableness, pure Form. So we arrive at Plato’s idea of Forms: the essence of Tableness exists as eternality ( in some heaven place maybe) together with all the other ideal abstractions you can think of – Justice, Beauty, Freedom, essence of Catness, Horseness and so on. Plato’s myth says that before birth we had momentary truck with such things, forgot about them at birth only to spend the rest of our life in a vain quest for them.
An alternative way to think about Goehr’s line is: If you take way all the attributes of a piece of music – print, score, sound, texture, mood, orchestration, contrast, interpretation, dynamics, metronomic indications, composer’s intention, listener awareness, programme, programme notes, what are you left with? The Essence of Music, of course – Musicness.
I will quote Bertrand Russell’s line on this, which I happen to like, specially since he considers CAT:-
There are many individual animals of whom we can truly say ‘this is a cat’. What do we mean by the word ‘cat’? Obviously something different from each particular cat. An animal is a cat, it would seem, because it participates in a general nature common to all cats. Language cannot get on without general words such as ‘cat’, and such words are evidently not meaningless. But if the word ‘cat’ means anything, it means something which is not this or that cat, but some kind of universal cattiness. This is not born when a particular cat is born, and does not die when it dies. In fact, it has no position in space or time; it is ‘eternal’. This is the logical part of the doctrine. The arguments in its favour, whether ultimately valid or not, are strong, and quite independent of the metaphysical part of the doctrine.
According to the metaphysical part of the doctrine, the word ‘cat’ means a certain ideal cat, ‘the cat’, created by God, and unique. Particular cats partake of the nature of the cat, but more or less imperfectly; it is only owing to this imperfection that there can be many of them. The cat is real; particular cats are only apparent.
In the last book of the Republic… Plato explains that, whenever a number of individuals have a common name, they have also a common ‘idea’ or ‘form’. For instance, though there are many beds, there is only one Idea’ or ‘form’ of a bed. Just as a reflection of a bed in a mirror is only apparent and not ‘real’, so the various particular beds are unreal, being only copies of the ‘idea’, which is the one real bed, and is made by God. Of this one bed, made by God, there can be knowledge, but in respect of the many beds made by carpenters there can be only opinion. The philosopher, as such, will be interested only in the one ideal bed, not in the many beds found in the sensible world. He will have a certain indifference to ordinary mundane affairs: ‘how can he who has magnificence of mind and is the spectator of all time and all existence, think much of human life?’ The youth who is capable of becoming a philosopher will be distinguished among his fellows as just and gentle, fond of learning, possessed of a good memory and a naturally harmonious mind…
Harmony is always an emergent property of considering more than one possibility. So, Aristotle, following closely on the heels of Plato asserted that ‘…from perception there comes memory . . . and from memory (when it occurs often in connection with the same thing) experience; for memories which are many in number form a single experience. And from experience, which has come to rest in the soul…’ there comes a different way of looking at ‘ideas’.
Much experience of lots of different kinds of cats builds up inductively in the human mind to ‘cat’, the generality of cat. Much experience of lots of different kinds of, and things in, music builds up inductively in the human mind to ‘music’, the generality of music.
Music is not an abstraction – it is all of these things together: print, score, sound, texture, mood, orchestration, contrast, interpretation, dynamics, metronomic indications, composer’s intention, listener awareness, programme, programme notes. Aristotle would have argued this way round starting from observation rather than from theory to build a concept.
Music is an example of what’s called a polymorphous concept (Gilbert Ryle 1951) – one that consists of many incompatible variables that don’t necessarily apply to all its manifestations.
Lydia Goehr would probably deny that she is a Platonist.