Philosophy and Music

Music, language, the emotions, and the imagination

Humans have been making music for at least 40.000 years, and probably much longer. Since we were living in caves we’ve had something as wondrously elusive as sounds which make us move.

Where does this power of music come from?

Since the stone age little has changed in our biology. But culture has advanced enormously. With stone age brains we drive our cars, watch television, and listen to Beethoven, hiphop or Xenakis.

How has music changed through time? And what do we miss when listening to Beethoven with modern ears? And why do we listen?

There are no easy answers to those questions. But they may lead us toward fascinating insights into how humans differ from other animals, what humans and cultures have in common, how they differ, and why music is important to the quality of our lives.

1. Music and language

When we are philosophizing, thinking about whatever subject, or sharing our ideas with others, we use language. Language stands in between our thoughts and what we usually call “the world”, reality, or the totality of all things. Everything we might wish to talk about.

Language may also be an obstacle. Not only because what we say is often misunderstood, but also because language itself can fool us. Because a nonsensical sentence may look as impeccable and meaningful as a sensible sentence. Because a word may mean one thing in one sentence or situation, something else in a different context.

It may look like we know what we’re talking about — and like we’re all talking about the same thing — while this may often not be the case. Take music, the music. What music? What do we call music?

One of the most important tools of philosophy (maybe the most important) is therefore: a critical or analytical approach of language. The wonderful thing is that we can do that with language itself. Criticism of language is, to a high extent, possible with the help of language — when we speak or write about language we do so in language.

It is often said that music too is “a language”. Is that true? What is the meaning of that statement?

We don’t “talk music”. Music always exists in the form of compositions, works, creations, including improvisations. There is no such thing as conversational music.

Does it still make sense then to speak of music as “a language”? Or — and that’s a very different question — are there musical elements (elements of some music) that are similar to language?

And where do music and language come from, how did they develop? Does music have its origin in language, or is it aping language? Or do they share a common source?

2. Music and the emotions

Music is often not just called a language, but specifically the language of feeling or the language of the emotions.

But what does it mean? And is it universally valid? Does music evoke emotions? Does it express emotions? And what are emotions?

That music may evoke emotions is an insight as old at least as the myth of Orpheus, who with his music tamed wild animals and (almost) brought his beloved back from the underworld. To move and be moved is for many people the most important reason to make music and listen to music.

At the same time, it is often said that music is abstract; too abstract to elicit or express true emotions . Because emotions always relate to some specific object: we’re happy about somethingangry with somebody about something.

In his widely read Musicophilia (2007, p. 329) neurologist Oliver Sacks directly connects both concepts, emotion and abstraction:

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.

It sounds familiar. And yet there is a tension between these two concepts, abstraction and emotionality. What does it mean, that music is abstract? If music is not about anything and does not represent anything, can it express and evoke emotions?

There is no law of nature that tells us what we should call emotions. But emotions — or aspects of emotions — are a natural phenomenon. We may recognize them in other animals, and the visible signs are often the same as with us.

The effects of music sometimes are directly visible or measurable. For instance, when it produces goosebumps.

Music may literally moves us. Emotion, motion, movement: these are related, literally or metaphorically. What exactly is the connection: music – motion/movement – emotion?

And what do we mean when we say that music expresses emotions or feelings, that it strikes us as expressive?

3. Music and the imagination

One of the things the word “imagination” implies is our miraculous ability to deal with things that we do not perceive, that may not even physically exist, but may have a very real value in our experience.

When we listen to music our imagination is active. What enters our ears is sound, but what we listen to and enjoy is music. Something that cannot be described in purely physical terms, as sound. In our auditory imagination the sound is transformed into a rich variety of other things, from musical forms and structures to dramatic scenario’s.

Is it true, then, that music is representational? That is one of the most contentious issues in the philosophy of music. It cannot be resolved with one simple answer. There are many kinds of music, a broad spectrum of listening behaviours, and innumerable individual listeners.

Here again we run into the view (or prejudice?) that music is abstract. What does it mean?

Maybe that music is not, unlike language (or poetry and narrative) “about something”; or does not, unlike painting and sculpture, “represent something”.

Then there is also the abstraction of mathematics. Numbers, symbols, that do not represent anything, except the strict orderliness of their mutual relations.

Is music abstract because it makes audible a mathematical structure, a structure that is (as Pythagoras taught in the sixth century BCE) a reflection of the cosmic order?

The fact that music may be abstract does not imply that it must be abstract.

Can music be “concrete”? In what sense?

The most “concrete” music is perhaps that of the traditional animated cartoon. Patched together from motifs and effects that are derived from the rich tradition of classical music; instantly recognizable but mostly perceived subconsciously. Hackneyed maybe at first hearing, but precisely because of that an interesting (and surprisingly complex) object of study when we want to know precisely what music can do with us, and how it does it.


This is the English language version of the lecture series Filosofisch luisteren. This course or individual lectures may be organized on request.


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