Making sense of the world with music

Meaning beyond language


When the world doesn’t seem to make sense, many of us turn to music. Some philosophers see it as a contentless abstraction that simply elicits an emotional response in us. But music isn’t just beautiful noise. It carries with it meaning and significance that as listeners we’re always interpreting. Schopenhauer was right: music has a meaning that escapes ordinary language. It can connect us to the world and help us make sense of it in ways that no philosophical discourse can, argues Andrew Bowie.


One of the ways I have coped with the pandemic has been through listening ever more intensively to music. The piece I often returned to was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, not least because, like so much Beethoven, it makes sense out of adversity, in ways that just thinking about adversity as a philosopher often doesn’t.

The initial sense any music makes is inherent in the fact that it is not heard just as noise but engages us in specific ways that other sounds do not. Musical experiences enable us to connect with the world in new ways, by giving a unique quality to the experience of time, to shifts in mood and to the way patterns and forms relate to emotions.

Andrew Bowie: Art, Philosophy, and Truth Art, Philosophy, and Truth Read more No verbal description, though, captures the ways in which a particular piece of music evokes the overcoming of adversity. Music simply resists wholesale conversion into verbal language. This leads to significant divergences in philosophical responses to music, which can range from denying music has any meaning at all, to maintaining that its meaning is superior to what can be said in words. What I want to suggest is that music offers ways of sense-making which philosophy, in many of its contemporary forms, does not and that this sense can itself be philosophical.

Does music mean anything?

Arturo Toscanini reportedly said of the Eroica: ‘To some it's Napoleon, to some it's philosophical struggle, to me it's allegro con brio’. Analytic philosopher Peter Kivy maintains that the Eroica ‘has no content to reveal, no message to decode’, being, ‘in a sense … pure contentless abstract form’. For Toscanini a practicing musician has to be true to the specifics of the score rather than primarily attending to the music’s meaning, and this can be reflected positively – and sometimes negatively – in how he performed the music. Kivy is concerned with what can be said to have ‘meaning’ at all. Meaning is here, as in much of the analytical tradition of philosophy, conceived of in terms of language’s capacity to designate things in the world.

Jürgen Habermas talks in this respect of the ‘erroneous reference-model of the attribution of names to objects’ that has dominated much of analytical philosophy of language, which he contrasts with views from Wilhelm von Humboldt to the later Wittgenstein and beyond, that consider the differing ways in which ‘language’ is used to come to terms with the world. Wittgenstein suggests that ‘Understanding a sentence in language is much more related to understanding a theme in music than one thinks’, and that the ‘simplest explanation’ of a musical phrase ‘is sometimes a gesture; another might be a dance step, or words which describe a dance’.

Adorno also sees music as related to gestures and to facial expressions: the need to understand these when verbal language is absent, or where what is meant is only communicable in these forms, is fundamental to social life. Even at a very mundane level, what supposedly has no ‘content’ of the kind conveyed by verbal language in the Eroica involves what is very obviously a funeral march. Furthermore, it is only in relation to the changing history of interpretations of musical meaning that it makes sense at all to deny that the Eroica has any. Part of its ‘content’ can only be understood in terms of what the symphony is trying to do that previous music did not – evident, for example, in its massive expansion of the scope of sonata form in its opening movement – and this can only be understood by investigating the contexts in which it is located and the relationships of the piece to other music, and its changing role in society.

‘Music’, in the terms of much of the ‘philosophy of music’, tends to be an object which philosophy is to observe and explicate, and priority is given to arriving at conceptual ways of describing music, that may deny or assert its capacity to make its own kind of sense. It is this kind of assumption, aspects of which are clearly valid in certain respects, that I think needs to be re-examined. As a received consensus, this view can become an obstacle to developing adequate responses to music, in ways that may tell us something important about philosophy, to the point where music may reveal things that philosophy cannot.


Making theoretical claims about whether music has content or not involves taking the stance of an observer, whereas interpreting music requires active participation.


Music as interpretation

One way of suggesting what is at issue here is the fact that performing a musical score like the Eroica or improvising on a tune in jazz are often referred to as ‘interpreting’ the score or the tune. Making theoretical claims about whether music has ‘content’ or not involves taking the stance of an observer of an object, whereas interpreting music by playing it requires active participation, where the vocabulary of objectivity is inadequate to what is happening.

