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Autonomania: Music and Music Education from Mars

  Thomas A. Regelski

The field of musical aesthetics clearly depends on the conception of music as an art: this in turn is connected with the modern notion of art in general. . . . Although the arts are even older than the liberal arts, before the Renaissance they were devoted more to their use and the role in social life than to beauty and expressiveness for their own sake.

Music, among other things, is a form of activity: a practice. If we take it in these terms, we should be able to understand it less as an attempt to say something than as an attempt to do something. As a practice, music should be subject to the same kinds of rigorous interpretations that we customarily apply to other cultural practices . . . .[1]


Traditional aesthetic theory has posited an account of music, and the other arts, as autonomous of social meanings, relevance, and conditions. In the case of music, “absolute music” is sequestered from social and other roots that bring music into being in the first place. The typical claim, thus, is that classical music is music for its own sake, divorced from the many and highly evident social dimensions that it serves. It ignores all other genres of music, most of which are more appreciated than can be accounted for by the theory of autonomania. This aesthetic theory of music, one of many theories, is unconvincing in history, and discourse of the broader philosophy of music, and a praxial theory of music is offered here in contradiction. The implications for music education should be clear, that the autonomy of music and music education from society is a troublesome and misleading contention.

Key Words
absolute music, aesthetics, music, philosophy of music, praxis, praxial music education


1. Autonomania

From the beginning of human time, the role of music was thoroughly praxial; a social practice in which various uses of music and music of many kinds were vital to the experience and conduct of daily life. Thus it was not contemplated in rarefied moments of leisure. Rather, as John Dewey wrote in Art as Experience, music and the other arts “were enhancements of the processes of everyday life” and thus “had no peculiar connection with theaters, galleries, museums [or concert halls]. They were part of the significant life of an organized community.” The modernist “museum conception of art,” as Dewey called it, and the concert hall as “the museum of imaginary musical works” are both, for Dewey, the result of certain “extraneous conditions” that have given rise to “theories which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experiencing.”[2],[3],[4] Aaron Ridley, in The Philosophy of Music (2004), characterizes this syndrome of compartmentalizing music from its social roots and contexts of praxis as autonomania.[5]

There is something very odd, after all, about the way in which so much philosophy of music has so often been done. To try to isolate music entirely, to try to leech or prise out of it its context-laden character, and indeed the very nature of one’s own context-laden engagement with it, is rather like trying to pretend that music had come from Mars—that it has suddenly appeared on one’s desk from nowhere, a perfectly formed but wholly mysterious phenomenon of which one knew precisely nothing. Which, as I say, is odd, given how far from the truth that picture is.[6]

Before the "gulf" or "chasm"[7] that had isolated art into an putatively autonomous realm of its own according to speculative rational claims for a unique ontology of experience that is thoroughly distanced from, that is, not just different from but somehow elevated above, the experiences of daily life,  music was central to and was experienced as religion, ceremony, celebration, ritual, dance, politics, recreation, self-expression, personal praxis, and a host of other praxies too ubiquitous to list here.[8]

[Until] the final years of the eighteenth century all music remained bound to the functions [that] today we call occasional music. Judged according to its social function, it served to enhance the sanctity and dignity of worship, the glamour of the festivities at court, and the overall splendor of ceremony.[9]

Considered as praxis, religious music, for example, is not simply music used in a worship service as a momentary respite from or mere adornment of ritual and sermonizing. Praxially, it is worship, a type of prayer and an essential part of the religious ceremony. In the same ways that dance is inseparable from its music, religious music is not something added but instead is central to religious praxis. 

This is also the case for all other forms of musical praxis. Music is fundamental to each socio-musical doing (praxis) that brings it into being to begin with and not simply an accompaniment that can be eliminated without significantly influencing the nature and experience of the event. As anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake has persuasively demonstrated, music is key to “making special” the many personal and social practices that have led to its creation and performance and that continue to invite its use.[10] Without the music, such occasions are radically altered and something vitally significant is lost. Consider, for example, a wedding without music. In other words, music exists to meet the many human needs and benefits that it was originally created to serve. The very existence of this or that music is evidence of its praxial relevance to humans being human. As with other aspects of human’s creating meaning, there would be no music or art if it didn’t serve the interests that brought it into being in the first place.

In fact, music is so aligned with its various praxial uses that music, as a noun, is now understood as the totality of the activity by which people, individually and collaboratively, explore, define, celebrate, and intertwine their social identities, not just the organized sound-forms of the moment, as is conventionally understood. In the praxial view, the sociality of the entire occasion is the music. Thus, properly and profoundly, Small coined the gerund “musicking” to stress this socially dynamic and holistic role for music, against music as a noun, as though an autonomous thing.[11]

The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found not only between those organized sounds which are conventionally thought of as being the stuff of musical meaning but also between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance; and they model, or stand as metaphor for, ideal relationships as the participants in the performance imagine them to be: relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world.[12] 

The resulting sociality is no less true of Western classical music than of any other musics.[13] In particular, the rise of the public concert in the eighteenth century was “a musical performance that clearly distinguishes between performers and audience and that admits an anonymous public upon payment of an entrance fee,”[14] and involves a social history closely wed to the rise of the middle class.[15] Chopin resisted the temptation for public adoration in favor of more private and intimate aristocratic audiences with whom he felt he could communicate: “Concerts never create real music, they are a form which one has to renounce in order to be able to hear what is most beautiful in art” because he “could not communicate with an indiscriminate audience . . .” in comparison to the salons of chamber musicing to which he was therefore attracted increasingly.[16] This set him apart from his contemporary and friend Liszt, who, we learn from history, had the opposite ethos. Glory and showmanship were his ideal. Yet, he considered Chopin to be his superior as an artist.

