A number of attempts have been made to construct a
plausible ontology of rock music. Each
of these ontologies identifies a single type of ontological entity as the
“work” in rock music. Yet, all the
suggestions advanced to date fail to capture some important considerations
about how we engage with music of this tradition. This prompted Lee Brown to advocate a healthy skepticism
of higher-order musical ontologies. I
argue here that we should instead embrace a pluralist ontology of rock, an
ontology that recognizes more than one kind of entity as “the work” in rock
music. I contend that this approach has
a number of advantages over other ontologies of rock, including that of allowing
us to make some comparisons across ontological kinds.
Lee Brown, Stephen Davies, Theodore Gracyk, Andrew Kania ontology, performance, rock music, song, track, work
Painters create paintings, sculptors create
sculptures, and photographers create photographic prints. What, then, are the art works of rock
The Beatles created songs, tracks,
concerts, and albums, but which of these should we consider to be their “works”?
argues that a work of rock music is a song-for-studio-performance, while
and Andrew Kania
both identify the recorded track as the work. Each of these positions is found wanting,
however, as none of them successfully accounts for the way in which we engage
with music in the rock tradition.
This difficulty in
identifying the work of music is specific to the rock genre and stems from the
unique importance placed upon the recorded track in the rock tradition. This is especially evident when it is compared
with the contrasting genres of classical music and jazz. In classical music, the work of the classical
musician (the composer) that forms the central focus of critical attention
tends to be the composition
(more on this in section 1).
Conversely, the work
of the jazz musician which forms the central focus of critical attention tends
to be the performance. While classical and jazz music may both be
recorded, the role of this activity is far less important than the activities
of composition and performance in each of these respective genres. Classical and jazz recordings are not usually intended
to be works in their own right but are a way in which performances of music
from these traditions can be more easily disseminated. This contrasts strongly with the rock
tradition, where a track is often intended to be a work in and of itself and commonly contains features not found in the
song or performance (more on this in section 3).
Lee Brown denies the plausibility of an ontology of
rock and advocates for a healthy skepticism of ontologies devoted to specific
forms of music (what he calls “higher-order music ontologies”). I think it is too soon to reach this
conclusion. Because current ontologies
of rock focus on one kind of entity as “the work” and not on all the entities
that rock music produces, it does not thereby mean that we ought to abandon
higher-order ontologies altogether. My
solution is to embrace a pluralist
ontology of rock, an ontology that recognizes more than one kind of activity or
entity as a work of rock music.
Why should we be
concerned with establishing what the musical works are in the rock tradition? The motivation behind this inquiry is
two-fold: first, we judge artists by the works they create; thus to judge rock
musicians, we need to identify what their works are. Do we, for example, judge rock musicians by assessing
the songs they write, the tracks they record, the performances they give, or
something else entirely?
The question is far
from trivial. While some rock musicians
may engage in and excel at all of these activities, many others have their specializations.
Who is the better rock musician, the
artist who creates exquisite tracks yet delivers atrocious live performances,
or the artist whose recordings are mediocre but whose live shows are like no
other? A question like this cannot be
answered until we establish which, if any, of these entities is considered a work in rock music. Second, once we have established what
we should assess, we need to establish how we should assess it. Kania has suggested that one of the reasons
that rock music “is held in lower esteem by some” may be because its art works
“have been misunderstood to be of the same kind as classical musical
Are rock works possibly entirely
different from musical works of other genres? In that case our traditional methods of
aesthetic assessment (i.e., those that we bring to bear on works of classical
music or jazz) may be wholly inadequate.
2. The ontology of music generally
I begin this discussion with a consideration of the ontology of music
generally. Kania notes that in classical
music the production of the sound event for an audience is the result of two
“quite distinct groups of actions.” The first is the composer creating the musical work by writing
a score, and is followed by the performing artist/s performing the work. This claim runs counter to Platonic realism,
according to which musical works are universals.
On the Platonic view, a work such as the
1812 Overture has always existed, and
thus was not created but merely discovered by Tchaikovsky. Kania’s claim instead seems to echo a nominalist
position, such as that put forward by Nelson Goodman.
