Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Beauty vs. Pathology

Before finishing the Ultimate Ron Paul Smackdown, a fulfilled promise! In this post, I review On the Musically Beautiful.

Hanslick despises the "feeling-theory" of music, which is the belief that music's purpose is the arousal of feelings. Under this theory, good music is that which can arouse the appropriate feelings with its notes, making the listener feel what the composer felt. There is an obvious problem with this theory - nothing in the notes and their arrangement necessarily contains a specific feeling, or can reliably induce the experience of certain emotions. Often, the feelings music causes are due to the words of the song - but then, music would arouse feelings as poetry, not as music. Further, different words can be put to the same music, producing different feelings - another strike against the feeling-theory. Finally, the theory has this failing: if music is successful by arousing feelings, then psychoactive drugs would be better substitutes for music. Think of it this way; if music does not have a unique, internal beauty, but derives its value merely by causing an effect in the human psyche, then something that would cause that effect with greater efficiency would completely take the place of music. Someone may object: But music causes feelings beautifully, artfully, whereas drugs are mechanical and utile. If, however, music's value is solely due to the arousal of feelings, the means for arousing those feelings is meaningless.

Enough about the deficiencies of the feeling-theory. What of Hanslick's view? Hanslick located independent and unique beauty in musical arrangement of notes. That beauty is independent because the arrangement of the notes, not their effect on the listener, constitutes the entire range of music's beauty. Nothing in the listener, nor in the words attached to the notes, can inflate or diminish the beauty of the notes; otherwise, music is a less-efficient drug or a mere incident to poetry. Musical beauty is unique because it is purely a product of human creation, having no prototype in nature, but at the same time is entire nonconceptual. To the first half of that description: sounds occur in nature, but those sounds are never arranged in any musical pattern. Bird songs don't qualify for some reason I can't quite remember - presumably they do not include the technique displayed in music. To the second half: music, unlike poetry and literature, does not require the recognition of concepts and the appreciation of beauty mediated by concepts. Musical beauty is appreciated immediately from the sound itself.

This book was a useful counterweight to the overwhelming school of musical aesthetics that equates musical beauty with the arousal of feelings. Further, it was nice to read someone who was both a musician and a philosopher slam those with no such interdisciplinary knowledge. Hegel comes in for criticism; Wagner too; both failed to balance the demands of philosophy and music. Philosophy demands rigor in the location and exploration of musical beauty; music itself demands that the theory of musical aesthetics actually describe concrete instances of beauty in actual pieces of music.

A good, balanced book.


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