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.
Heidegger, Husserl, music, nonconceptual, philosophy, style, truth
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. 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
is my starting point; Husserl’s Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness (1905)
provides the basis for my thinking about musical time; and three works by Martin
Heidegger, Being and Time (1926),
“The Essence of Truth” (1930)
and “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1935-1936)
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
Hegel’s Phenomenology of Music
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)
and Henri Bergson (1910),
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
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.
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
… 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.
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.
On the other
hand, the inner world of feeling is entirely self-contained as a negative
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.
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
… 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.
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
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.”
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
[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.
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.…
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.
Phenomenological Time and Musical Time
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Husserl called this past “gist” of the day as a whole not a simple retention
but a “retention of retention.”
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.
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.”
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.”
new reacts on the old; its forward-moving intention is fulfilled and determined
thereby, and this gives the reproduction a definite colouring.
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. “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.
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.
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. 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
at the beginning of this essay, the central section of Hegel’s chapter on music
in his Aesthetics
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
in the artwork the “thingness” of the thing, its “materiality,” is revealed as
being of value in itself, or as present. The
experience of truth as revelation in art, unlike that of the broken tool,
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.
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.
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.” 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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.”
(This conception of “ideal thought”
is coextensive with Idea, Spirit and the Absolute in the Aesthetics.)
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.
… 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.
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
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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
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.
Mediation by Style
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
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.
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, 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
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.
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.
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.”  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.
of the shared necessity of style for both musical production and musical
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.”
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. 
Musical Worlds Within Worlds
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
though, and this is most important, with “universal” substituted by “collective
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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