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Musical Presence: Towards a New Philosophy of Music

  Charles Ford

Most recent writings about the philosophy of music have taken an analytic or linguistic approach, focusing on terms such as meaning, metaphor, emotions and expression, invariably from the perspective of the individual listener or composer. This essay seeks to develop an alternative, phenomenological framework for thinking about music by avoiding these terms, and by extrapolating from the writings of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. On the basis of discussions of musical time, its multiple levels of matter, and its internal dialectics, the essay presents a particular understanding of “style” as the primary basis for mediation between production and reception. It concludes that music is no more or less than itself; and that it comes into presence and resounds within a nonconceptual and collective socio-historical world, thereby dissolving all distinctions between feelings and ideas, and fears and desires.

Key Words
Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, music, nonconceptual, philosophy, style, truth

1. Introduction

Most recent writings about the philosophy or aesthetics of music have taken an analytic or linguistic approach, focusing on terms such as meaning, metaphor, emotions and expression, invariably from the perspective of the individual listener or composer.[1]  This essay seeks to develop an alternative framework for thinking about music by avoiding these terms altogether, and by extrapolating from the writings of three German philosophers. Hegel’s phenomenology of music in Part II of his Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (1842)[2] is my starting point; Husserl’s Phenomenology of  Internal Time Consciousness (1905)[3] provides the basis for my thinking about musical time; and three works by Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1926),[4] “The Essence of Truth” (1930)[5] and “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935-1936)[6] inform my understanding of “musical matter” and the “nonconceptual,” though nonetheless historical, nature of music and its experience. My interest in music’s place in the realm of the nonconceptual, combined with a grounding in analytic and historical musicology, takes the discussion away from the customary aesthetic concerns mentioned above and tends more towards collectivist rather than individualist, and materialist rather than idealist ways of thinking about music and its experience. There is one caveat: I am concerned only with Western classical, jazz, folk and popular music in this essay.

2. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Music

Hegel’s phenomenology of music brings together music and listeners into a unity, whilst at once preserving their respective identities. In other words, he did not subsume one term, music or the listening subject, under the other, after the fashion of formalism and relativism, respectively. So despite Hegel’s central concern with subjective responses to music, he never lost touch with musical particulars. Indeed, about half of the section given over to music in his Aesthetics concerns rhythm, harmony and melody.

Hegel recognised music’s ephemeral temporal and sonic nature. Moreover, he used music to advance a new theory of time, as did Edmund Husserl (1905)[7] and Henri Bergson (1910),[8] again from phenomenological perspectives, about seventy years later. Hegel proposed that music, because of its temporal nature, does not stand over and against us as something concrete and fundamentally other, like a statue, painting, novel or poem. Rather, music is ephemeral, and so “volatilizes its real or objective existence into an immediate temporal disappearance.”[9] Because this idea is fundamental to Hegel’s phenomenology of music, it is important to take particular care with two issues that arise from it.

First, the objectivity of the statue, or indeed anything else, whether an art-work or not, was not left unquestioned by Hegel. For him, perception is not simply given. Rather, it is a dialectical unity, insofar as consciousness “finds itself” in its objects, whilst at once “cancelling” that objectivity in the act of returning to the self with a concept or subjective representation of that object. In so doing, we find ourselves, or become self-conscious, amidst the objective world. Nonetheless, the “thing in itself” still remains “out there,” persisting in this, its irreducible, ontological otherness. In both this, the fundamental otherness of the objective world, as well as that world’s absorption into consciousness as a concept, Hegel understood the subject and its object to be in a dialectical unity, whilst nonetheless standing apart from one another. As T. M. Knox, in his Preface to the Aesthetics, put it:

… self-consciousness knows no distinction between the knower and the known, but consciousness of all else depends on reflexivity, which is to say that consciousness becomes aware of itself by being aware of objects and then by being reflected back into itself from them. Hegel is fond of this metaphor. The eye does not see itself except through its reflection in a mirror.[10]

The second reason for taking care with Hegel’s suggestion that music “volatilizes its real or objective existence into an immediate temporal disappearance” is because this idea seems to deny music any objective status. But this is not the case. Hegel recognised the systematic nature of music.

… the note is not a merely vague rustling and sounding but can only have any musical worth on the strength of its definiteness and consequent purity. Therefore, owing to this definiteness in its real sound and its temporal duration, it is in direct connection with other notes. Indeed it is this relation alone which imparts to it its own proper and actual definiteness and, along with that, its difference from other notes whether in opposition to them or in harmony with them.[11]

Music constantly passes away in time. But this, music’s essentially ephemeral nature, does not mean that it is any less objective than anything else.

Having presented these two caveats, I return to Hegel’s idea that music comes into presence, not as an object standing apart from ourselves, but by way of absorption “into an immediate temporal disappearance,” because of its ephemeral nature. Music’s realm, therefore, is not that of reason but that which Hegel called the “inner world of feeling.” Feelings do not find themselves in objects, as does self-consciousness.  Hegel compared “self-conscious thinking” with feelings. In the former,

… there is a necessary distinction between (a) the self that sees, has ideas, and thinks, and (b) the object of sight, ideas, and thought. But, in feeling, this distinction is expunged, or rather is not yet explicit, since there the thing felt is interwoven with the inner feeling as such, without any separation between them.[12]

On the other hand, the inner world of feeling is entirely self-contained as a negative subjective unity.