The social nature of such concerts and, later, solo recitals is less noted because of the rites of concert etiquette, the requirements of silent and solemn social demeanor that, as a result of what might be called audience training, were central in the sacralization of music and the other arts into the quasi-religious, almost sacred experience[17] that Shiner calls “the apotheosis of art,” with art becoming spiritually “redemptive” for audiences and a “sacred calling” for artists.[18],[19] “As music was sacralized and placed on an altar, so were its creators elevated to become high priests of this secularized religion.” Thus, under the aegis of this “sacral purpose,”[20] for music,  

composers have an aura of divinely inspired genius, virtuosi are worshiped as gods on earth, and a reverential faith in the mysteries of aesthetic claims for music give it a certain cult-like sanctity. Music theory becomes theology, the score a holy text, the concert a ceremony, the performer the high priest, and the congregation of audience members seeks cultural salvation from the base temptations of praxial and easily accessible musics. It is not surprising, then, that we think music is some special, almost holy deliverance from the spirit world.[21] 

As part of this process of the social transformation of music into a sacred realm, champions of so-called high culture, typically representatives of good taste from the upper, wealthy, “classy” echelons of society, felt their social responsibility was not merely to transform “the audiences in the opera houses, theaters, symphonic halls, museums, and parks” . . . , it was the entire society” that needed such cultivation.[22],[23] These patrons of the arts “were convinced that maintaining and disseminating pure art, music, literature, and drama” provided for “the higher wants of civilized life” needed to morally educate the working classes. [24] Thus, once artistic canons had been established

that identified the legitimate forms of drama, music, and art and the valid modes of performing and displaying them, the arbiters of culture turned their attention to establishing appropriate means of receiving culture. The authority that they first established over theaters, actors, orchestras, musicians, and art museums, they now extended to the audience. Their general success in disciplining and training audiences constitutes one of those cultural transformations that have been almost totally ignored by historians.[25] 

That these forms of the arts have been legitimatized, as opposed to others, has itself been the result of interlocking ideological, social, economic, and political processes, practices, and contexts that decidedly influenced the resources locally available to artists, and, in the case of music, musical instruments, and that result in music and arts of different peoples and ages are recognizably distinct.

As a result of the many and significant and supposedly extra-musical variables, most of which are intentionally left out of conventional histories of music, attending concerts and recitals of classical music is a thoroughgoing social act that is no less dependent on and as comprehensively imbued with sociality and social relationships as any other socio-cultural custom. The semiotics of the space of a concert hall or art gallery, for example, are thus implicated in the social meanings experienced there.[26]

A church, for example, is associated with certain religious texts as well as with different ceremonies and rituals performed by people coming to the place and behaving in appropriate ways. An art gallery or a concert hall is interpreted to be not only a specific place for exhibiting and performing works of art but also a place associated with various cultural practices, conventions and conceptions, . . . Museums and galleries are the places where paintings and other objects can be experienced in an impersonal environment not too closely connected to the pleasures and sorrows of practical, everyday life. Similarly, musical scholarship suggests that the idea of concert halls as places where musical ‘works’ could be completed [sic; contemplated?] apart from everyday matters developed along the same lines and for the same reasons as museums and galleries. In this way the environment can be seen as a system of signs, a sort of spatial code, interpreted with linguistic and other meaningful practices.[27]

Thus the semiotic meanings of concert halls as places for contemplating music apart from everyday uses are thoroughly implicated in the many “socially constructed meanings” experienced there.[28]   

Musical meaning does not exist objectively in the work—or even in its composer’s intentions. It resides in the particular moment of reception, one shaped by dominant aesthetic [viz., taste publics] and social expectations that are themselves historically structured. ... Beyond the particular negotiation between the listener and the music, it also implies a performance space, with its own particular personality, and a unique historical moment, with its styles of expression and political preoccupations. All public expression of musical response—even silence—is inevitably social. Public expression, although freely chosen, is drawn from a finite number of behaviors and styles of discourse shaped by the culture.[29]