On this view, “the distinguishing
feature of a work lies not in there being some abstract entity existing apart from its performances and
score-copies, but in there being for each work a special kind of score.”
This approach holds that a classical
composer creates the musical work by
writing the score. For Goodman, “the
constitutive properties demanded of a performance of [the musical work] are
those prescribed in the score,”
and whether or not a performance is a performance of a particular musical work
will depend upon whether it “has or has not all the constitutive properties of
This traditional ontology of music fails to describe rock music for two
reasons: first, many rock songs have no
score. They are fluid creations born of
improvisation and collaboration and are rarely transcribed in any detail. If this is the case, how are we to establish
when a performance is a performance of a particular work of rock music? Where are we to find the constitutive
properties of the work? Second, even
where a score is created, it is not
necessary for a performance of a musical work of rock to have all (or even
many) of the constitutive properties outlined in that score. Rage Against the Machine's cover of Bruce
Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" utilizes a completely different
melody from the original. Likewise,
Hilary Duff’s cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” features entirely new
lyrics and even a new title, “Reach Out.” Despite these differences, in both cases fans
clearly identify the artists as performing the same rock songs.
strong disagreement with the “unintuitively stringent” requirements of
Goodman’s wider view.
Jonathan Neufeld shares this concern,
noting that Goodman’s account of performance is “conceptually consistent but overly rigid.”
For Neufeld, it is not clear “that
judgments concerning the identity of the performance…do not bleed straight away
into aesthetic judgments”—that is, that “the supposedly non-aesthetic,
non-normative commitment to certain identity criteria of performance…is in
It is this observation which leads
Neufeld to argue that “ontological constraints on musical performance should be
embraced, if at all, as normative claims from within the musical public sphere
rather than as metaphysical constraints imposed from without.”
In this way, claims about musical
ontology—about what counts as a musical “work”—should be treated as claims that
are critical, not metaphysical.
Neufeld, then, wants to defend the possibility of
allowing “the diverse members of music practice” to determine musical ontology.
It is this very sentiment that underpins
my current inquiry. The reason that the
traditional ontology of music fails to describe rock music is that it does not fit
with the way that members of the practice (that is, rock musicians, rock
critics, and rock fans) ordinarily engage with works from that tradition. In what follows, I will survey and assess
several competing ontologies of rock (including my own) against this standard.
3. Competing ontologies of rock
Gracyk holds that in rock “the musical work is less
typically a song than an arrangement of
In this view, works of rock music are
not ontologically “thin” songs to be instantiated in different performances but
rather ontologically “thick” structures recorded as audio tracks and properly
instanced through the playback of that recording.
Gracyk’s ontology of rock can be
presented diagrammatically as follows:
Songs are “thin” in that they carry all of the
necessary elements for the literal instantiation of a particular musical work
(such as who plays what, when, in what key, and at what tempo). Tracks, on the other hand, are maximally
“thick” in that they contain many more nuances than a score could ever provide.
While a correct instantiation of
Beethoven’s “Für Elise” would require
adhering to the constitutive properties outlined in the score (as in the nominalist
view of Goodman), a correct instantiation of the Rolling Stones’ track “Gimme
Shelter” would require an exact replication of all elements of the original
recording—right down to Merry Clayton’s voice breaking at
three-minutes-four-seconds into the song.
In the track-centered view, rock music “is essentially
dependent on recording technology for its inception and dissemination.” Davies disagrees with this interpretation,
noting that “more groups play rock music than ever are recorded.” According to the track-centered ontology, such
bands have not created any works of rock music. Let us call this the “no-works problem.” A parallel problem concerns the status of rock
songs that have not yet been recorded as tracks. In the 2011 documentary Back and Forth, Dave Grohl, lead singer of the Foo Fighters, describes
how the song “Enough Space” was written and introduced into the band’s repertoire
mid-tour to cater to the European mosh pits. The song became the Foo Fighter’s concert
opener and was performed live for many months before being recorded. Much energy and experimentation were spent on
the song’s conception, and it subsequently became a focus of critical attention
by fans and commentators alike. Despite
this, a track-centered ontology would hold that until the song was recorded it
failed to qualify as a work of rock music by the Foo Fighters. This seems wrong.