The inner life in virtue of its subjective unity is the active negation of accidental juxtaposition in space, and therefore a negative unity. But at first this self-identity remains wholly abstract and empty and it consists only in making itself its object and yet in cancelling this objectivity (itself only ideal and identical with what the self is) in order to make itself in this way a subjective unity.[13]

When Hegel wrote that feelings are only “abstract and empty at first,” he intended “at first” to mean “before,” in a logical rather than temporal sense, those feelings are taken up with anything “external,” such as music. Music is absorbed into this inner world of feelings, and in so doing shapes those feelings.

… what alone is fitted for expression in music is the object-free inner life, abstract subjectivity as such. This is our entirely empty self, the self without any further content. Consequently the chief task of music consists in making resound, not the objective world itself, but, on the contrary, the manner in which the inmost self is moved to the depths of its personality and conscious soul.[14]

Hegel thought that music lends substance to the inner world of the feelings because of its similarly ephemeral nature as “mere vibrations” that constantly die away in time.

Before addressing the temporal nature of music, consider how Hegel thought that the self interrelates with time, even to the extent that “time is the being of the subject himself.”[15] The cyclical nature of self-consciousness, the dialectic by which it projects itself as an object and then cancels that objectified self by returning to the “subjective self,” is in continuous temporal flux. In this movement, self-consciousness breaks up the undifferentiated continuum of “external” time into differences, spans of time or temporal fields, in accordance with its cyclical nature.

[This] implies an interruption of the purely indefinite process of changes … because the coming to be and passing away, the vanishing and renewal of points of time, was nothing but an entirely formal transition beyond this “now” to another “now” of the same kind, and therefore only an uninterrupted movement forward. Contrasted with this empty progress, the self is what persists in and by itself, and its self-concentration interrupts the indefinite series of points of time and makes gaps in their abstract continuity; and in its awareness of its discrete experiences, the self recalls itself and finds itself again and thus is freed from mere self-externalization and change.[16]

It is important to recognise that music is not in time, and neither does it move through time, for this would be to suggest that time is something external or logically prior to it. Musical time is how time is for music and its listeners. Music forms phenomenological time. I will explain this further in the next section in relation to Husserl’s theory of time.

Now since time, and not space as such, provides the essential element in which sound gains existence in respect of its musical value, and since the time of the sound is that of the subject too, sound on this principle penetrates the self, grips it in its simplest being, and by means of the temporal movement and its rhythm sets the self in motion.…[17]

I shall return to Hegel’s aesthetics of music at the end of this essay. Now I go on to present a more detailed conception of musical time in order to develop his understanding of how self-consciousness “interrupts the indefinite series of points” of musical time into spans or fields of presence.

3. Phenomenological Time and Musical Time

Music exists but it does not persist. Music is before all else ephemeral, constantly passing away from, and thereby denying, the merely notional points of time that we call “now.” In Heidegger’s words:

The sequence of “nows” is uninterrupted and has no gaps. No matter how “far” we proceed in “dividing up” the “now,” it is always now.[18]

Most of our awareness of time is governed by clocks and alarms, which register a combination of astronomically and mechanically determined divisions, as if they were spatial. Yet when we are alone and relatively passive, perhaps waiting, travelling, or resting, we turn in on ourselves and into our own fluid time. Such states of mind are characterized by chronic distraction:  the endless, uncontrolled droning on of mind’s “sub-thoughts,” that conceptual part of consciousness that, insofar as it is more or less beyond our control, is probably just this side of the subconscious mind. The temporality of this distracted, “subjective” time is as unintelligible as that of dreams and under extreme conditions can become fragmented. Nelson Mandela wrote about the distorted sense of time experienced by prisoners enduring extended sentences like his twenty-seven years in prison on Robben Island. His fellow long-term prisoner, Ahmed Kathedra once said that

… in prison the minutes can seem like years, but the years go by like minutes. An afternoon pounding rocks in the courtyard might seem like forever, but suddenly it is the end of the year, and you do not know where all the months went.[19]

In such extreme conditions, inner or subjective time becomes separated from what Husserl called “phenomenological time.”

In his Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness (1905), Husserl compared this subjective or “immanent” time with an external or “objective time,” which latter is not available to consciousness beyond its measurement by clocks.[20]  Phenomenological time is neither of these but the interface between changing consciousness and changing reality. As such, phenomenological time is not a series of discrete “presents” or “nows” but a continuous flow. What is “now” is no more than a notional section of that flow: it may refer to a few seconds or to an era. For instance, I am enjoying a particularly pleasant day when all at once the quality of the day as a whole comes to mind in the instant when I think, “Oh what a wonderful day!” Such moments can take in hours of experience or even historical epochs. Then again, my memories, or what Husserl termed “retentions,” might recall the day as a similar “unity in memory.”[21] Husserl called this past “gist” of the day as a whole not a simple retention but a “retention of retention.”[22] This distinction marks up the difference between a recent memory that constantly merges with and informs the present – a “retention,” and one that is cut off and distinct from the present – a “retention of retention.”

