Logo Utrecht University

Philosophy of the Arts


How does music mean?

A Kind of Depiction?

Would one recognise exactly what is depicted by some piece of music? Try this experiment: Perform a piece of music notable for its pictorial nature, hand out a piece of paper to everyone in the audience, and have them sketch the scene depicted.

A translation

Perhaps it is a viable thought to take music’s meaning to consist of some sort of translation? From colours to tones.
How would a Rembrandt self-portrait sound? Would it sound the same way it looks? Would the music be a master piece too? Would it resemble Rembrandt? Would it express what the portrait expresses?
One will probably want to add the extra requirement that the musical result would be sui generis: it will listen to musical norms. But does this allow for all aspects of the painting to be transposed into music

Cross-Categorial Translation

The thought of Cross-Categorial Translation is about the various sense-modalities of perception:

  1. From sounds to colour (synaesthesia): this counts as a species of perception if and only if all those who suffer from it agree on the criteria. As they don’t (or at least to my knowledge: seem not to), synaesthesia points to a cock-up in neural connections in these people’s brains. Intriguing though it is, it is a wet-ware failure rather than a cognitive faculty.
  2. Movements (and the other primary qualities) can be translated cross-modally! Dropping leaves—visually perceived movements—can be translated into audibly perceived musical movement. (But check the debate between Scruton and Budd on this).

A Kind of Expression?

What is expressed in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Would a listener with no prior knowledge of the work (or its title) know which season was expressed in either of its parts; would such a listener know that it was a season in the first place that was expressed?
Probably, musical expression is our best bet of understanding music’s meaning. But it is not a kind of representation, is it? (check Van Gerwen).

Budd, Malcolm. 2003. “Musical Movement and Aesthetic Metaphors.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 43:209–223.
Gerwen, Rob van. 2001. “Expression as Representation.” In Richard Wollheim on the Art of Painting. Art as Representation and Expression, edited by Rob van Gerwen, 135–50. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Scruton, Roger. 2004. “Musical Movement. A Reply to Budd.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 44:184–187.

You must be logged in to post a comment.