Davies attempts to provide an ontology of rock that
better addresses these issues. He argues
that, as in the case of classical music, works of rock music are songs created
for performance. There is a
distinction however. While classical works are created for live performance, rock works are created for studio
performance. Davies’s ontology of rock can be represented
In Davies’s ontology, unrecorded songs like “Enough
Space” will be considered works so long as they are created with the intention
of eventually being performed in the
recording studio. (This intention is
implicit in the “for” of “for-studio-performance.”) This ontology, too, still suffers from the “no-works
problem.” Davies merely replaces
Gracyk’s reliance on recording
with a reliance on the intention to perform a song in the
studio at some point. In
highlighting this problem, Kania notes that works-for-studio-performance seem
to necessarily require a sound-engineer. But, he continues:
[a]lthough many garage and pub bands may hope to be
recorded one day, it is not clear that they write their songs with a part for a
sound engineer even implicitly in mind....[T]hese bands seem to think they are
providing audiences with fully authentic performances of their songs, not
with performances missing a part. 
Indeed, many bands write rock songs without any intention of one day
performing them in a studio. In the
works-for-studio-performance ontology, however, these songs would not be considered
works of rock music.
Kania’s own ontology of rock attempts to join Gracyk’s idea “that the
primary work in rock music is the ontologically thick recording”
with Davies’s notion that “rock is importantly a performance art.” Kania argues that “rock musicians primarily
construct tracks. These are ontologically thick works... and are
at the center of rock as an art form.”
According to Kania, these tracks
manifest songs without being performances of them.
Kania’s ontology holds that a song is an
ontologically thin structure of “melody, harmony and lyrics,” and
despite the central importance of tracks, such songs may also be manifested in
live performances. Put simply, songs are
a sort of basic framework that may be instantiated later as either an audio
track or a live performance. It is only
tracks however, not performances, that are legitimate musical works. Kania’s more complicated ontology of rock can
be represented as follows:
As Kania notes, the term “manifestation” is used in
order to provide an intermediate between something authentically instantiating
a work (or nonwork object, such as a rock song) and bearing no relation to that
work. A manifestation “represents the
work [or nonwork object], displaying many of its properties, without
necessarily being an instance of it,”
something which both the recorded track and the live performance do. Note that Kania’s privileging of tracks as
the musical “work ” of rock does not necessarily entail that songs and
performances receive no critical
attention. Instead, the track-centered
ontology is best understood as implying that while songs and performances may receive
some critical attention, they are not
the primary focus of critical attention
in the rock tradition.
Unfortunately, the revised track-centered ontology
falls prey to the very same criticisms as Gracyk’s original track-centered
ontology. The “no-works problem” rears
its head again, as do the concerns about the status of rock songs that have not
been codified as tracks.
4. Brown’s skepticism and a pluralist ontology
The challenge of identifying the work in specific
musical traditions has led to Lee Brown’s skepticism about higher-order musical
He observes that the ontologies of rock
outlined above all attempt to provide an answer to the question, “Is the work of
rock music a track? Or, is it a song?”
Brown seems sympathetic to Gracyk’s and
Kania’s views that the track is the primary focus of critical attention when discussing rock
but he notes that “we can and do bring as much critical discourse to bear on
rock songs as on rock tracks.”
For this reason he argues that “it is
unconvincing to privilege tracks ontologically over songs. But it would be equally unconvincing to
privilege rock songs over rock tracks….”
The central problem is that regarding neither the song
nor the track as the work in rock
music provides a full and satisfactory explanation for the way in which we engage
with music in the rock tradition. As
Brown points out, once “we begin to choose one position over others, we have
already taken the bait.”
