As Rowell suggests, any work of art should provoke in one a multitude of philosophical questions and music is no exception to this observation (9). To be certain, some of the questions raised by a given piece will be more difficult to answer due to the abstract and seemingly intangible aspects of art as a thing itself, and others more readily pondered and answered. Of the more difficult questions to answer are those which reflect on the nature of a piece of art itself. E.g., questions related to the substance of the thing itself, the nature and confines of its existence, the temporality of the piece, its ontological status, etc. (Rowell 9-13).1
There do seem to be questions on the nature of the thing itself which seem more readily answered, especially for the non-specialist, i.e. for casual the listener. Two of such questions are: What are the qualities of the piece and does the given piece have structure (Rowell 9-13)? Granted, notions of the quality and structure of any given piece of art will vary with one’s knowledge of the subjects. However, it does seem to be the case that even the casual observer or listener could express at least some insight into the quality and structure of a piece.
According to Rowell, referring to a piece’s qualities, there are parts of a work that can be quantified with precision by the musically inclined but when referring to the particular qualities of a piece, one tends to draw upon the more subjective experience of the piece. Art is dynamic and as such the experience of the same piece by multitudes can elicit a host of responses, especially when one brings to the fore the question of emotional content (12).
To follow are but some of the qualities of Mozart’s “Minuet for String Quintet in D Major” that might be described by one, at least one lacking the technical expertise of a trained musician or musical scholar. First, one could suggest the quality of the piece of being harmonious. Each of the five stringed instruments seems to work synergistically with the other so as to weave a richer musical tapestry, in contrast to the chromatic nature of Mozart’s “Minuet No. 6 for Piano.”
Second, the piece presents the quality of completeness, moving the listener from beginning to end over the course of the composition. There is also the quality of motion. The piece moves from a true beginning to an ending, yet there is momentum (musical and emotional) throughout with highs and lows that lift one up and then again return them to the point of origin. This sense of both completion and motion isn’t as obvious in the shorter “Minuet No. 6 for Piano.”
Structure is an obvious component of the piece in question as well (to both trained and untrained ear alike). As the minuet is a dance of the classical period, the composition moves forward in a fashion suitable of the dance style of the European aristocracy of its day. There is a distinct coherency to the piece whether or not one understands the appropriate musical notions (e.g., triple meter as 3 beats to a measure, a measure being the smallest unit of a composition, or other, more complex, musical notions) as there are patterns that are clearly recognizable whether or not one has the technical savvy to label them correctly. There is a patternized motion to the piece: a slow start, a rise in tempo, a high point, and then the listener is brought back down gently as the piece is drawn to a close. 2
Two questions of value that one might ask concerning the piece, as with any other composition, are: Is this piece a work of art? And, is the piece good? To address the first question, it needs to be stated that just what makes a piece of art “art” is itself a deeply contested philosophical question. Though Rowell discusses at great length the distinctions and commonalities of the so-called arts, there is little by way of definitive definition (20-36). For the intents and purposes of the current inquiry, it will suffice to define art simply as an expression of self (or society) via one of the following media: music, literature, poetry, theatre, painting, sculpture, etc. (not an all inclusive list to be sure).
The answer to the first question must be “yes.” This minuet is a work of art in as much as it is an artistic musical expression on the part of Mozart. This can’t be denied. As to whether or not the piece is “good,” this is a different question entirely and, as with the above discussion of the qualities of the piece, involves a subjective element and doesn’t seem to submit itself to objectification. One might think the piece good and another disagree. Important to note here the unlikelihood of any two individuals sharing a common conception of just what is good.
The listener can also ask the two following questions more clearly pertinent to the experiencer. How are my own emotions involved with the piece? And, does this piece matter? Both answers will be relative to the individual having the experience of the piece and likely no two will answer these questions in the same manner. Each answer will be unique as well as valid with respect to emotion elicited and meaning derived from the piece.
Just whether or not a piece matters will depend, in large part, on the meaning of the piece (intended, derived, or a combination of the two). There are different types of meaning (e.g., cognitive meaning, emotional meaning, prescriptive meaning, descriptive meaning, etc.), but for the intents and purposes of this discussion, the concern is with the baser notion of meaning (though the above are all clearly related and relevant to the topic at hand), that of meaning as comprehension of a conventional construction (Audi, et al. 545-550). The conventional construction here being that of music.