Husserl’s discussion of the time of a melody is couched in terms of the retentions of the immediate past.[23] Music, he said, involves a continuous and constant “running off” of sounds into this past. The content of this running off is implicit within the musical “now.”[24] So whilst we perceive a melody note-by-note, we also accumulate what we have already heard up to the present instant as the “unity in memory” that we apprehend as the “now.” Meanwhile, what is “now” changes the character of those retentions that are implicit within that “now.”

…everything new reacts on the old; its forward-moving intention is fulfilled and determined thereby, and this gives the reproduction a definite colouring.[25]

Then that which is “now” itself becomes a retention as it “runs off” behind, so to speak, some future “now.” What is perceived to be now is as one with the unperceived past.[26] “Now” is no more than the leading edge of the past, or the end of what was. Meanwhile, expectations, like memories, are component parts of what is now.  Husserl called expectations “protentions.”  Protentions arise on the basis of what is now.

But, there is no now. Rather what is now is constantly moving forwards, as fluidly as water.  Because time is, of course, irreversible, there cannot be a symmetrical relationship between retentions and protentions, but rather they stand in a dynamic dialectic. Whereas the protentive aspects of musical or any other form of phenomenological time involve the content of its retentions, retentions do not involve the content of protentions.

Whilst Husserl used the example of a melody to develop his explanation of phenomenological time, his theory tells us nothing about musical processes and structures. It does not explain, for instance, how music defines the duration or extent of retentions and protentions by means of periods, up-beats and cadences; or how, at some point during our perception of a melody, the retentive qualities of the musical “now” are taken over by protentions, as we begin to sense how far we are from the end of that protention and the form that end will take.[27] These changes involve seconds and fractions of seconds of music. The temporal compression of all the parameters of music – rhythm, pitch, harmony, timbre, texture, and dynamics – is astonishing. One minute of music can seem like fifteen of most other experience.

There is as yet much to be done with the application of Husserl’s terms to music. Most especially, it could provide the basis for a new typology of rhythm in terms of passages of music being more or less protentive or retentive, static or dynamic.[28] I will return to Husserl’s conception of phenomenological time towards the end of this essay. Now I turn to the question of the stuff of music – musical matter.

4. Functional and Artistic Materials

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the central section of Hegel’s chapter on music in his Aesthetics[29] concerns music’s “sensuous materials.”  But this is little more than what is now called the “rudiments of music:”  how “triple time” is notated for instance.  So I turn instead to the way in which Martin Heidegger conceived of artistic matter generally, which will then serve as a basis for a discussion of musical matter in particular. This involves a somewhat lengthy digression from my concern with music. Please be patient.

Heidegger’s philosophy is particularly promising for music because one of its principal concerns is with “nonconceptual consciousness,” meaning that range of experience which is not linguistic, or which is “unsayable.” This unusual concern arose from Heidegger’s dissatisfaction with propositional truth, or what he called the “correspondence theory” of truth. I approach his insight into the material of art by way of three stages on which I will base a model of musical matter. It is to his criticism of this traditional understanding of truth and the alternative that he presents that I first turn.

In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) Heidegger continued the discussion of truth that he first developed in Being and Time (1926) and then again in his essay “The Essence of Truth” (1930). In the latter, he called the customary understanding of truth one of “correspondence” because it concerns the correctness of a concept to a thing. But, Heidegger asked, how can there be an “inner-possibility of agreement” between a thing, such as a 10p piece, and a proposition concerning one? The 10p piece is round and metallic whereas the proposition, which is said to agree with it, is linguistic.[30] In order to find a definition of truth that is rooted in being, rather than in propositions, Heidegger turned to our immediate, nonconceptual experience of things, though not to “mere things,” which he referred to as “self-refusing” or unknowable, but to tools and equipment generally. Heidegger’s thinking about equipment is the object of the next, second stage of this discussion of functional and artistic matter.

In Being and Time Heidegger pointed out that, because we are so preoccupied with instrumental attitudes, much of our awareness of things is in terms of their functions or use value.[31] Just as the sign always draws our attention away from itself, so too does the tool. Both sign and tool are encountered as being “ready-to-hand,” or in the English vernacular as being “handy,” rather than “present-at-hand,” or again in everyday terms as “present.”[32] Tools do not become present because our concern is not with them but with the work in hand. Heidegger gave the example of a hammer, the purpose of which is to bang in nails. We do not encounter the hammer by thinking about it; we grasp and wield it, for our concern is not with it but with our reason for using it.[33] Furthermore, a tool can only be handy when it is manipulated in accordance with a purpose, or what Heidegger calls an “assignment” or “in-order-to” to which it refers, as does the symbol to the sign. Within this “manifold of reference” or “equipmental world,” tools are manipulated according to the purpose for which they have been designed. For example, my hammering has the immediate “in-order-to” of banging in a nail to secure the side of a desk. I am making a desk in order to study. The “towards-which” of studying is to write this essay, and so on. Because the ultimate “towards-which” is always our individual or collective selves, Heidegger said that we are always already ahead of ourselves in our concern with our projects.[34]

However if the hammer breaks and its reliability fails, so too is its manifold of reference interrupted, and the hammer changes from being handy to become present.[35] It stands forth as that which is disrupting my project. But this is only momentary because the defective equipment immediately becomes something to be mended, and as such is absorbed back into its equipmental context or “world.”[36]

In other words, something is revealed to us before we put a name to it, in this case, “broken.” Here is another example of this moment of nonconceptual recognition. I am waiting at a railway station to meet a very good friend called Richard, whom I have not seen for a decade. A stranger taps me on the shoulder. I turn, think fleetingly, “Who is this man?  Does he wish to ask me something about the trains?” Then gradually his face becomes familiar, as if emerging through the ageing process. Richard! His name comes after that moment of revelation. This everyday revelation of the thing in-itself, the broken hammer or the person in himself, Richard, is, in Heidegger’s terms, a moment of truth, however fleeting, however mundane. Thus, by removing all traces of both correctness and metaphysics from his conception of truth, Heidegger returned truth to an albeit brief, material, everyday experience. Now I move on to the third stage of my understanding of Heidegger’s conception of matter.

