The Concept of Music (R13+)

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.

4 thoughts on “The Concept of Music (R13+)

  1. “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”.

    What a lovely definition of a human being. And yes music is a synergistic whole – not just the sum of it’s parts, (sorry) but much much more. Why is that? Perhaps because it has the potential to reconnect us with parts of ourselves with which we have become unfamiliar and a perhaps for those who are touched by music, the reconnection with that part is a kind of homecoming.

    Music is an unecessary thing if regarded from the perspective of practical usefulness, why do we bother – if not for the fact that it fulfils some essential vital purpose of which we might never the less remain completely unaware on a conscious level, save for emotional and visceral respones we (some of us) feel wthin us.

    It {music} seems to me to be just one of the ways a person has of expressing their unique sensory nature, whomsoever plays, or receives the music, inevitably does so through their own? And yet there remains a deep connection and communication between those differing yet similar entities.

    Who knows why someone is drawn to composing a piece of music, anymore than another might write poetry or choreograph a piece of dance. The desire or more commonly the need to do any of those things would seem to be a manifestation of a part of their particular self. And perhaps driven by a deep {conscious or other than conscious} desire to communicate with and find recognition for that part. There is no practical purpose to that, in that you can’t for instance build a house with a piece of music – it just is … isn’t it?

    An essential quality of dance or in perfomance of music is deemed to be to have a felt sense and expression of the music, in response to the music, what people are won’t to call musicality – although I realise of course that the word itself is doomed! People may not know what it is, and the word is vague enough perhaps with the express purpose of allowing an invididual response; However, vague though it is, people know it when they encounter it. And because of it ( the m word) the performers rendition of a piece reaches the audience in a specific way , the audience in turn each respond individually differently, than if the piece were performed without it.

    If the intention of the composer in his/her precision and exactitude is to control the outcome as much as possible, I wish them good luck – inevitably the response whether in the playing or in the receiving is immediately outside of their control once they have given it over to someone else.

    Would that we were all {professional} philosophers.

    Thanks again Colin. Splendid Rainy Grey Sunday reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a swift response, Pat! Aren’t you making Sunday lunch?

      This piece originally started thus but I didn’t want it advertised thus in case of any embarrassrment there might be… :-

      After Xmas, my cellist granddaughter Rosie at the Northern College had to analyse a number of rather obscure pieces of writing about music. She asked me what I thought.

      One of the pieces consisted of the first few pages of an Introduction


    2. Pat

      Human Being as a polymorphous concept – lovely idea. I’ll have to work on that but maybe you’ll get there before I do!

      Talking about visceral responses to music, here’s a poem I wrote a very long time ago. It still resonates. I get on my wife’s nerves because I contribute my own cadenzas to anything I play in the evening: Beethoven, Schnittke, Xenakis – you name it, that’s what I do. It’s a cerebral version of dancing!


      Is a great flinging away of oneself
      To the pitch and rhythm,
      A bathing in the waves of sound, an immersion,
      Me versus a symphony orchestra,
      My scoreless whistle against a hundred strings,
      Wind and percussion.

      I whistle the Bach Violin Concerto in E
      Till I get cramp In my jaw.
      I am thoroughly swamped by Vaughan Williams and Walt Whitman
      In conjunction.
      The thought of Mahler In his summer house
      Too full of all the elemental feelings of a summer evening
      To get them down in dots in time
      Renders me helpless against the equivalent on the orchestra.

      I add my own cadenza to Bartock’s 2nd Violin Concerto,
      Busting at the shirt buttons.
      I tamper with the Tenth of Shostakovitch,
      Bang it out, whistle and stamp,
      I fling myself at it.

      Easter 1965

      Bloody Hell 52 years ago & nothing changes…



      1. I can feel the cacophony in your flinging – wonderful!

        So far as 52 yrs ago goes – you may be older today than you have ever been, but you are also younger than you will ever be – enjoy the day. “Nothing” changes?

        Tempus Fugit of course but being you is after all; all you need do. x It delights the rest of us.

        As for music coming and going and only being temporary – I don’t believe it – there is music all around us all the time. Have a listen sometime. It’s also inside us emanating from our heart beat, our body is full of rhythm. The landscape and nature is full of music, Music is just not necessarily constrained to notes on a page.

        And what is “pinning it down” anyway? – I see composition as an attempt at the reverse and attempt at sharing of a part of the composers soul. I think it is intended to reach out to the emotion in the listener and to provoke an emotional response in that listener.and sometimes those responses squeak out; carrying on the conversation.

        It is not the music that comes and goes, and it can’t be pinned down. It just is.


        Liked by 1 person

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