Thus, hearing religious choral music in a concert hall and in a church used as a concert venue can have considerably different meanings as a result of the social practices, behaviors, meanings, and semiotic significations attached to or associated with these quite different spaces and their usual purposes. In general, moving religious music to the concert hall has secularized it, thus helping create the misimpression of its autonomy as purely music. Similarly, hearing jazz performed on a proscenium or concert stage. as a concert, with formal audience demeanor, or in a church as a concert venue, seated in pews, and surrounded by religious artifacts and symbols, leads to a quite different socio-musical experience than experiencing it in the informal atmosphere of a club or pub. Johnson, for example, argues,

that we value music for what it does for us and that our musical choices reflect these values. Individually, we often make different musical choices in different social contexts, because we expect music to fulfill a range of functions for us in those contexts. Our judgment about the same piece of music can change completely depending on its context.[30]

Accordingly, sociologists of music study and account for the important social contexts and functions of music typically overlooked or studiously ignored by music theorists and traditional musicologists, as do cultural theorists and cultural historians.[31],[32],[33] As one music historian writes, “on the largest scale, structures of society—monarchical, aristocratic, meritocratic, democratic—produce patterns of behavior that underlie everyday interactions”—patterns that can “influence how the music is heard.”[34] Indeed, social psychologists of music empirically confirm that “everyday listening contexts can influence responses to music, and music can influence responses to everyday listening contexts.”[35] As a result, the reception and meaning of music cannot be studied in a sociocultural vacuum, devoid of the details of a praxis as proposed by the leading partisans of autonomania: music theorists, traditional musicologists and, of course aestheticians and aesthetes. 

Scholars in other disciplines also increasingly point to particular socially constructed meanings in relation to music and its various practices. For example, music in connection with ethnicity and identity, gender, race; and participatory values provide comparative ethnomusicological studies of “music as social life.” [36],[37] And under the heading of “musicking the world,” social psychologist Benzon explains music as, for example, “coupled sociality,” ritual, a source of healing, and as a primary source of cultural cohesion, all of which involve the mind attuning itself socially and affectively to others through music. [38]

All such socially constructed and influenced meanings are also implicated even while listening to recordings, alone or with others. In fact, the very existence of recordings and their various uses are also distinct musical practices and offer “good-fors” and key types of sociality that are not available in connection with live music. For example, recordings have facilitated the creation of “taste publics and taste cultures,” and have led to personally recorded play-lists and sound tracks, the use of music in various commercial contexts, like film, TV, and advertising, the creation of “mass art,” the “social uses of background music for personal enhancement,”  and  musical file-sharing, collecting, and audiophile interests.[39],[40],[41] And, to be sure, mobile listening, wherever one might be, seems to be taking command, though what is being listened to and to what effect remains unknown.

2. Against autonomania

Contrary to the claims of orthodox rationalist-speculative aesthetics that music’s connection with such functions and meanings somehow demeans its value is the empirical evidence from, for example, sociology, anthropology, cultural psychology, ethnomusicology, cultural history, and so on, of music’s absolutely central, and pivotal praxial role in social and cultural life, and that without it, the events in which it plays such a consequential role would be so radically altered that daily life would become “humdrum,” as Dewey stated.[42] Thus, “there is nothing ‘natural’ or self-evident about the aesthetic claim that music is autonomous: there had been music for centuries before anyone got round to having the idea, and there is no reason at all to suppose that every piece of responsible thinking about music must be conducted in its terms.”[43] 

The historical and empirical evidence of music’s praxial importance and value is abundantly clear.  “[M]usic is inevitably a social practice.”[44] Likewise, discussions, including music criticism but also the dialog and jargon of musicians and the informal commentary of non-musicians and critics, and analyses of music, including scholarship like the philosophy of music, are also conditioned by an endless variety of central and continually shifting social categories that make music and discourse about it interdependent.

So definitely have both the repertoire and the discourse of German-speaking Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries shaped our own sense of what a culture of art music is, that perhaps only recently, as other forms of musical expression have begun to undergo long-overdue study, have we been able to recognize the impact of this culture and study it rather than frame our studies under its influence.[45]  

Overlooked by autonomania, then, is that discourse about music, whether aesthetic, philosophical, or journalistic, is itself decidedly social in its origins and audiences and has and continues to have an inescapable impact on the reception and status of music in society and culture.

The economic and historical influences that led to the sacralization and aestheticizing of the arts and to the theory of music’s autonomy from its praxial contributions to daily life and culture have continued to the present.[46] That account begins with the Renaissance and its precedents in ancient Greece, and the subsequent evolution of thought about music and the arts that led, during the Enlightenment, and particularly in German philosophy and other arts discourse, to the rise of aesthetics and to the creation of the concept of fine art as asocial and autonomous.[47] The plentiful evidence from history and various cultural studies provides a deconstruction of the aesthetic ideology, the grand narrative or totalizing discourse of aesthetics that supports various bourgeois ideological influences, and the power they have held over other accounts of musical value in the over 250 years or so since the invention of aesthetic theory. However, unlike typical postmodern deconstruction, this unpacking of analytic aesthetics sets the stage for an alternate, praxial account of music and musical value.

