Philosophy of Music


Music is a form of art concerned with the combination of vocal or instrumental sounds for beauty of form or emotional expression. It is usually organized according to cultural standards of rhythm, melody, and, in most Western music, harmony. The simple folk song and the complex electronic composition are both music; both are humanly engineered. Music has been used in all cultures, as a ritual and for entertainment as well as to express ideas and feelings.

The first recorded use of music to convey an idea or emotion was the Greek chorus. This was a part of a theatrical performance and conveyed the theme through the voices of the actors and the accompanying music. Other uses of music throughout history include religious songs, dances, and folk ceremonies as well as impromptu play at home or in the street. Music has also been an important part of celebrations and funerals. The modern concert, in which the audience pays to listen to professional musicians, is a relatively recent development.

Since the 18th century, philosophers have sought and promulgated theories of the intrinsic nature of music. The most consistent and pervasive disagreement concerns whether or not music carries meaningful meanings, either referentially or nonreferentially. Referentialists, such as the Austrian critic Eduard Hanslick and composer-philosopher Arnold Schoenberg, maintain that a work of music contains ideas or emotions not necessarily inherent in its musical structure or composition. Nonreferentialists, such as the Swiss phenomenologist Charles Hospers and composers such as Henri Bergson, argue that music communicates meaning through its association with the emotional life and through its intrinsic qualities.

Most of the philosophers who have discussed music, however, have not called themselves philosophers of music. The few who have done so, such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), have viewed music as less significant than the other arts because it lacks the discursive faculty necessary to impart concepts. Nevertheless, both argued that music conveys many of the same nuances of emotion as speech and can acquire conceptual value when allied with poetry.

More recently, psychologists and philosophers have tried to analyze the role of music in the individual’s sense of well-being. Gordon Allport and Abraham Maslow, for example, have analyzed the ways music is used to achieve various psychological and spiritual goals. For the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, music carries a message of transcendental overtones. For humanist psychologists, such as the Americans Gordon Allport and Abraham Maslow, it is one of the means toward self-fulfillment and integration.