Heidegger continued his discussion of tools in his later essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936), though now with respect to the useful materials that are worked on in order to produce something. Such functional materials, like tools, disappear in their use. ‘Equipment’ and ‘material’ are synonymous in the following:

The production of equipment is finished when a material has been so formed as to be ready for use. For equipment to be ready means that it is dismissed beyond itself, to be used up in serviceability.[37]

However, in the artwork the “thingness” of the thing, its “materiality,” is revealed as being of value in itself, or as present.[38]  The experience of truth as revelation in art, unlike that of the broken tool, endures.

To be sure, the sculptor uses stone just as the mason uses it, in his own way. But he does not use it up. That happens in a certain way only where the work miscarries. To be sure, the painter also uses pigment, but in such a way that colour is not used up but rather only now comes to shine forth. To be sure, the poet also uses the word – not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who have to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word.[39]

5. Musical Matter

Now I am better placed to address the matter of music. Consider first the distinction between noise and sound. Noises are dismissed as soon as they are heard because they are “used up,” rejected out of hand as the unwanted by-product of some, usually known, activity. Sounds, like noises are always sounds of something, but are more or less welcome: the telephone bell, birdsong for instance.

Musical sound stands forth from all other sound as sufficient to itself. It is immediately distinguishable from sonic matter generally because notes are far more acoustically focussed than noise (as can be seen through an oscilloscope). Musical sound is characterised by an acceptable balance of “overtones” – a high series of pitches within and above named notes: what Hegel referred as the musical note’s “definiteness and consequent purity.”[40] This “harmonic series” defines the timbre or tone quality of a musical sound. These musical sounds move and change in accordance with a more or less steady pulse that, because of its lack of differentiation and therefore pattern, is not yet rhythmic. I will refer to this barely musical combination of sound and pulse as primary musical matter. But primary musical matter is not yet music, for there are a further two levels of musical matter before it can serve and be regenerated by musical creativity.

Secondary musical matter arises from the differentiation of these basic musical sounds. In Western music, secondary musical matter is grounded in the division of the octave – the primary overtone of the “harmonic series” – into twelve discrete and evenly “spaced” pitches, known as the “chromatic scale.” But these notes do not form a scale as such because they are evenly spaced and, like a mere pulse, therefore have no pattern, no beginning or end: they merely start and stop. At this logical stage, or the next, the pulse of primary musical matter becomes patterned into metres – ¾, 4/4, etc. – which produced a regular series of downbeats, i.e. the stressed first note of each group of three or four.

Tertiary musical matter forms when these evenly spaced series of notes are divided into unevenly “spaced” scales, which, being poised between similarity and difference, are thereby patterned. As a result of this patterning, these scales have a primary note and chord, towards which all other notes and chords are directed. Now the primary notes of scales are at their strongest and clearest when they are underpinned by metric downbeats. This happens most clearly at cadential points. The combination of patterned pitches and patterned rhythms is the tertiary musical matter that is ready to be formed into music per se.

An illustration may clarify this point. I am driving to a music festival. As I approach the site I begin to distinguish primary and secondary musical matter emerging through the traffic noise in the form of musical notes and a pulse, but as yet I cannot hear its tertiary musical matter, let alone any music. Primary, secondary and tertiary musical matter coexist in pieces of music. In this example, the various levels musical matter arise successively as I approach the festival site.

Whilst primary and secondary musical matter are pretty well unchanging, tertiary musical matter has changed through history. The first known scales were either 5-note pentatonic or 7-note modal ones – Dorian, Phrygian and so forth – each having a different ordering of semitone and whole tone intervals. But the Ionian scale, which forms what we now know as the major scale, has a far greater sense of linear direction and gravitation towards the primary note. I will return to this point later. In the early eighteenth-century, major, along with the less stable minor mode, scales and harmonies were organised into a coherent, functional system of tonal relations known as “the cycle of fifths.” The equivalence of keys in this cycle arose on the basis of a new system of tuning known as “equal temperament.”[41] Having been first given voice in the music of J. S. Bach, this system began to govern all the internal relationships of almost every piece of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven’s music, and continued to hold true throughout the nineteenth century.

Classical composers in Vienna in the second decade of the twentieth-century, led by Arnold Schönberg, discarded diatonic scales and their associated harmonic logic and returned to the secondary musical matter of the twelve equally spaced divisions of the octave. Whereas tertiary tonal musical matter involves a more-or-less strong gravitational pull, by force of which all pitches are heard as being more-or-less distant from a tonic, “atonal” melodies constitute free-floating patterns linked by similarity relations. Schönberg’s new serial method of composition organised these patterns by way of “pre-compositional” pitch matrices, which were particular to each new composition as its unique tertiary musical matter from which he forged his music. Then, John Cage’s experiments with recorded ambient sounds rejected even primary musical matter in favour of found or “ambient” sounds, as if to get behind or beneath music as previously understood.