3. The aestheticizing of musical praxis

Among the “historic reasons for the rise of the compartmental conception of fine art” are the various philosophical precedents from Plato and Aristotle that began to be applied to the arts in the mid-fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, the period in cultural and intellectual history known as the Renaissance. The age was characterized by a revival, a so-called re-birth (from the Latin renascens, “to be born again”), of classical Greek learning that replaced the religious sobriety and scholastic philosophy of the late Middle Ages in favor of a humanist ideal of the full development and flourishing of individual potentiality. For such humanism, “man is the measure of all things,”[48]  and thus

that each man is a measure for himself.  The tag word is “individualism”—these men [sic] were great individualists as opposed to the timid conformists of the monkish Middle Ages; they were men who dared to be themselves, because they trusted in their own natural power, in something inside themselves.[49]

As a result, people increasingly started to think of themselves as more fully responsible for their own accomplishments and destinies.

With this resurgence of emphasis on human worth and dignity, the idea of the individual as a highly individual, cerebral, and atomic self slowly gained credence.[50] Renaissance artists, authors, and composers no longer labored as anonymous artisans and began taking personal credit for their creations by signing them. All of the arts of the time, however, continued to be praxial, in that they continued to be intimately connected with the Roman Church, and, following the Protestant Reformation, with most of the Protestant and Orthodox denominations, and with advancing the social, political, and economic interests and status of the royalty. In fact, the Renaissance music recounted in today’s music history books was so inextricably wed to its critical role in both religion and the lives of the courtiers and aristocracy that “the average person scarcely had any opportunity to hear music except in church or noble society.”[51] As medieval polyphony, with its multiple voices singing the same or sometimes different texts gave way to homophony, texts became more comprehensible and the music could be wed to textual meaning and the affective impact calculated. This trend was central to the beginnings of opera, itself a result of the attempt to recreate what the Camerata, an influential group of Renaissance musicians, noblemen, and antiquarian intellectuals, (mis)believed to be the expressive power of music in ancient Greek drama. 

In addition, the courtly love of the Middle Ages, as recounted in the troubadour songs of the time, predicated on the ideal of a knight serving his courtly lady, evolved into the typically sentimental love themes of Renaissance madrigals under the influence of the Neo-Platonist concept of Platonic Love advanced by Marsilo Ficcino, the leader of the Platonic Academy of Florence.[52] This music helped the social development of our modern concept of romantic love, a relatively new idea, one that was also tied to the evolving concept of the individual and the states of mind experienced by individuals.

Similarly, there was new interest in nature as a result of the reappraisal of Aristotle’s writings, whose realism took an active interest in the external world and thus acknowledged empirical knowledge gained via the senses. Important roots in the history of science also stem from this period, for example, in the works of Andreas Vesalius, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Francis Bacon. Artists then began to include nature as an important subject of its own, not just as a background for religious themes or portraits of important figures, and themes from nature also entered the madrigal literature, including in the new solo madrigal of the seventeenth century, and, along with love, eventually became a staple of the canon of art song, canozone, and lied. Aside from the important fact that such music depends on words that unavoidably have extra-musical and thus social meaning, the rise of focus on the individual increasingly led to states of mind that experienced both the themes of love and nature in new and important arts-related ways.[53] The very topic of love is social in essence and effect.

In particular, certain psychological language regarding expressive or affective aspects of an individual’s artistic experience increasingly came into use, in addition to the ongoing recognition of the praxial nature of the arts.[54],[55] Thus, by the late Renaissance, the idea of the fine arts began to take shape and “the art of music began to free itself from any rigid or absolute social function,” as musicologist Charles Rosen approvingly describes the beginnings of the aestheticizing of music as an emancipation from the supposedly prosaic life lived more fully through music.[56],[57]

By the eighteenth century, intellectual currents in Europe associated with the Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment, particularly in Germany but also in France, coalesced the long history of philosophical theorizing about music, an intellectual history that is altogether distinct from the praxial purposes actually served by music throughout history, into an aesthetic theory of the fine arts that sought not only to replace the universal praxialism of previous centuries but to altogether reject it.[58],[59] Importantly, “the concept of musical autonomy became voguish at precisely the point and for many of the reasons that art as a whole was increasingly being rethought (i.e., that the fine arts were being Romanticized [in the 19th century])” in purely aesthetic terms.[60] Notice, for example, that Rosen, quoted above, writes that music had to “free itself” from, what, the burden its many praxial functions?—as though these social conditions and functions that occasion music in the first place were somehow impure, debasing, or limiting.

Thus arises the idea of music as “immaculate, disembodied and cut off from the rest of the world,” from the social practices in which music is always rooted, and the conception of music as thoroughly, and properly, divorced from the extra-musical relations, contexts, and functions that always have characterized it.[61] It is known today as absolute music, although what its absolutism consists of is neither apparent nor convincing.