He believes that answering the question,
“What is the work in rock music?” already presupposes “that there exists an
entrenched concept of the work of
rock music.” Brown argues that the most plausible position
is therefore to deny the existence of any such concept as the work.
I believe that such skepticism about the
existence of a single work in rock music should not lead to a more general skepticism
about works of rock music. Instead, I
contend, it should give us reason to embrace an ontology of rock that allows
for a plurality of ontologically
diverse works. Why doesn’t Brown’s line
of reasoning lead him to consider such a pluralism? The most likely explanation is that it is
precluded by the second basis of his skepticism—namely, that the very concept
of a “work” of rock music is an “artefact of philosophy.” He argues that works of rock music “play no
role in musical discourse” and can only be known as “inventions of the
philosophers who conjure with them.”
But this does not seem quite right. “Works” are simply those things that the
artist creates and upon which we focus some amount of critical attention. (Just how much critical attention will be
discussed later.) To talk of works of
rock music is merely to talk of those things in the rock tradition that meet
The possibility of a pluralist ontology of rock seems
to be a position with which Kania tacitly agrees. He states that if our critical attention was split amongst several kinds of
ontologically varied objects in a musical tradition, “then the correct
conclusion to draw would...be that there are two primary foci of critical attention in the given tradition.”
I take this proposal further. A correct ontology of rock will include three
primary foci of attention: rock songs,
rock tracks, and rock performances. Consider
how rock works are created. The initial
work created by a rock musician is the ontologically thin song. This song includes a number of basic features,
the presence of some number of which will be sufficient to provide the bases
for a manifestation of that song. A lack
of a sufficient number of these features will not indicate a bad manifestation of a song but rather a
failure to manifest that song at all.
A rock song can be manifested as either a track or a
performance, and can be manifested in the same way any number of times (so
there can be many different tracks and many different performances of the same
song). Both tracks and performances are
also works of rock music. The song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” is a work
of rock music and so too are the tracks
of the same name by Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine, as well as
any live performances of that same song. This ontology can be represented as follows:
Whereas Gracyk, Davies, and Kania all select one kind
of thing as the work, I contend that an ontology that embraces songs as works and tracks as works and performances as works best reflects the way we engage with rock
music. Pluralist ontologies are a common
feature of newer art forms. Consider,
for example, works of computer art. Dominic Lopes defends an ontologically
pluralist account of computer art in which works of computer art create
displays that can then be considered works in their own right.
The argument for the track as a work of rock music is well established. This is the thesis underpinning both Gracyk’s
and Kania’s positions, and has been touted by Franklin Bruno as the “emerging
consensus about the ontology of rock.”
What is more controversial is the
assertion that songs and performances should also be afforded the status of
works. Of these two types of entities,
songs in particular receive short shrift. Davies states that “very thin works, such as
songs…are usually not of much interest in themselves…[and that] as pieces
become thicker, they become more worthy of interest.”
Kania concurs, holding that rock songs
are not “the, or even a, primary focus of critical attention in rock” and that
for this reason they are not musical works.
This move from a
lack-of-critical-attention to a lack-of-work-status is based in Kania’s own
definition of a work of art, according to which “a work of art is an art object
that (1) is of a kind that is a primary
focus of critical attention in a given art form or tradition, and (2) is a
5. Songs as works
Is it really the case that rock songs fail to be a
primary focus of critical attention? Brown,
as noted above, believes that songs clearly receive at least some critical attention. He argues that in the rock tradition:
…we can critically compare tracks considered as tracks—Rolling
Stones tracks with those of the Beatles, say. But we
can also compare songs—by
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, say—with those of Mick Jagger and Keith
Furthermore, we can coherently discuss and evaluate
rock songs without relying on features of their best-known manifestations.
I can coherently discuss and evaluate
the song “Hallelujah” without referring to the tracks recorded by either Leonard
Cohen or Jeff Buckley, or to any particular live performance. I might refer to the song’s skillful chord
progression or to the surprising lyrics of the second verse.
