Musical Understandings & Other Essays on the Philosophy of Music

December 1, 2011

This is a diverse and stimulating collection of essays. It must be said, however, that although there is much of interest here, and it deserves to be widely read, a good deal of it covers familiar ground. Chief among those areas is the question of whether, and if so in what way, music may express emotions. One wonders if there is much more to be said on this subject, and one may also question whether it is as important or as central to our understanding, appreciation and valuation of music as is generally supposed.

Clearly music has some connection with the emotions we feel when listening to it. Here, Stephen Davies' thesis is to deny that the attribution of emotion to music is metaphorical, and to deny the implication that therefore someone must be found whose emotion is being expressed. His positive view is that what music presents is the appearance of an emotion, without supposing that any emotion is being expressed, and that therefore no person whose emotion is expressed need be sought. Music does this in a non-metaphorical way, as the emotion-terms applied (although with an extended use) are readily given their literal meanings by consulting a normal dictionary. This last contention is an odd one, as all that is required to indicate that an expression is being applied in a metaphorical way is to put it in inverted commas, and it is at least arguable that this is indeed what we should be doing when applying emotion-terms to music.

It may be contended that, even if we can explain how music expresses emotion, this explanation fails to clarify why we value music so much. Surely music is about a lot more than either its expressing emotion or its provoking (by a form of contagion, in Davies' view) emotion. Even if a strong case may be made for emotion being expressed in music, it fails to explain why music is regarded so highly, and seen by many as the pinnacle of cultural achievement. It could be said that music expresses ineffable ideas. But there is no need for that. We value the insights into the human condition that music gives us, and the consonant or challenging worldview presented to us through the effable ideas it presents. In other words, ideas, attitudes and thoughts, and not merely emotions, are embodied in music. I realise this view is not a common one, and has various objections applied to it. Beethoven's music presents a completely different view on life than that of, say, Delius. The first embodies ideas of struggle and a religious outlook, whereas the latter values far more a sensual appreciation of the world, seen from the perspective of an atheist.

In these and other chapters, Davies holds that philosophers should take account of the findings of empirical work on our experience of music, and not simply try to understand matters through intuition. There is a chapter on musical understanding that contends, rightly, that such understanding need not be technical in order to attain the highest level. A chapter on the ontology of music argues that because composers tinker with and rearrange their works, musical composition may exist in more than one version. And a more contentious final chapter suggests that what makes for profundity in music is something akin to that in chess; an appreciation of the sheer skill of the form and content of music. Again, this may seem a strange belittling of music, and hardly seems to account for its personal and cultural importance and the way in which it gives significant insight into the human condition. This is reflected in the way we actually talk about the pieces. We say that the last movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is a "farewell to life", and that it presents a certain attitude to that event. In contrast, Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 sounds like someone shaking, without consolation, a defiant fist at the world and refusing to be beaten.

Musical Understandings & Other Essays on the Philosophy of Music

By Stephen Davies. Oxford University Press 240pp, £40.00. ISBN 9780199608775. Published 25 August 2011

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