Once one has decided that pieces of music are most illuminatingly to be seen as pure sound-structures, disembodied and self-sufficient, very few options remain. One is obliged either to deny that these alleged extra-musical relations are real; or to admit that they’re real, but to deny that they’re important; or, darkly suspecting them to be both real and important, one is obliged to square the circle and show how something can be essentially related to the world at the same time as it is essentially autonomous. And these alternatives have indeed absorbed a non-negligible proportion of the philosophical energies that music has attracted, with expectedly drab results.[62]

The rise of this autonomania was directly abetted by the rationalism the eighteenth-century Enlightenment inherited from the seventeenth century. Yet in its zeal for advancing the new scientific method, the Enlightenment also championed empiricism, which naturally contradicts rationalism by asserting that sensory experience (aisthesis), not reason (rationality), is the source of truth and knowledge. Aesthetic theorizing has since struggled mightily to reconcile the sensory and affective bases of artistic responding with the supposed faculty of reason venerated by Enlightenment philosophers and philosophes. 

Traditional musicologists and music theorists have claimed to follow a scientific (positivist) model in their study of music. Since “a scientifically objective finding” is “maximally independent of the vagaries of time and place, . . . and, above all, of what one might term the human element—prejudices, feelings, wants, needs,” they have attempted to account rationally for musical works as though free-standing stimulus objects that carry intrinsic and thus timeless, placeless, and faceless aesthetic meanings, values, and truths.[63] 

This objectification of musical “works” was originally given impetus early in the Renaissance by the invention in 1501 of music printing.[64]

The expansion of commercial music printing for a growing market of amateur performers fundamentally altered the way music was conceived. Prior to that, the performances would have been thought of primarily as music making—as a social practice [praxis] attached to social gatherings . . . . Since many musicians played or directed performances of their works, music had a very limited life beyond live performance. The widespread printing of sheet music and musical scores allowed music to become a tangible object [a ‘work’] like a book and thus a commodity whose use extended far beyond the sway of the composer.[65]

In the debates inherited from the Greeks, of particular interest for the arts, and for the history of science, have been the continuous attempts of philosophers to account rationally for knowledge gained through the senses, the original Greek meaning of the term aisthesis from which aesthetics had been mistakenly derived. Differences between Aristotle and Plato on this topic were decisive. “For Aristotle, aisthesis was not a form of episteme or intellectual knowledge (in this, he followed Plato), but it did nonetheless involve a judgment of sense.” However, unlike Plato, who notoriously distrusted the senses, Aristotle did attribute “an independent non-intellectual cognitive value to the senses.”[66] To account for this non-intellectual but nonetheless important and often striking cognitive knowledge provided by the senses, neo-Aristotelian thinkers hypothesized various theories of common sense that proposed internal organs or sixth-sense faculties by which the diverse and supposedly inchoate input of the senses was  synthesized for further rational judgment.[67]   

However, aisthesis, as the judgment of the senses, was not accorded fully rational or trustworthy status, in large part because it dwelled on the unique particulars of an individual’s sensory experience rather than on the abstract universals that the supposedly higher faculty of reason was believed to reveal.[68] Ideas concerning a synthesizing “common sense survived and flourished” and served as “the intuitive bases of Enlightenment rationalism” and for subsequent rationalist claims in support of a view from nowhere reachable by pure, socially disembodied and subjectively detached reason.[69],[70]  Nonetheless, the psychological language of inward sensibility that had accompanied discussions of aisthesis since Plato and Aristotle was increasingly used in reference to art and music, and eventually led to the concept of a taste for beauty that would be enshrined in post-Kantian and analytic aesthetic theory as the aesthetic theory of art, one among other theories of art.[71]

In particular, it led to the attempts of German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten’s attempt to legitimate judgments of sense regarding art in terms more favorable to the prevailing rationalism of the Enlightenment. However, Baumgarten’s first and groundbreaking treatise deals entirely with poetry.[72] Of this, Osborne observes: “It is ironic . . . that both the philosophical concept of aesthetics (in Baumgarten) and the modern philosophical concept of art (in the early German Romantics) should have been based on the generalization of a literary model” to all the arts.[73] Thus, following his Aesthetica of 1750, Baumgarten’s original claims for poetry were indiscriminately applied to the other arts, despite the obviously major differences in media and artistic praxis, gave the new philosophical discipline its name, and provided the philosophical and rational foundations for the concept of fine art that survives to this day.

In his treatise, Baumgarten worried that “sensate representations,” as he called the sensations resulting from aisthesis, “were representations received through the lower part of the cognitive faculty,” and thus were “confused.”[74]  From the Greeks to the Enlightenment, in attempting to reconcile the particulars revealed by sense with the universals reached by reason,

the movement of thought was always assumed to be upward, at once toward the mental [i.e., rational] and the more real.  The “confused” as the merely sensed was also potentially intelligible, and was at the bottom of the ladder of human knowledge. From such a standpoint the “confused” world was literally inarticulate, awaiting translation to a plane of a truer distinctness.[75] 

Baumgarten’s “new science of aesthetics”  thus, “was to be to sensuous knowledge, or to the lower part of the cognitive faculty, as logic is to intellectual knowledge,” that is, “his ‘aesthetics’ was thus a science of the ‘perfection of sense,’ to be achieved by the analysis of what pleased and displeased sense.”[76]