Bruno agrees that songs are of central importance to
the rock tradition. He observes “the
relevance of songs and songwriting to the making, appreciation,
and evaluation of rock music”
and notes that a number of rock musicians “are frequently credited with
excellence or merit as songwriters by
listeners and practitioners.” He argues that the existence of such judgments
“indicates that songs are, on some occasions, a focus of attention for those
who appreciate and evaluate rock music.”
Bruno further supports the argument for
the importance of rocks songs by pointing to the way in which “evaluations of
rock music often appeal to the relationship between a song and its realization
in a particular rendition.”
We might, for example, make the claim
that a particular track is “over-produced,” or “under-produced.” As Bruno notes, “there is nothing incoherent
about preferring, on balance, an indifferently produced recording of what one
judges to be a good song to a well-produced recording of a bad or pedestrian
Such a view would, however, be
incoherent if it were only recorded tracks that were worthy of critical attention.
Like Brown, Bruno is convinced that “songs are
legitimate objects of artistic interest and attention within rock practice.”
In discussing the allegedly
“uninteresting” nature of rock songs, Bruno considers that:
it is unclear why a philosopher’s judgment about these
matters should override paradigmatic evidence that audiences and musicians
treat songs as objects of critical and evaluative interest, especially in the
context of an avowedly descriptive metaphysical project.
As the track-centered ontologist alleges, the rock
track may be the primary focus of critical attention and thus deserving of
work-status, but shouldn’t the substantial attention that songs also receive
qualify them, too, as worthy of work-status? The primary focus of critical attention for an
architect may be the building she designs, but we also treat her conceptual
designs and sketches as works in their own right. I contend that the same criteria should apply
in the rock tradition. Brown appears
sympathetic to this position:
Suppose it could be shown that rock tracks get roughly
seventy per cent of the critical attention devoted to rock music, with only
thirty per cent devoted to songs. Not
even this unbalanced mix would warrant the strange conclusion that the rock
work is a track, not a song.
Both rock songs and tracks receive critical attention,
and both should be considered works of rock music on their own merits. As a result a pluralist ontology of rock is both
logical and inevitable.
6. Performances as works
What about live performances? I earlier expressed my belief that they are
works of rock music, as well. I
structure my argument to accept live performances in much the same way as my earlier
argument for songs, namely by examining the manner in which audiences and
musicians treat performances. As with
songs, we give much critical attention to live performances, distinguishing, for
example, between “beautiful renditions” and “lackluster recitals.” Comparisons are also commonly made between
live performances. If the argument for
pluralism succeeds and work status is given to any musical rock entity that is
a focus of critical attention, I believe that live performances are equally deserving
of such status as songs.
That rock performances receive critical attention is
not the issue here; the real hurdle for live performances being afforded work
status is that if they are not recorded, they are not enduring entities, a quality that Kania’s definition of a work
requires. A valid pluralism of rock
music, however, does not depend on live performances being afforded the status
of works. For the present we will simply
have a limited pluralism in which only rock tracks and rock songs will be
identified as works of rock music.
A pluralist ontology of rock has a number of
advantages over other ontologies of rock. First, a pluralist ontology uniquely recognizes
that our critical attention is focused on rock songs and rock tracks and rock
performances, as opposed to only one of these. This approach avoids the major pitfall of
track-centered ontologies, which require that a band must record a song before it
has created a work of rock music. A
pluralist ontology acknowledges that a rock band has created a work upon
completing the writing of a song.
The band then creates additional works of rock music when it performs
this song live. This ontological change
addresses a similar problem with Davies’s works-for-studio-performance ontology
that a band need not intend to record
songs to create works of rock music.
7. Comparisons among different works of rock music
As with any other art form, we compare works of rock
music of the same ontological kind. We
compare songs with songs, tracks with tracks, and performances with
performances. The pluralist ontology may
also allow us to evaluate works of rock music of different ontological kinds, for example tracks with performances, so
long as those works instance the same song. Such comparisons are common in our everyday
dealings with rock music. I might praise
Pearl Jam’s track “Jeremy,” but in my criticism write that “the live
performance from their concert last week was so much better.”