Whilst classical music tended towards atonality in the twentieth century, popular music has preferred modal, pentatonic and “blues scales” as its tertiary musical matter. These scales are far less clearly defined from one another than major and minor ones. For instance, in the Dorian scale on D, a particular melody can easily make A seem to be the primary note.[42] Dynamics, apart from detailed accentuation, are far less important to popular music, most songs remaining at roughly the same dynamic level throughout. Timbre, on the other hand, has been vitally important for its development in the form, for instance, of changing guitar sounds and ways of producing the voice, sometimes involving pre-primary level or ‘non musical’ sounds known appropriately as “dirt.” Such fleeting references to sub-musical matter, unlike Cage’s sustained ones, have played a crucial role in defining changes of style. Popular music’s rhythmic tertiary musical matter is also distinct from that of classical music. For instance, Black US-American popular music and jazz have been characterised by a play of surface, millisecond differences, sometimes known by the essentially nonconceptual notion of “feel,” or what I have elsewhere called “contraflection.”[43] “Feel” involves miniscule inflections of rhythm, pitch and dynamics in popular music and jazz most obviously, though also in classical music, as Eric Clarke’s empirical analyses of classical piano performances have revealed.[44]

6. Hegel and Heidegger’s Dialectics of Art

So far I have provided an account of musical time and matter. This alone, for Hegel and all other nineteenth-century philosophers of art, would have been insufficient to explain music’s extraordinary power, its transcendence of mere matter, and quite rightly so. Hegel, and then much later, Heidegger thought that the matter of art, which they called “sensuous materials” and “earth” respectively, only took on the real mantle of art in combination with “ideal thought” for Hegel or “world” for Heidegger. In this section of my essay I enquire into these two dialectics on the way to proposing a different, more material model.

Hegel’s understanding of the nature of art is bound up with his claims for art’s capacity to reveal truth, which probably influenced Heidegger’s thinking about truth generally. Hegel thought that if a work of art is to carry the possibility of truth, it cannot be reducible to its material or “sensuous” being but rather “stands in the middle between immediate sensuousness and ideal thought.”[45] (This conception of “ideal thought”  is coextensive with Idea, Spirit and the Absolute in the Aesthetics.[46]) Neither the perceived sensuous materials of the work of art nor the transcendent, unperceived Idea that it embodies can take precedence over one another. Both must be present in a dialectic.[47]

… art’s vocation is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration, to set forth the reconciled opposition just mentioned [between sensuous material and Ideal thought], and so to have its end and aim in itself, in this very setting forth and unveiling.[48]

To find an equivalent dialectic in Heidegger, I resume my earlier discussion of the way that he understood artistic matter in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” As an example of how the matter of a work of art is not used up, Heidegger turned to Van Gogh’s painting of 1887of a pair of peasant’s shoes. In this essay both mere things and equipment are referred to as “earth.”

The “self-refusing” materiality of the shoes, by which Heidegger meant their “unknowability,” can only be brought forth and revealed with an intensity that is unique to art, or “be true,” by the way in which the painting evokes the broader context of the world of the peasant.

Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.[49]

The peasant woman ... has a world because she dwells in the overtness of beings, of the things that are. Her equipment, in its reliability, gives to this world a necessity and nearness of its own.[50]

Heidegger uses the term ‘world’ in this passage in a particular sense to imply an over-arching context, similar to the artisan’s “manifold of reference” as discussed above, though much greater, within which things emerge, or “thing” for artistic experience.

The world worlds, and is more fully in being than the tangible and perceptible realm in which we believe ourselves to be at home. World is never an object that stands before us and can be seen. World is the ever-nonobjective to which we are subject …[51]

Heidegger’s idea of the “ever-non objective to which we are all subject” refers to the fact that this world can never be predicated, and so can never become objective. It will play an essential role in this essay because it is to this nonconceptual world that music belongs.

The work of art combines earth and world, in a similar way to Hegel’s “sensuous materials” and Idea.

The setting up of a world and the setting forth of earth are two essential features in the work being of the work. They belong together, however, in the unity of work being.[52]

This unity is not an easy one but a continuous striving between the two terms, not so much against, as between one another; a striving in which earth and world preserve their mutual independence and their interdependence.

In essential striving ... the opponents raise each other into the self-assertion of their natures.[53]

But, whilst Hegel’s general aesthetic theory, as expounded in his introduction, rests on the dialectic between “sensuous materials” and Idea, there is no mention of the latter in the section on music. This can be attributed to his fundamental identification of music with feelings, which in Hegel’s scheme have no access to the Ideal. It would seem that this was the reason why Hegel did not rate music as highly as literature and art in his hierarchy of the arts. Despite this essential part of Hegel’s dialectic having been thus denied music, I will retrieve some of Hegel’s ideas on the subject at the end of this essay.