Even listening to music would make little sense if listeners were not already able to participate in it by being absorbed, for example, in how it moves melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically. This absorption can lead to an articulated awareness of formal construction, but can occur in other less obviously conceptual ways, where fulfilment or non-fulfilment of felt expectations creates or resolves tension in a way that echoes the experience of tensions in everyday life. How, then, should philosophy respond to these issues?

Schopenhauer, and music as metaphysics

Kivy belongs to the ‘formalist’ tradition summarized in Eduard Hanslick’s claim that music consists of ‘sounding mobile forms’, and should be judged in terms of its value as an aesthetic object, rather than in terms of the feelings it occasions in its listeners. Hanslick did not deny the important role feelings play in the reception of music, but claimed that seeing music’s aesthetic significance in terms of feelings failed to articulate what was essential about music. Music, then, was not to be seen as a ‘language of affects’, because that would supposedly surrender it to an arbitrary subjectivism, which had to be countered by showing objective ways in which its forms could be grasped.


Schopenhauer thinks music and philosophy are inseparable, and that a complete conceptual explanation of music would be ‘the true philosophy’.


Hanslick famously championed Brahms, and was critical of Wagner. In ‘The Artwork of the Future‘ Wagner maintains, in stark contrast to Hanslick, that ‘The organ of the heart is the musical note, its artistically conscious language is music (‘Tonkunst’)’. Wagner’s conception is subsequently influenced by reading Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation in the 1850s. For Schopenhauer, music is the ‘true general language’: it ‘does not talk of things, but rather of nothing but well-being and woe, which are the sole realities for the Will’, and – illustrating what he means by the ‘Will’ – music ‘directly affects the Will, i.e. the feelings, passions and emotions of the hearer’. He goes further, claiming that music is ‘the metaphysical to everything physical in the world, the thing in itself to every appearance. One could accordingly just as well call the world embodied music as embodied Will’. Schopenhauer therefore thinks music and philosophy are inseparable, and that a complete conceptual explanation of music would be ‘the true philosophy’.


Music is experienced as having meaning, but resists having this meaning articulated verbally.


The point is, of course, that there can be no such philosophical explanation: we can in Schopenhauer’s terms only ‘intuit’, rather than know (i.e. identify by a concept), the basis of reality sought by metaphysics. We do so through experiences like the tensions and resolutions that are the basis of tonal music. These relate to our recurrent need to fulfil desire or overcome lack. What underlies the constantly changing empirical world, including ourselves, is a battle between differing moments of the Will which strive to overcome the others – animals devour other animals, and so on. (He famously maintains that history is the ‘zoology’ of humankind.) Schopenhauer, then, moves rapidly from an understanding of music that captures some elements of the experience of tonal music, to a grand metaphysical claim that cannot be justified by argument, because its initial premise is not conceptual, and invokes something directly given. The temptation to do this relies on the fact that music is experienced as having meaning – in that it differs from mere noise and affects how we experience the world – but resists having this meaning articulated verbally. We do not, though, need to adopt Schopenhauer’s inflation of this into metaphysics: the simple fact that we employ and understand gestures and facial expressions which cannot be replaced by verbal forms already involves this kind of meaning.

What does music express?

The problem here lies in the fact that a philosophical response to music that succeeded in saying what music ‘says’ could obviate the need for the music itself. Why spend those 50 or so minutes listening to the Eroica, when one could find out what it means by reading a description? If we see philosophy and metaphysics, as A.W. Moore suggests, in terms of making ‘maximal sense’ of things, one has, though, to be attentive to all the ways in which sense is made. What is at issue here is how we construe relationships between subjective and objective in the case of music, and how this relates to subject/object issues in modern philosophy. The formalist restrictions on musical meaning are directed against a subjectivism which reduces music to whatever anyone feels when they hear it. But his cangive rise to an objectification of music that ends up, as Kivy does, saying that it just expresses ‘garden variety’ emotions, of sadness, joy, etc.