Kania is resistant to such a possibility, arguing that there is an important
metaphysical difference between tracks and performances that should prevent us
from making comparisons between the two.
This difference arises from the fact
that with studio recordings, one can “always in principle go back and change
something until one is happy with the result,”
something that cannot be done when performing live. In addition, while bands often employ similar instrumentation in live performances,
they don’t usually attempt to create a “sonic doppelgänger” of the
original recording. Instead, bands make
use of techniques such as “extended introduction[s]... alternative lyrics...
interpolated verses; improvisatory instrumental breaks; and...extended coda[s]”
to provide different instantiations of the same song.
Kania appears to be claiming that unless two works are
of a metaphysically identical type, they cannot be fairly compared. This seems an overly strict requirement for
the practice of comparison.
While there are important ontological
and metaphysical differences between recorded tracks and live performances,
this should not preclude us from making at least some comparisons across those
ontological divides. Henry Pratt, for
one, argues that “we can in principle compare artworks that derive their value
from different sets of properties.”
This should come as no surprise. We often compare all sorts of ontologically
different kinds of works. We prefer a
Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Hamlet
to Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of the same play, or the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice to the 2005 film of
the same name. Such
cross-ontological-kind comparisons are possible because the different works
share a causal ancestry: They are
performances or interpretations of the same text. Tracks and performances which are instantiations
of the same song are no different. In
the case of rock music, our ability to compare tracks and performances also
stems from the works’ shared causal ancestry: Different instantiations of the same song all
possess a sufficient number of features in common.
8. Some potential objections to a pluralist
ontology of rock
One important objection to ontological pluralism about
rock music goes as follows: When using the expression “the musical work
‘Eleanor Rigby,’ ” we are understood to be referring to a single, unique entity
(that is, the musical work “Eleanor Rigby”). However, if ontological pluralism is adopted,
there is no single entity that is the musical work “Eleanor Rigby.” Instead, there are many different entities,
each of which is a musical work
appropriately referred to as “Eleanor Rigby.” Thus the sentence “the musical work ‘Eleanor
Rigby’ was created by The Beatles” is not true.
If the expression “the musical work ‘Eleanor Rigby’” can
only apply to a single work, it is not the fault of ontological pluralism, but
rather because the phrase itself is ambiguous.
When I say that my mother enjoys Pride and Prejudice, I could be
referring to the novel, the film, or the televised miniseries. Ontological pluralism allows for a
multiplicity of works to use this name; therefore, when we use the expression
“the musical work ‘Eleanor Rigby,’” we should not be understood to be referring to a single, unique entity.
A further objection is that if ontological pluralism
is accepted, both tracks and live performances will be recognized as musical
works, and instance other musical works (namely, songs). Therefore each time we listen to a track or
live performance, we actually listen to two
musical works—the track or performance and the song that it manifests. Davies considers the possibility that “a rock
recording presents more than one work of art: an electronic piece that is replete with
constitutive properties and…a realization of a much thinner song.”
Nonetheless, he rejects this on the possibility
that “very thin works, such as songs…are usually not of much interest in
themselves.” My intention has been to successfully disprove
this allegation of the “uninterestingness” of rock songs. I have argued above that we, at least
sometimes, find rock songs interesting and bring critical attention to bear on
them. There seems to be implicit support
from Davies that if songs are
interesting, there is nothing very problematic about rock tracks and live
performances simultaneously presenting us with an experience of two different
musical works. Bruno agrees, stating
Some rock recordings, including many too canonical to
dismiss, afford listeners access to two
objects of potential artistic interest: that is, two works. One is the recording itself (or, perhaps, the
sound-event-type instanced on playback). The other is the song of which it is a
rendition. Listeners make and articulate
appreciative, critical, and evaluative judgments about works of both kinds.
Given ontological pluralism, it is possible to experience
more than one work simultaneously; this occurs in many art forms. When I watch a film adaptation of Macbeth I also experience two works, the
director’s film and the bard’s original play, and there does not appear to be
anything particularly controversial about such a claim.