There is also a problem for thinking about music in Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Despite his critique of the correspondence theory of truth and his concern for the nonconceptual, and despite his idea of the stone of the sculpture and the paint of the painting being brought forth and held as “earth” in its dialectic with “world,” both “earth” and “world” are bound up with representation in his discussion of Van Gogh’s painting. Both the shoes and the peasant’s world are represented or referred to by the painting after the manner of concepts. However, Heidegger’s idea of the preconceptual “world” in “The Origin of the Work of Art” will prove to be most pertinent at the end of this essay, though I prefer the term “nonconceptual” because I do not want to suggest any primacy for either the conceptual or the nonconceptual worlds.

Both philosophers pointed to a dialectic in works of art between their perceived matter and something unperceived that goes beyond that matter and brings that matter into presence as art. In both cases this unperceived “other something” is of a completely different order from the matter of the work of art. Both Hegel’s Idea and Heidegger’s “world” imply something far greater and more complex than any one piece of music, something at the level of an era, epoch or zeitgeist. But this “something other” that lets music come into presence need not be of a different order from music.                                                                        

7. Mediation by Style

The combination of primary, secondary and tertiary musical matter that I advanced earlier is not music per se. Like Hegel’s “sensuous materials,” tertiary musical matter, such as scales and metres, require something else to become music. I propose calling this something “style.” From here on I am using this word not to mean “fashion” but as a musicological and philosophical category with a specific meaning. Style is the system by which musical matter becomes music.[54]  Style, like “Idea” and “world,” is imperceptible as such. However, “style,” unlike “Idea,” is “musical” in the sense that it is a set of musical conventions for organising musical matter into pieces of music. So this conception of style is a material rather than a transcendent, metaphysical conception, as is Hegel’s Idea and Heidegger’s world. Music is brought down to ground, as it were, by style. Moreover, style is something that is open to examination and debate. In the following, I discuss the content of style and what it means for both producers of music, on the one hand, and for listeners, on the other.

Compare  two styles, both of which arose on the basis of the same tertiary musical matter of major and minor scales and harmonies, as well as fixed metres: eighteenth-century Classical music,[55] and the “bebop” jazz style of the “forties” and “fifties.” Classical composers wrote high profile melodies that were usually singable, whilst being at the same time capable of fragmentation into distinct motives. These melodies or “themes” have more distinct profiles than other music in the same pieces that is not so much thematic as developmental or accompanimental. Most Classical pieces of music remain in the same metre and are organised hierarchically into 2-, 4-, 8- and 16-bar periods.  All pieces were written in accordance with the overall structure and proportions of more-or-less conventional “sonata forms” with a more-or-less fixed overall tonal structure. Harmony, which usually comprised primary triads and dominant sevenths, changed at various rates according to their place in the overall structure. Keys were defined by cadences that articulated important structural divisions. Certain instruments and groups of instruments were preferred for various genres: quartet, symphony, concerto etc.

Compare these style markers with those of bebop. This was nearly always performed in 4- or 5-piece groups, always including piano, bass, and drums. The musical material was almost always 12-bar blues and 32-bar ballads. The overall structure of pieces always took the form of a theme, known as the “head tune,” followed by a series of improvisations on the chord sequence of that theme, and its return to close the piece. Head-tunes are angular, rhythmically uneven, and often played at high speeds, as were the melodies of improvisations, which are built up on the basis of rhythmically and melodically manipulated arpeggios. Bass players played even crotchets and quavers that clarified the chords. Drummers kept time but also provided complex, ever-changing rhythms. Pianists avoided simple triads, preferring stabbed dissonant chords between beats.

Similar lists of generative characteristics can be drawn up about any style. Styles are often organised like Russian dolls within one another. For instance, Robert Johnson’s recordings of blues in the mid-thirties are in a sub-style of Southern US acoustic pre-war blues, which is itself a sub-style of the blues generally, thence of the entire history of Black US-American popular music, and finally that of recorded popular music as a whole.

Styles change within themselves and in their relations with others. These changes are brought about by music produced within those styles. Some pieces advance styles more than others. Some reproduce them by reaffirming their secondary musical materials. Others do not necessarily develop, but at least play with their style.

Then again, there are those who oppose and even reject a style: Beethoven’s music is probably the best known Classical example of opposition. Outright rejection of a style in favour of a wholly original one is as unlikely as instantaneous revolution. Whilst Schönberg rejected tonality in favour of serial procedures, his music nonetheless has a distinctly Viennese sound, as indeed do Webern’s pointillesque miniatures. Free improvisation, by definition, rejects all styles, in favour of the dynamics of the moment.[56] The fact that it attracts such miniscule audiences proves the point: nearly all listeners need music to correspond with a style with which they are familiar.

Style pulls itself up by the bootstraps of its own works because every new piece contributes to the “style bank” on which that piece and that style depends. Because producers contribute to styles with every new piece they produce, and because listeners become increasingly familiar with those styles, they are dynamic, historical. Styles change within themselves in accordance with tendencies of their own procedures.  For instance, eighteenth-century chromatic inflections in the Classical Style became far-reaching as Romantic composers sought for originality. In more technical terms, once “leading notes” took on the possibility of resolution in various keys, the sure ground of Classical tonality was shaken. On the other hand, styles can change for contingent reasons. Developments of electronic dance music in the last twenty years are attributable to new technology and the growing power of studio producers and engineers over the musicians they once served. More generally, broader cultural changes can have an impact on style change, as did the Viennese Secession provide fertile cultural ground for Schönberg, and sixties “counter-culture” for more exploratory popular music.