Adorno says of the term expression in music that ‘where it was used for the longest time and the most emphatically, namely technically, as a musical marking, it does not demand that something specific, particular psychological states (‘seelische Inhalte’) be expressed. Otherwise expressivo would be replaceable by the names for the particular thing to be expressed’. The ‘sadness’ that might be said to characterise the finale of Mahler’s Ninth just isn’t ‘garden variety’ sadness – if sadness is the right word at all in this context. It obviously differs from the sadness of the finale of Tschaikovsky’s Pathétique (which probably influenced it). One doesn’t have to feel sad when hearing it, but what it evokes can change one’s ways of experiencing and expressing sadness, connecting us to the world in new ways. Moreover, as Daniel Barenboim has suggested, music, which ‘is so clearly able to teach you so many things’, is also able to ‘serve as a means of escape from precisely those things’. It is, then, the ways in which music connects us to the world – and can liberate us from the oppressive aspects of the world – that play a decisive role in how it makes sense, and these are not all articulable in a philosophical description.

Music as participation in the world

If we don’t regard music just as an object with perceived ‘emotional properties’ (Kivy), of the kind that philosophy (or science) is supposed to articulate, the alternative is to think of it in terms which do not rely on an objectifying stance. One of the sources of modern philosophy’s frequent failure to respond adequately to music lies precisely in the fact that it often sees music as an object that is to be grasped by a subject. This leads to endless debates over issues like ‘is the music beautiful because I like it, or do I like it because it’s beautiful?’. Such debates, though, just rerun a version of the sceptical doubt inherent in an epistemological model which tries to guarantee a reliable contact between ‘mind’ and ‘world’, subject and object. In doing so, the debates ignore all the ways in which we inhabit the world that make sense in a manner which cannot be captured by this philosophical model.


Music is itself a philosophical resource that can make a kind of sense which philosophy, as presently constituted, often neglects.


Martha Nussbaum suggests a more productive approach, which, as Wittgenstein also recommends, gets away from the idea that music is mysterious because we can’t fully say what it means in verbal language: ‘Musical works are somehow able – and, after all, this “somehow” is no more and no less mysterious than the comparable symbolic ability of language – to embody the idea of our urgent need for and attachment to things outside ourselves that we do not control, in a tremendous variety of forms’. It is not that these forms cannot be illuminated by explanations, but these rely on what it is that first engages us and attaches us to the music. Stanley Cavell talks in this context of the situation in relation to art where ‘if you do not see something, without explanation, then there is nothing further to discuss’.

The wider implications for philosophy of the ineliminable participatory aspect of music can be suggested via Jürgen Habermas’ discussion of the effects of the participatory forms of Christian ritual – which very often involve music – on the development of Western philosophy. He talks, in terms which can directly apply to music, of taking ‘domains of experience seriously that first have to be disclosed performatively through participation in a practice before they can then be made into an object of investigation’, and links this priority of participation to understandings of art in the modern period. What Habermas refers to is clearly present in aspects of the history of modern music. Towards the end of the 18th century, as the cognitive realm comes to be occupied ever more exclusively by the modern sciences, music, while also becoming an object of the natural sciences, plays a heightened social and intellectual role, of the kind reflected in the effect of Beethoven, Wagner and others on many areas of culture, including philosophy. Bryan Magee claims of Wagner’s influence on Nietzsche, for instance, that ‘There is no other such example in the whole of our culture of a creative artist who is not himself a philosopher having a philosophical influence of this magnitude on someone who was indeed a great philosopher’.

It makes no sense any more to harbour the kind of grand metaphysical ambitions evident in Schopenhauer’s and the early Nietzsche’s valorisation of music, but music can still play a major role for us because it offers resources for extending forms of cultural communication when discursive means come up short. Think of how jazz helped change social and political attitudes, in ways that arguing about those attitudes may never have done. Seeing things in this way can lead in the direction of a ‘philosophy of music’, which, rather than seeking to objectify music, sees music itself as a philosophical resource that can make a kind of sense which philosophy as presently constituted often neglects. Because it widens the scope of how we make sense of the world to take more emphatic account of ourselves as active participants in the world, rather than its mere observers, music – perhaps even more than the other arts – can reveal deficits in contemporary philosophy.

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Lisa Martin 22 February 2022

Thanks for sharing this post