In inventing the term “aesthetic” (aesthetica in the Latin) to denote the science of sensory knowledge of beauty—“perfection of sense”—Baumgarten was deploying a broadly Aristotelian conception of aisthesis to counter the shortcomings of the Platonic inheritance of Leibnizian rationalism in matters of taste: its derogatory, or at best contradictory estimation of the senses.[77]

Baumgarten’s intent, then, was to make the “prerational sensate judgment” of aisthesis more “distinct,” or clear, and thus more acceptably rational to those in the tradition of Plato, who continued to distrust the senses.[78] Nonetheless, following the influence of seventeenth-century arch-rationalist Leibniz, who staunchly maintained the separation of mind and body, in the hands of the Enlightenment philosophers such “distinctness thus presupposes analysis and definition.”[79] 

In line with the Enlightenment’s paradigm that to know is to analyze, define, and label, the discourse of traditional aesthetics, other disciplines, and art and music critics thus increasingly rationalized the arts.[80],[81] Accordingly, the idea of appreciating the arts was made dependent on intellectual analysis, dissection, autonomania, and analysis of works (viz., scores) as though they were scientific objects that needed detailed study, even dissection, in order to be known. This led directly to

the rise of a new, positivist style of musical analysis, one that could “claim to be ‘enlightened’ and therefore uninfluenced by ‘external’—sociological, political, and historical—considerations." Once it had been decided that pieces of music were essentially autonomous structures of sound, after all, it seemed evident that the analysis of those structures would reveal the innermost truths about music; and it seemed, moreover, that if one got one’s analysis right, those truths should be demonstrable.[82]

As a result, such analysis was of musical works as pure and autonomous sound structures and, in consequence, of strictly internal and supposedly intrinsic features and relations. Consequently, appreciation was seen as a matter of the cognitive and intellectual understanding of works in rational terms that must be studied, learned, and refined. “Culture required training” and thus proper comprehension and the necessary background knowledge depended on a regimen of connoisseurship required to develop refined and discriminating taste.[83]  The social connection with fine art and refinement was made abundantly clear, and the relation between high culture and cultivation (even cult) was solidified.

Despite Baumgarten’s attempts to make aisthesic sensibility more rational, the Cartesian mind-body split and the inherent contradictions between rationalism and empiricism were not resolved by the new aesthetic theory proposed by Baumgarten.[84],[85] In fact, from the very beginning, controversy and inconsistency reigned. To start with, Kant quickly “rejected Baumgarten’s notion of a pure sensory knowledge.”[86] Thus, “declarations of the impropriety of the word ‘aesthetic’ accompanied the rise of aesthetic thought itself.  The aesthetic regime of thought did not begin with the book by Baumgarten that invented aesthetics. . . .  It began with Kant’s little note challenging that invention.”[87]  

This “little note” is Kant’s footnote to his 1787 Critique of Pure Reason:

The Germans are the only people who currently make use of the word ‘aesthetic’ to signify what others call the critique of taste. This usage originated in the abortive attempt made by Baumgarten . . . to bring the critical treatment of the beautiful under rational principles, and so to raise its rules to the rank of a science. But such endeavors are fruitless.[88]  

Nonetheless, thereafter, among German philosophers, the word “aesthetics”

was more precisely defined in August W. Schlegel’s Lessons in Aesthetics, which open with the assertion that it is time to get rid of this notion of aesthetics, a veritable qualitas occulta. It was stabilized in Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, which rapidly tabled the question: The word “aesthetics,” Hegel said, is improper to designate the philosophy of beautiful art. But usage has imposed the word and it can be adopted, he continues, on the condition that one recognizes that the concept of the beautiful is exactly the opposite of what is expressed by the word aesthetics.[89]

However, by 1790, forty years after Baumgarten’s Aesthetica, “Kant radically altered his skeptical view of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline” and, as a lesser part of his overall Critique of Judgment, his theory of free and universal judgments of beauty and the sublime were mistakenly turned by aesthetic philosophers into an aesthetic theory of art.[90],[91] “[N]amely, that works of art are things that have been designed for the purpose of bringing about aesthetic responses of the sort characterized in Kant’s theory of (free) beauty.”[92] In fact, Kant found art to be inferior to natural beauty because nature is free of human impurities.[93] He thought that wallpaper using nature themes was beautiful.

Accordingly, “Kant’s theory is not a theory of art” but an analysis of “free (rather than ‘dependent’) beauty,”  in particular judgments about beauty in nature.[94] In his analysis

Kant wants to offer an account of the way in which such judgements can be universal and necessary even though they are based solely on our subjective feeling of pleasure when we see something like a stunning sunset. Put crudely, Kant wants to explain how, on the basis of my subjective experience alone, I can justifiably expect everyone else to assent to my judgement that ‘this sunset is beautiful.’[95]

“To this end, Kant develops and elaborates a theory of authentic judgements of taste” that distinguishes between “the ‘agreeable arts’ of amusement that serve purposes of distraction and entertainment, and the ‘fine arts’ which are their own purpose.”[96] Thus was established the disdain for entertainment in connection with the fine arts that has since existed in aesthetic theorizing and classical music circles. For Kant, again, the “purposiveness without purpose” that distanced the “agreeable arts” from the “fine arts” depends on “disinterestedness” as a condition of the what later aestheticians consider to be the “aesthetic attitude” one should bring to works of art:[97],[98]