All musical experience depends on the interweaving of the style of a particular piece of music and listeners’ familiarity with that style, which I call “musical competence,” after the fashion of “linguistic competence.” [57] When a listener does not have the necessary familiarity, there can be no such accord. In that case listeners might say, “that’s not music” or “that sort of music always sounds like that.” In the former response, perhaps even the tertiary musical matter is not recognised as such. In the latter, a particular piece sounds only as an example of an unfamiliar style and consequently has no particular identity. More generally, in the case of music that rejects dominant styles, music producers, whether popular song writers or composers, can intentionally stimulate collective ruptures between their music and listeners, as is the case with modernism across the arts and with punk rock in the late seventies.

Musical competence does not require any ability to conceptualize music. People often say, as if apologetically, “I don’t know anything about music.” But there is nothing to know, in the sense of conceptualize, about music’s nonconceptual nature. Indeed, freedom from musical concepts, such as “modulation” and “middle-eight,” can perhaps enable a “purer,” since nonconceptual, musical experience. On the other hand, such conceptual “props” can assist sustained musical attention. It must be emphasised that conceptual and nonconceptual are not discrete or mutually opposed realms of consciousness, but always intertwined, informing one another. A “purely nonconceptual” musical experience is at least improbable. Nonetheless, musical competence requires only attentive and repeated listening to representative pieces in any one style. Every new musical experience contributes to deepening and broadening listener’s musical competence.

Because of the shared necessity of style for both musical production and musical reception, style is the primary form of mediation between music and listening. Music only exists insofar as it is the incarnation of a style. Reciprocally, style is only perceived insofar as it becomes incarnate in pieces of music. This is unlike the way in which Hegel’s perceived “sensuous materials” and Heidegger’s perceived “earth” are opened up by their dialectical union with unperceived “Ideal thought” and “world” respectively, because now both terms – piece and style – are essentially musical. There is nothing transcendent about music. Incredible as it may seem, music is nothing but itself. This is to affirm, not deny, the “magic of music.”

The philosophical significance of this conception of style is far-reaching. Think, for instance, what form Kant’s Critique of Judgment would have taken if he had presented his notion of sensus communis in terms of style. I leave this question to Kant scholars. Meanwhile, I also leave questions of musical access and distribution, together with listeners’ various and diverse responses to sociologists of music. I think of these issues as forms of secondary mediation, in the sense that musical style as primary mediation logically proceeds them. [58]

8. Musical Worlds Within Worlds

In this section I consider how music comes into presence within what we may think of as the world of its style, and then again within Heidegger’s understanding of “world” as a nonconceptual historical totality: worlds within worlds.[59] But first, consider the power and the limits of nonconceptual experience.

The nonconceptual world is of necessity closed to predication. As such it is of immense significance. Its power over our lives is so powerful because we cannot predicate it and are in this sense directed by it. It is an aspect of collective consciousness too often neglected because it can have more power over our lives than conceptual consciousness. (I will return to this point with respect to popular music.) This world is that of our desires and our fears and all those perceptions that are beyond our control: sounds and smells, both of which have such enormous power to recall our past. It is a world of vagary, of soft edges and fluidity.[60]

The “conceptual” and “nonconceptual” are far more inclusive terms than Hegel’s understanding of reason and feeling. Just as information is conceptual but not the whole of reason, so too is music nonconceptual but not the whole of feelings. Concepts and “nonconcepts” are as one within most experience, and it is only when listening to music in a completely unfamiliar style that we do not automatically identify instruments, ways of performing, verses and so forth. Musical concepts can usually help nonconceptual musical experience insofar as they can provide toeholds for concentration. ‘Pure’ nonconceptual listening may give the most pure and profound musical experience, but it is probably rare.

How can music be thought to render incarnate in sound, in the sense of give voice to, not only the world of its style but also the greater, non-musical, nonconceptual world of which it is a part? Haydn’s music, on the one hand, and the blues on the other, provide starkly opposed examples of how music comes into presence in different relationships with its style, and in this way brings into presence very different worlds.

Haydn was able to transform mere scraps of the secondary musical matter of the Classical style into distinctive music. He manipulated indifferent, anonymous melodic fragments, such as semitone steps, even repeated notes, so as to become the essential, idiosyncratic musical germ of a whole movement. And yet, Haydn also brought forth these fragments for what they were – mere, tertiary musical matter. Much of the fascination of his music, and especially its humour, derives from such annulment of all distinction between the unique and original on the one hand, and the general and anonymous on the other; and so much so that the most simple musical sense perception can stand forth as if by magic. Such transformational dialectics represented Haydn’s contribution to the late eighteenth-century European Enlightenment’s fascination with empiricism and sense perception. Whilst this fascination was worked through conceptually, it was also a nonconceptual way of being that lay before, behind, or beyond the intellectual world. Haydn’s music brings into presence or “resonates with” first, the world of the Classical style, and second with the “nonconceptual” totality of the Enlightenment.