If a compelling case has been put forward for a
pluralist ontology of rock, an ontology of rock that allows for more than one
kind of entity to be a work of rock music, one objection remains. I have here argued here for three kinds of entities as musical works of rock on the basis that each receives
critical attention in the rock tradition. But what stops us at these three? If the criterion for something being a work of
rock music is that it receives critical attention, then surely there are other
entities that might qualify as works of rock.
A pluralist ontology is supposed to provide a third
alternative to having either a single
work of rock music (as Gracyk’s, Davies’s, and Kania’s ontologies do) or no work of rock music (as Brown’s
ontology does). Any ontology must
provide an acceptable explanation for which entities or things we consider as
works of rock music. This is not
complicated to decide if we accept that there is only one kind of thing that is
the work in rock music and that it is that entity which is the primary focus of
critical attention. We simply pick that
thing upon which we focus our critical attention. A pluralist ontology is more challenging and,
if we are not discerning about the lines we draw, we may find ourselves
descending a slippery slope towards “megapluralism.”
There are two ways in which this descent might occur. First, one could begin to treat components of
works as works in themselves. We might,
for example, consider a particular verse
of a song to be a work of rock music. We
might then go further, insisting that a particular line should receive this same status, and so on towards a reductio. The simplest way to avoid this is to restrict
ourselves to being pluralist about works
of different kinds, but not pluralist about different parts of the same work. We cannot, simply put, divide an already
identified work into additional separate works.
The status of rock albums provides an example for this
division dilemma. Rock fans often bring
critical attention to bear on both albums (e.g., Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and the songs on them (e.g.,
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). Applying the pluralism I have presented, it is
sufficient for albums to be afforded work status. The division restriction, however, would preclude us from counting tracks as
works, because tracks are a division of albums.
The pluralist might respond to this problem by
claiming that when evaluating albums, rock fans are not bringing critical
attention to bear on the album as a work
in itself but rather as a collection
of other works. Consider an analogy
with paintings. I may say that “the
Monet exhibition at the museum is truly inspiring,” but this does not mean that
I am bringing critical attention to bear on the exhibition as a work in itself.
Instead, my utterance is shorthand for a
bundle of judgments I have made about each of the works of Monet contained
within the exhibition and, most important, the relations between these works
(e.g., their thematic similarities, their arrangement within the gallery space
etc.). So, too, is it with rock
albums. The claim that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is
a phenomenal album” should be taken as shorthand for a bundle of judgments I
have made about each of the tracks contained within the album and the relations between them as they are
arranged on the album. In this way, we
can account for the critical attention we bring to bear on an album without
having to posit it as an ontological entity over-and-above the songs that
Even if we can appropriately apply the division
limitation, the descent to megapluralism might result from deciding what kinds of things can properly count as a
work of rock music. Consider other things the rock musician might create. Clearly, we cannot label everything a rock
musician creates a “work of rock music.” We
might say that a work will be a work of rock
music where it has a specific causal relationship with our appreciation of
a work that is musical in nature
(i.e. something like the song, track, or performance).
Ontologies of rock that select only one kind of thing
as the musical work generally fail to reflect the way in which we ordinarily
deal with rock music. The solution to
this problem is not to be skeptical about higher-order ontologies but rather to
adopt a pluralist ontology of rock that recognizes the importance of rock
songs, rock tracks, and rock performances. I have defended this pluralist position,
arguing that these three kinds of things are equally deserving of work-status,
given the substantial critical attention each receives in the rock tradition. I have also outlined several advantages of
this approach, including its ability to allow for cross-ontological comparisons
between recorded tracks and live performances of the same song. In adopting a pluralist position, we embrace a
unique ontology that is distinct from ontologies of other musical traditions
and that more accurately reflects the way in which we engage with rock music.
Dan Burkett is a PhD student at Rice University. His areas of interest include social and
political philosophy, the philosophy of time travel, and the philosophy of rock
music. He has contributed chapters to
several books on popular culture and philosophy including Open Court
Publishing’s Futurama and Philosophy
and Homeland and Philosophy, and
Blackwell’s The Ultimate Star Wars and
Published June 2, 2015.