That our state of mind is disinterested—unconcerned with the practical consequences, advantages, disadvantages, and purport of the objects of attention—is thought to factor out all those interests in the object that might be suspected of making us judge the object differently from others. Thus the judgement is made on the basis of what everyone has in common . . . without the interference of any idiosyncratic interests (such as practical or political utility, the prospect of personal gain, etc.) that might skew our judgement.[99]

This notion of an aesthetic attitude of disinterestedness was transformed by subsequent philosophers and art critics “into the idea that the work of art itself is autonomous, i.e., independent of ulterior cognitive and/or utilitarian purposes. And, of course, these two views can be connected by suggesting that it is the absence of utilitarian [viz., praxial] concerns in the object that is conducive to our disinterested response to it.”[100] The resulting conclusion is that any such praxial concerns, including entertainment values, introduce subjective pleasures and interests and other practically “dependent” or merely “agreeable” variables into what should be a pure and purifying aesthetic experience.

Meanwhile, Kant’s theory of disinterested judgments of pure beauty, the staple paradigm of aesthetics became “the definitive Enlightenment version of orthodox ‘aesthetics’, revolving around an ideal of pure contemplation distinguished from and raised above sensory pleasure”  and praxis and, as has been mentioned already, was rendered into a mistaken aesthetic theory of art that has continued to be promulgated, and supposedly clarified, by various strains of analytic aesthetics, countless monographs, and shelves of reference books (obscurum per obscuris?).[101] From this point in history, art was no longer in the service of the activities of daily life but was said to exist to create a rarefied and unique experience of its own to be savored on rare and special occasions that thereby are thought to be raised above the mundane world and are thus elevating. In consequence, “released from its functions . . . , art became an object of free choice and of changing preference,” thus rapidly creating a new taste public for the contemplation of works of art and music, the latter through the new institution of the public concert and the corresponding invention of classical music as we know it today.[102],[103]

The practice of contemplating music as though for its own sake was decidedly advanced by the developing institution of the public concert, or vice versa. Music quickly became a bourgeois “commodity, a package of culture to be acquired through sheet music and concert-going.”[104] With the rise of this new market for music, the number of concerts grew rapidly and the consequent competition for audiences created a need to advertise. As the public gained access to “culture” in concert halls, theaters, and museums, journals of art and cultural criticism began to appear in large numbers in the public sphere.[105] Through these and the proliferation of aesthetic writings by philosophers in the nineteenth century, most of whom felt obliged to have a section on aesthetics as part of their comprehensive theory, the new aesthetic orthodoxy of the time “established a specious science of ‘taste,’ which still underpins all our institutionalized and habitual thought on the subjects of art and beauty.”[106]   

The disinterestedness at the heart of the aesthetic attitude’ thus fueled the “art for art’s sake” view of musical value that diverted attention from the many praxial functions and values of music described above. As a result, “that art objects properly so called are designed in such a way as to promote intellectually engaged, contemplative participation” has become the keynote of much orthodox aesthetic theory, especially with regards to the idea of music being for its own sake.[107]

4. Conclusions for education

The social and cultural history presented here concerning autonomania strongly urges a rejection of the claim of autonomy. Music and art exist and continue to be vital to the lives of millions around the world because of their praxial benefits, and their contribution to living the good life. Relying on the theory that music is autonomous of social contexts is a predictable way of turning off its relevance to students and much of society. The speculative arguments for autonomania might contribute to the scholarly status of aestheticians in the ivory tower but, when applied to the praxis of music education, they have had decidedly negative consequences for its status and intended benefits. Music adrift from lived meanings and sociocultural contexts is especially not congenial to children and adolescents, or their parents, or to the institutional conditions of schooling.

In particular, it has led to the problem that school music education itself is also too typically autonomous from the rest of the music world, especially the adult music world. Despite the prevalence of school music ensembles, participation seems to be more as a school activity, an interest that clearly doesn’t last beyond graduation and best used before the end of schooling. The typical school music literature has been critiqued, especially by aesthetes, as lightweight and not providing lasting aesthetic benefits for students.[108] 

Music education in schools is thus too typically autonomous of the music going on in life around us. Its own autonomania often ignores what most concerns people who love music, which is its relevance to their lives, where appreciation is seen pragmatically in how and how often musicking is included in their lives. School music proceeds with its concerts, competitions, marching bands, show choirs, and other institutionalized formats to the greater local glory of the directors, with typically no transfer of meaning or affection to the lives of graduates. The teacher may be praised but, depending on the country and curriculum, those teaching music are not always competent musicians.[109] Yet music teachers, for good reasons, attempt to provide a different door to the world of music, apart from the evident role it already plays in students’ lives. But their efforts are too often in vain, including individual or private music lessons, as regards making an effective difference in the lives of students, already smothered by musics in the media and by other attractions for their time.