Minsky argues that a thing only has meaning when its cognitive representations are limited to but a few variances on the representation of the thing in question (2-3). This makes sense when one considers the construction of the human brain and the shared cognitive functions of all human beings. Representations need be limited (ensures a certain modicum of cognitive efficiency) and meaning can only be deduced when one has represented the thing in question correctly, i.e., just when the representations of a thing are veridical, then there is an objectified meaning.
Minsky, however great his exposition of the representation of musical language from the perspective of cognitive science, does not deal directly with notions of individual or subjective meaning. Clearly art is subject to subjectification and, as such, the notion of limited representations turns out to not be as relevant as in the above discussion as, quite simply, individuals will experience a given work of art on their own terms.
Context, of all the areas of question proposed by Rowell, seems the least important, at least as related to aesthetic experience and appreciation of a given piece. Mozart’s state of mind at the time of composition, his purpose for the piece, the instrument on which the work was composed, etc., play little relevance to one’s appreciation and first-person personal experience of a piece, unlike the questions posed above, which are all interrelated and don’t suppose a historical context. Context seems only important in matters of history.3
Rowell reminds that music is a phenomenon that occurs both in space and time as an aspect of experience, focusing his attention upon time (28-31). In the discussion of time, Rowell is not referring to the metrical patterns of music but rather to the concept of temporality itself. One of the questions posed is whether or not time is atomistic or continuous. Humans do tend to segment their experience and think, oftentimes, of time in an atomistic sense (Audi et al. 920-923). However, modern physics encourages one to think in terms of a space-time fabric, with time and space woven together into one contiguous and continuous tapestry (Hawking 15-35).
If this is the case, then one is inclined to view any given composition in terms of itself being a unified, coherent fabric with each note stitched together from beginning to end to form the work. Such a view also preempts notions of individual notes existing in their own space and time (segmentation) and solves, prima facie at least, the problem of motion—there is motion, not just the perception of motion (in terms of continuum, e.g., the space-time continuum).
What about the “now” of music (Rowell 30)? Philosophically, the notion of now is always escaping one as the now is always in motion and as soon as one attempts to apprehend it, it dissolves into the past. Such discussion of the now in music, namely Western music, follows suit with Western tradition and neatly divides time into past, present, and future. Eastern tradition knows no such distinction, particularly in Buddhist thought, as all that is believed to exist is the “eternal now” with respect to time.
Neither the past nor future obtain ontological status, i.e., neither exist (the past is memory and the future speculation). One is wrong, as above with respect to the physical theory of time, to divide time into segments as this is an artificial imposition at best. Rather, time, and one’s perception of time, should be viewed in terms of continuum. All anyone is ever cognizant of at any given moment is the now and as such, the now of music is any particular moment of apprehension and musical experience.
Wilfrid Mellers argues that for one to be aware of time (past, present, and future) is for one to be equally aware of passion and pain as both passion and pain are, more clearly than anything else, associated with beginnings and endings in human experience. The intermittent areas between beginnings and endings are so colored as well (Spence and Swayne 14-15). Such an understanding of time, one that more richly impacts humanity’s experience, is more descriptive of that experience than simple accounts of chronology.
Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006.
Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1998.
Minsky, Marvin. “Music, Mind, and Meaning.” Computer Music Journal. Vol. 5, Number 3
Rowell, Lewis. Thinking About Music. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983.
Spence, Keith and Swayne, Giles. How Music Works. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.,
Zaslaw, Neal, ed. The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1990.
1 Rowell proffers other questions of importance relating to the nature of a thing itself. E.g., what are the foundational principles upon which emerges the thing in question? Can it be reduced into components or is it a unified whole? Is it complete? Is it real? Etc.
2 For a more detailed account of the structure of the String Quintet in D Major (K. 593), see Zaslow et al. 256.
3 For a discussion of the historical context of the piece see Zaslow et al. 256. Minsky, however, might argue that historical context is essential to limit cognitive representations and, as such, impacts meaning. For Minsky, it seems that meaning would be a synthesis of intended and derived meaning as both would be required in order for objectified meaning to obtain over a less substantial, subjectified meaning, whatever this might mean.
A systems analyst by profession and a curious polymath by birth, I research and write on a variety of topics.