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Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Three

Questions on Music for Five Experts – Part Three

niin & näin 3/15

[ks. suomenkielinen versio]


Kathleen Higgins
Professor of Philosophy
University of Texas at Austin
Author of The Music of Our Lives (1991) & The Music Between Us (2012)


What is music? What does it mean?

I use a broad definition of music. I accept John Blacking’s definition of “humanly organized sound,” but add “…and sounds produced by other species that we can hear as musical.” In general, I think hearing (or tactilely feeling) sounds as music is more important than necessary and sufficient conditions. 

Music means in various ways. Because music moves, it invites associations with all sorts of other things that move, including people in the grip of certain emotions or dramas of various sorts. Through these associations, it takes on metaphorical and symbolic meanings. It can have meaning for particular people because of associations they have with it personally. It can also have meaning because of associations it has for whole communities, or because communities have chosen to link it with certain things (an office or a kind of occasion, for example). It can also acquire meaning by being associated with given texts.

Music can acquire meaning by being repeated on multiple occasions. When this happens, some impression of previous times the listener has heard it typically enriches the present experience.

Obviously, the audience brings a lot with it to the experience of music. Listeners draw on their entire background in interpreting music, including their general background with music and sometimes their previous acquaintance with the very piece they are hearing. And they continue to make connections and comparisons as they listen. The meaning of music keeps growing.

Why do we keep listening to it? 

We enjoy it. We enjoy it on so many levels simultaneously (physically, emotionally, symbolically, structurally, often socially) that it makes us feel more integrated as human beings than we often do in everyday life. Music is dynamic, and it imparts its dynamic to us. We want to move along with it. It makes us feel full of life.

Even when we are only listening, we are not passive, but actively engaged, so we also take satisfaction in our own capacities and powers. It gives us a sense of adventure, too. Charles Nussbaum has pointed out that music makes use of the same brain circuitry that movement and planning actions do. The result is that we engage in a kind of off-line exploration when we listen. Music also makes us feel connected with the entire environment and other people who share it with us. And in many works of music that undergo structural development, we track a drama as the music unfolds and moves toward a conclusion, an enjoyable thing in itself.

I’d be inclined to reverse the question: Why wouldn’t we listen?

What has not been comprehended about music?

I think it remains a mystery why sound, per se, moves us as deeply as music does, even if the considerations I just mentioned are part of the story. We experience sound itself as “moving,” and even though we can describe this as an illusion, it’s rather mysterious why this occurs. And we often identify ourselves, in an intimate sense, with music. How this is possible maybe can’t be explained. But it’s wonderful that this happens.

Another thing that hasn’t been explained is what makes a catchy tune catchy or where it comes from. You might be able to explain all kinds of things about how cleverly someone has set or developed the tune. But the source and power of the basic tune – that’s mysterious, too.

What is the most deplorable misunderstanding concerning music?

I think the most deplorable misunderstanding is the idea that science can explain everything important about it. Science can tell us certain things (for example, about our perceptual powers and how sound affects them), but it can’t explain music’s evocative power or where musical ideas ultimately come from.

What is the most important goal for musicology or philosophy of music?

The most important goal is to enhance our experience of music and help us to recognize the valuable roles music can play in our lives. All the more specific goals these two fields have should be subordinate to those.

Why do we still need to listen to Mozart? Why would it be advisable to try to fathom Stockhausen’s pieces? 

Mozart’s music exploits the possibilities available within the Western tonal system in a way that is mathematically ingenious yet unforced. The four distinct themes that are at work simultaneously in the finale of “Jupiter” symphony, for example, make it sound as though complex harmony of independent realities happens naturally and easily. This is morally as well as intellectually inspiring. It demonstrates the possibility of complicated, independent “lives” (if you will) operating in tandem to deeply satisfying effect. Mozart’s music is some of the most meaningful music we have: brilliantly structured, catchy, emotionally and spiritually profound. It is also designed to satisfy our senses, given the perceptual habits that Western tonality has cultivated. Furthermore, because it has canonical status and is therefore among the most often performed, Mozart’s music tends to acquire layers of enriching association for listeners, both individually and culturally.

Stockhausen’s pieces are valuable for expanding our musical consciousness, making us aware of the many possibilities beyond classical music based on tonality that developed over a few centuries in Western Europe. Stockhausen was a great experimenter, using chance, electronics, non-standard instruments, surprising conjunctions of the traditional and the innovative. His music can prompt us to think about music in new ways, to notice interesting connections between music and space, and to recognize the unique circumstances of every musical performance.

Why are there so few women composers?

For much the same reason that there have traditionally been few women artists in general. Women have been steered into other things, often excluded from the best schools, and led to believe that being a composer is a man’s role. The field of composition has also been associated with the genius myth, the idea that great music is composed mainly by individuals who are born with a unique gift that will manifest itself regardless of personal, social, and historical circumstances. This has tended to render the nurturing conditions for achievement less visible and thus make the fact that women have mostly been denied the wherewithal to pursue a career as composer seem irrelevant to the rarity of their success in this area.

Girls won’t pursue a role or career unless they can visualize themselves working in it. It is encouraging that more women are becoming composers, but it will take time before the effects of the long history of exclusion and discouragement disappear.

How could we correct our conception of music, essentially cooked up from 18th to 20th-century western ingredients, with something originating from other times and places?

The main way is to expose ourselves to other music. We live in a time when music of all sorts is relatively easy to find, since recordings from around the globe are available. With YouTube, one can do a lot of exploration without traveling, even though experiencing music in context would give one a fuller sense of the scope of the musical world. Taking the time to learn a bit about how very foreign-sounding music is structured can also help correct our conception. But there’s no substitute for listening.

Is the distinction between absolute or autonomous music on the one hand, and non-absolute or non-autonomous music on the other, a serviceable tool in making sense of the topic?

The distinction helps us understand something about music history and a number of important cultural transformations. However, I think absolute music is appreciated in part because of its association with extra-musical life, just as non-absolute music is, and over-emphasizing the distinction may obscure this. The distinction has its place, but it can blind us to certain things. For example, a voice singing words may be treated as an instrument, and instrumental music that isn’t associated with a text or program can still suggest a dramatic plot that develops and unfolds.

What are you studying currently? 

I am working on a project on the aesthetics of loss and mourning. Music is a part of this project, but not the primary focus.

What are you listening to right now?

A lot of things. But among my favourite kinds of concerts are performances of the wonderful string quartet that is based here at the University of Texas at Austin and any performance of Indian classical music. 


[cf. the other four staccato interviews: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five]


Asiasanat: in English, music, an interview, musiikki, haastattelut, [HTML]
Teema/osio: Musiikki
Henkilöviitteet: Higgins, Kathleen

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