As a result, music education in schools and private studios often has little or no lasting impact on students or society. In fact, aesthetes and connoisseurs are the first to complain about the lowly status of the public’s tastes. The autonomy of school music and its literature and practices clearly have not convinced many taxpayers and educational officials of its value, thus leading to a worrisome lack of financial and administrative support. Which is very unfortunate, since music is so important to society. It is, perhaps following only language, a major variable in constituting contemporary sociocultural life.

The autonomania in music theory, history, and music education is, thus, counterproductive and self-defeating. Declining and graying audiences are the result. Schools should instead approach music as a living praxis according to the opposite theory, that music is a very profound medium of social meaning, cohesiveness, identity, and harmony. Why deny that in favor of abstract and speculative autonomania? A praxial theory of music education, that is, music as “doing” music, musicking, in any of its many instantiations, will, instead, cement the role of music as an absolutely major variable in society. 

This is, of course, not what is projected by pedagogical theories predicated on aesthetic autonomy or by standard practices of music education in many countries, especially since the music theory and history studies of many music teachers only incline them to autonomania. Music is and has always been a social praxis the value of which is the many social uses that it serves, everything from social dancing, to religious uses, to ethnic and national solidarity, and as a major ingredient in social gatherings of all kinds! Against the aesthetics of musical autonomania, human engagement with the role of music in life has a decided advantage. Autonomania clearly has already lost the debate of whether music is connected to life rather than arriving from Mars. Yet music education seems too often to be formally committed to autonomania and, in fact, is losing ground regularly to music as we know it in society. Music education ought to instead be, based on the musics and musicking encountered in the world around us, and for its relevance throughout life to the life well-lived.

Autonomania has no pragmatic ground to stand on and is clearly losing the increasing struggle for a place for music in the curriculum. Music educators, and aestheticians, might well consult the literature cited here in reconsidering the importance and virtue of musica practica. “[L]ike every art-form, music is a site where as well as the dialogue of individual voices, competing ideologies engage in battle to express themselves, often through a kind of artistic guerilla warfare. But this is largely obscured by the dominant modes of public [and much scholarly] discussion of music, which fail to see the links between music and society.” [110]


Thomas A. Regelski

Thomas A. Regelski is Distinguished Professor (Emeritus), SUNY, Fredonia NY. In addition to over a hundred journal articles and chapters, he is author of six books.  He is a docent at Helsinki University (Finland) and lectures occasionally at the Sibelius Academy.

Published May 23, 2017.



[1] Top; Edward Lippman, A History of Western Musical Aesthetics (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992),
p. 20; below; Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800–1900. (Berkeley: University of California Press 1990), p. xii (emphasis original).

[2] John Dewey, Art as Experience. (New York: Perigee/Putnam’s Sons, 1934/1980), pp. 6-7.

[3]Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).

[4] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 10.

[5] Thomas A. Regelski, “The Aristotelian Bases of Music and Music Education,” The Philosophy of Music Education Review, 6, 1 (Spring 1998): 22-59.

[6] Aaron Ridley, The Philosophy of Music: Themes and Variations (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004),
p. 11.

[7] Dewey, Art as Experience, p. 10.

[8] See, e.g., John Kaemmer, Music in Human Life: Anthropological Perspectives on Music (Austin: University of Texas Press. 1993); Timothy Rice, Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2014.

[9] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (MIT Press, 1989/1962), p. 162.

[10] Ellen Dissanayake, What Is Art For? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[11] Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998). David Elliott, (Music Matters, New York: Oxford University Press), refers to “musicing” with the same intention of stressing music as an active practice, as against “works” as “things.” For both Small and Elliott, musicing or musicking have the same active relationship to music as loving does to love. And for both, music thus embraces an endless variety of musicing/musicking, so that “musics” stand in relation to “music” as “foods” do to “food” or that “laws” do to “law.”

[12] Small, Musicking, 13.

[13] See, e.g., Peter Martin, Music and the Sociological Gaze (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006); John Shepherd, Music as a Social Text (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).

[14] Tim Blanning, The Triumph of Music The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 2008), pp. 85-86.

[15] Blanning, Triumph of Music, pp. 85-89; Judith Flanders, Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (New York: Harper Perrenial/HarperCollins, 2007),
pp. 343-378.

[16] Adam Zamoyski, Chopin: Prince of the Romantics (New York: Harper Press, 2011), p. 152.

[17] Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow:The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 85-168; Blanning, Triumph of Music, pp. 89-91.

[18] Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001),
pp. 187-224; 189, 197.

[19] It is not accidental, therefore, that audience decorum at concerts and recitals of classical music exhibits the habitual display of ritualistic social behaviors that signify that such music is indeed a very serious, even spiritual matter. Audience listening is a distinct social practice of its own that typically goes unacknowledged in accounts of the experience of supposedly autonomous music. See Levine (Highbrow/Middlebrow, pp. 171-242) for an analysis of changes in audience behavior in relation to all the fine arts; see, James Johnson (