On the other hand, a blues of the sort that was recorded in the 1920s and ‘30s in the US Deep South, and which continues to be produced today, is a mere strip off the blues. The style’s riffs, licks and sung phrases were freely plundered and reordered by individual singers. So rather than resonating with the valued aesthetic unity and unique originality of Classical music, a particular blues resounds not its own particular identity but the blues as an anonymous, collective style-world. Whereas Haydn’s music develops its style, the blues insists on it,[61] thereby resounding the seemingly indelible shadow of absolutely unindividuated slavery that stills hangs over the ever non-objective nonconceptual world of much of Black US-America, and still comes into presence through its music.

Whilst we can still hear the resonance of both Haydn’s music and the “Delta Blues” today, their worlds remain more or less distant from us. Music can open a door on foreign or past worlds but, as with all history, what we hear coming through that door is only what music affords to us from where and when we are listening.[62]  For this reason, I distinguish  between resonating and resounding. Whilst music from the past has the potential to resonate with the nonconceptual world of its production (within the terms of a particular style), music of our own time can resound, in the sense of give voice to, our own world.

Despite this distinction, it is nonetheless worth speculating on whether music can give more immediate access to past times than can literature or visual art. Perhaps Haydn’s music can induce listeners today into the nonconceptual phenomenological temporality of his time, and thereby (to some extent) evoke its presence. Certainly, at the level of individual history, hearing an ambient recording from one’s distant past – sounds of cars and birds for instance – can evoke that time far more strongly than diaries.

Resonance is not a necessary part of musical experience. Most listeners today, whilst they inevitably bring their own personal and public worlds to their experience of Haydn’s music, will not be aware of how it once resounded the Enlightenment for the Enlightenment. But such listeners’ musical experience can be nonetheless rich without their knowing anything about that eighteenth-century resonance. However, the way that contemporary music resounds our own world seems almost necessary, inevitable.

Nowadays in the West the music that most clearly holds the promise of resounding our world is contemporary popular music, and then most especially for teenagers, for whom it is akin to “the soundtrack of their lives.” But how can popular music resound anything when, as is so often the case, it is not actively listened to, but only heard in a distracted manner as the “handy” background for some other concern?[63]

Because we have no “ear-lids,” and no need to turn towards the source of sound, we are far more vulnerable to it than we are to visual perceptions. Sometimes we can feel almost as if victims of our sonic ambience, which we hear but try not to listen to. So it is that shoppers, however much they might hate muzak, still hear it in the supermarket, for if they did not consume more as a result it would not be there.[64]

Pieces of popular music, whatever their value and however casually they are listened to, resound their contemporary world for even the most distracted listeners. Indeed, it could be said that when popular music is not listened to attentively, and consequently not controlled by conceptual reason, it can take on more significance, because it is not fully brought to consciousness. It is the very distracted or “un-listened” to way that so much pop is heard that gives it such potency (and makes it such an ideological danger). Popular music is of the utmost importance for the formation of teenage identity because it resounds teenagers’ collective nonconceptual world, and consequently goes on to become an essential part of our adult identity. In this sense, we are what we have heard.

9. Musical Presence

Hegel said that music does not present itself as being apart from the self like an object, but enters into the time of the negative unity of self-consciousness, shaping it, as it were, from within. I have quoted the following passage before:

… what alone is fitted for expression in music is the object-free inner life, abstract subjectivity as such. This is our entirely empty self, the self without any further content. Consequently the chief task of music consists in making resound, not the objective world itself, but, on the contrary, the manner in which the inmost self is moved to the depths of its personality and conscious soul.[65]

Hegel was right to identify music with the object-free realm of the feelings if  “feelings” are thought to be an ill-defined part of nonconceptual experience. But musical experience is neither “inner,” of the “soul” or “spirit,” or absolutely individual. Rather the reverse, for pieces do not throw listeners into inwardness, but rather open them out to a nonconceptual world which, whilst registered individually, is also collective. So, rather than having individual control over music, we offer ourselves up to musical experience within the freedom of a collective style. This idea is in accord with Kant’s grounding of aesthetic judgement in universal subjective validity,[66] though, and this is most important, with “universal” substituted by “collective historical.”

This, the anonymous, collective nature of music has been registered by musicians. Composers and songwriters have often affirmed the embedding of their music in the realm of the nonconceptual and unintended. Elgar said of his composition:

It is my idea that music is in the air all around us, the world is full of it, and at any given time you simply take as much of it as you require.[67]

Elgar had that rare and peculiar capacity to be able to resound, so beautifully, his world of Edwardian nostalgia. Early in his career, Bob Dylan, who similarly ‘gave voice to’  the prophetic teenage nonconceptual rumblings of the late 50s and early 60s, often made a similar point about song writing to Elgar’s about composition:

The song was there before me, before I came along. I just sort of came down and just sort of took it down with a pencil, but it was all there before I came around.[68]

In these two quotations, Elgar and Dylan played down the individual origins, and in this sense, the “genius” of their work. Adorno suggested a similar attitude, though now with respect to listening. He regretted the loss of the age when ..”. the individual effected his identification with art not by assimilating the work of art to himself, but by assimilating himself to the work.”[69] Levinas had a similar idea of listeners giving themselves over to music, and in a way that is close to Hegel’s thinking.

Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it. The subject is part of its representation. It is so not even despite itself, for in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity.[70]

Because of the ephemeral nature of sound, it has only a transient and insubstantial objectivity. Mere sounds recede and are absorbed into the preconceptual ambience of