What is music and why is it important?

I am currently in an Aesthetics course, and in the process of discussing the Kantian version of aesthetics, I find myself wondering about these questions again:

What exactly is music?  What is the object that is a ‘piece’ of music, a ‘work’ of art? And why do we care so much about it, if we do?  Why do we think it is important?

Out of curiosity, I wonder: how would you answer these questions?

One music theorist’s thoughts:

What music is, what and how it means, what meaning is, and why we are interested in musical meaning in the first place: these questions are not meant to be answered definitively nor with a commanding transhistorical attribution but posed periodically to keep us alert and honest. […] While interpretation can be framed dialogically to ensure that original meanings and subsequent accretions are neither ignored nor left uninterrogated, the final authority for any interpretation rests on present understanding.  Today’s listener rules.

~ Kofi Agawu, Music as Discourse, p. 4

One theologian/musician’s thoughts:

It is probably true to say […] that classical music is not so much dying as changing its social and cultural role. […] for many, classical music has come to fulfill the role that is common and basic to most music in our culture today (whatever other functions it may perform at the same time): namely, managing our mood.

[…] to be true to the Western tonal tradition, it is best to think of music primarily as an art of actions–the most basic actions being music making and music hearing.  These actions nevertheless involve things that have their own particular integrity–sound-producing materials and sound waves, the human body, the dimension of time, and distinctively musical sound patterns. […] the actions of music are closely intertwined with a rich and complex context.

[…] it makes more sense to view music as first and foremost a set of practices or activities from which works may or may not emerge.  As Nicholas Cooke expresses it, “Music doesn’t just happen, it is what we make it, and what we make of it.  People think through music, decide who they are through it, express themselves through it. . . . It is less a ‘something’ than a way of knowing the world, a way of being ourselves.”

[…] making a conscious effort to do justice to the other side of the matter, music’s embeddedness in a cosmos created out of the inexhaustible abundance of the Triune God.

~ Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth, pp. 36, 38, 40, 58


3 thoughts on “What is music and why is it important?

  1. For additional consideration: how might you respond to Hegel’s claim that music, or rather the arts in general, “appear to fall outside the real purposes of life” (Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, [VI])?

    • Hi Emma

      Don’t worry, I’ll get around to addressing Hegel’s claim eventually. Ultimately, you’ll find that I do not agree with him. If you can tolerate my open stream of consciousness, you’ll see why 🙂

      (warning, this will probably be long and poorly edited, and I don’t intend to cite anything… I plan to just ramble. Also, I’m probably going to stray from your initial post as I’m more interested in your comment)

      Well, I’m not entirely convinced that there are any “real purposes of life” in the first place. Even the common argument that “life exists purely to continue” is flawed in my opinion – life has definitely NOT mastered continuity and preservation… it just hasn’t totally screwed it up yet. The game is definitely still on though!

      However, that said, I don’t think that life is without meaning, just because it’s essentially devoid of inherent purpose. Comfort is definitely real, and (for most people?) preferable. So, we act in a way that increases our comfort. Given that motivation things begin to take on meaning. Once enough meaning is floating around, purpose of a sort can arise. This is not inherent, but constructed meaning however. Not that there is anything wrong with that! I definitely don’t find that unpoetic, unfulfilling, or anything notionally depressing.

      Since anything is essentially defined by its differences to everything else, meaning only comes out of comparisons. Our brain can only learn and evaluate in that way. It follows that anything which stimulates new connections or comparisons in our mind is interesting, because we are essentially learning, albeit in an abstract way when the stimulus is artistic. Even the most purely cognitive and abstract knowledge eventually boils down to helping us process and evaluate physical sensation.

      I suppose that the “purpose of life”, if anything at all, is to expand our personal knowledge of sensation and sentient experience. We can do that by directly experiencing new things ourselves, or by sharing our experiences with others. Hence, the use of art (and especially music, being temporal) as a communicative medium!

      Other ways of reaching out towards the total fulfillment of this “purpose” include the treatment of oneself and one’s various communities as connected members of a single whole. By selflessly helping another, you are generally contributing to yourself, though not in the selfish sense of hoping for an immediate reward. By helping another, the world IS actually a better place, by virtue of one member being aided and another being a positive influence on other members. This is also why I think that monogamy is the truest expression of the drive to “know” more… the ultimate experience that we want to have but can never actually achieve, is to know exactly what another feels. We try so hard to approximate that through languages, shared experiences, stories, and personal relationships, etc. Ultimately, the closest we can get to that is a deep intimacy with another person – a shared existence.

      SOOO… to make my response to Hegel more clear:

      Music and the Arts in general definitely do NOT fall outside the “real” purposes of life. The meaning of all things is brought about by the differences in how they cause sensation within us. If we are not expanding and refining our knowledge of sensations, then by (my) definition we aren’t alive. So if any purpose at all is to be ascribed to life, it is the development of community and shared experience. The Arts (and in my opinion, music best of all) is one way of sharing and or provoking experience, even if in a somewhat abstract manner.

      Basic survival concepts such as food and shelter hardly constitute “real purpose” as far as I’m concerned.

      Interesting side issue – which do you like more? A piece of music which conveys a specific experience, which the composer had and wanted to transmit? Or, a music which simply creates a fresh new experience for the listener, no specific outcome or dialogue intended by the composer?

      If you got this far, I’m thoroughly impressed with your attention span! In that case, I hope you found this interesting 🙂

      See you around school. You should hang out with us Wednesday; I’ll just get a pepsi.


  2. As you can probably imagine from the premise of this blog, I have quite a different worldview at bottom. However, I agree with your conclusion that music and the arts are not outside of the real purposes of life (and so does Hegel for that matter! He merely presents this view early on in his Lectures). That they are a vehicle for sharing or provoking experience seems clear, and I would go one step further and suggest that they perhaps “reveal” aspects of our humanity and our interaction with the world outside of us within the parameters of their specific media. For example, in music, we discover how we as humans and how we as individuals respond to the music, and in turn we experience movement (in the sense of being moved), as well as pleasure or displeasure (or other sensations) that is concentrated in the musical moment as it were. Music also seems to impact our experience of time and seems to facilitate worship, and more generally mood. Lest I get too rambly, let me conclude this way: music shapes the way we view ourselves in a way that is more than rational, that opens up the possibilities of communal experience, and that affirms our humanity. And I have to go! So I might return and continue.

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