For the purposes of this paper, I adopt Theodore Gracyk’s
definition of rock music as “popular music of the second half of the twentieth century
which is essentially dependent on recording technology for
its inception and dissemination.”
Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and
Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1996),
Stephen Davies, Musical
Works and Performances: A Philosophical
Exploration (Oxford: Clarendon
 Andrew Kania, “Making Tracks: The
Ontology of Rock Music,”
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, 64,4 (Fall,
 Contemporary composers may have some involvement in
the creation of a live performance of their work, but this will be in a
different capacity as a conductor or performer.
Kania (2006), p. 401.
Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of
Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music
(Oxford: Oxford University Press,
See Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company,
Goehr, p. 21 [original emphasis].
Goodman, p. 117 [original emphasis].
Thanks to Lisa Seddon for providing me with this particular example.
Kania (2006), p. 410.
Jonathan A. Neufeld, “Musical Ontology: Critical, not Metaphysical”, Contemporary Aesthetics Volume 12
(2014), section 3 [emphasis added].
Ibid. [emphasis added].
Gracyk, p. 1 [emphasis added]. To be clear, Gracyk acknowledges both the rock song and the rock track as works of rock music, but concentrates his argument on a consideration of which of
these is the primary focus of
 Ibid., pp.
terms are first used by Stephen Davies in “The Ontology of Musical Works and
the Authenticity of their Performances,”
Noûs, 25,1 (March, 1991), 21-41.
One potential counter-example to this claim might be a film score, which
clearly is not created for live performance. However, while classical scores and film
scores share many features (most noticeably, their tendency to use orchestral
music), this does not necessarily entail that the latter is subsumed by the
former. The argument could be made that
there are sufficient differences between the ways in which classical scores and
films scores are composed and performed to justify classifying the latter as a
different genre altogether.
Kania (2006), p. 402 [emphasis added].
Kania is extending Gracyk, who initially proposed that both tracks and performances are manifestations of songs (see
Gracyk (1996), p. 18).
Kania (2006), p. 405.
That is, ontologies of specific music traditions, such as rock and jazz.
Lee B. Brown, “Do Higher-Order Music Ontologies Rest on a Mistake?” British Journal of Aesthetics, 51,2
(April 2011), 174.
Andrew Kania, “In Defence of Higher-Order Musical Ontology: A
Reply to Lee B. Brown,” British
Journal of Aesthetics, 52,1 (January, 2012), 100.
Dominic McIver Lopes, A Philosophy of
Computer Art (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010).
Franklin Bruno, “A Case for Song: Against
an (Exclusively) Recording-Centered Ontology of Rock,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71,1 (Winter, 2013), 65.
Kania (2006), p. 404.
Ibid., p. 413 [emphasis added].
Brown, p. 173 [emphasis added].
Bruno, p. 65 [emphasis added].
Ibid., p. 67 [emphasis added].
The “completed” part is important here as, prior to completion, the song (or
part thereof) is better categorized as a “work-in-progress” than a “work.” Exactly when a song is complete will depend on the beliefs and intentions of the rock
musician/s responsible for its creation.
Kania (2006), p. 403.
Thanks to an anonymous Contemporary
Aesthetics reviewer for helping to clarify Kania’s argument here.
Henry John Pratt, “Categories and Comparisons of Artwork,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 52,1 (January, 2012), 52.
Including the song
“Eleanor Rigby,” the track “Eleanor
Rigby” that appears on the 1996 Beatles album Revolver, and the many different live performances of “Eleanor
Thanks to Alexey Aliyev for bringing this potential objection to my attention.
Bruno, p. 72 [original emphasis].
Thanks to Andrew Kania for bringing this concern to my attention.
With thanks to Sondra Bacharach and Steven Crowell for their helpful feedback
on earlier drafts of this paper, and to the Contemporary
Aesthetics reviewers and copy editor for their incredibly useful comments.