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  • 1. Its Only Music: So Whats to Understand?Author(s): Peter KivyReviewed work(s):Source: Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 20, No. 4, 20th Anniversary Issue (Winter, 1986),pp. 71-74Published by: University of Illinois PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332603 .Accessed: 29/02/2012 04:11Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspJSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. University of Illinois Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Aesthetic Education.http://www.jstor.org
  • 2. Kivy: Its Only Music 715. See Maurice Mandelbaum, "Family Resemblances and Generalization Concerning the Arts," American Philosopbical Quarterly 2 (1965): 219-28.6. The simile is suggested by George Dickie in "What Is Art?: An Institutional Anal- ysis," reprinted in A Modern Book of Esthetics, 5th ed., ed. Melvin Rader (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), pp. 459-72. For two accounts of Arthur C. Dantos theory, see his "The Art World," Journal of Philosophy 15 (October 1964): 571-84; and "Artworks and Real Things," Theoria 39 (1973): 1-17.7. In the above-mentioned "What Is Art?: An Institutional Analysis," by George Dickie; and, more recently, in his The Art Circle: A Theory of Art (New York: Haven Publications, 1984).8. G. H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, ed. Charles Morris (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).Its Only Music: So Whats to Understand?Peter KivyIf I were to ask you the question, "Do you understandmusic?"what kindof a question would I be asking,and what kind of evidencemight I acceptfor an affirmativeanswerto it? For it is clear that the question, Do youunderstandX? would be a very different question, and the evidencefor anaffirmativeanswerto it a very different kind, dependingupon what wouldbe substitutedfor the placeholderX. If I asked you, "Do you understandGerman?"it is clearwhat kind ofa question I would be asking and that the evidence directly bearinguponan affirmativeanswerwould be your demonstratedability to providepara-phrases,in other languages,for Germansentences. It is equally clear thatthere is scarcely anyone who has thought seriously about music preparedto take this as a satisfactory model for musical understanding.For it isagreed on all hands that music is not a languagein any but an attenuatedor metaphoricalsense; and that it certainlypossessesno semanticcontent.To provide "paraphrases" Englishof pure instrumentalcompositions- inand it is "pure" instrumentalmusic of which we are speakinghere-wouldsurely be consideredmusically unsophisticatedin the extreme. Such effu-sions might, under certain circumstances,be a charmingliterary conceit,perhaps,but not to be taken seriouslyas musicalanalysis. There is, of course, a related question I might ask about linguistic"objects," by which I mean literary works of art, that can plausibly beextended to such nonlinguisticart forms as sculptureand painting.I mightask, "Do you understand Goethes Faust?" or "Do you understandRaphaels School of Athens?" and expect, as evidence of an affirmativeanswer, some kind of "interpretation":"It is about the value of humanstriving," or "It is about the reconciliationof philosophy with religion."For we think that literary works can "mean" something, as wholes,beyond what the individualsentences mean that make them up; and atleast some paintings,though by no meansall, seem to be able to bear such"meanings" too. But, again,there appearsto be no foothold in pure instru- ournal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 1986 1986 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
  • 3. 72 Journal of Aesthetic Educationmental music for that. I suppose there is the rare instance. Perhaps itmakes some kind of sense to say that Bachs Art of the Fugue is "about"the fugue. However, anyone who tried to find such musical interpretationsin any kind of thoroughgoing way would quickly come a cropper, orenter the cloud-cuckoo-land of the Romantic imagination, with music asthe revelation of "metaphysical reality," "universal harmony," or what-ever else is unintelligible enough to sound slightly mysterious and slightly"musical" at the same time. Therein madness lies. A third kind of question seems more promising. Suppose I were to asksomeone: "Do you understand clocks?" That is short, I take it, for "Doyou understand how clocks work?" And there does seem to be some plau-sible analogy here to music. For just as a clock contains an intricate mech-anism, with all sorts of complex things going on, to some overall effect, soa symphony or string quartet, when "taken apart," reveals a wealth of"internal" happenings that one might be tempted to call its "musicalmachinery." Understanding a string quartet, then, is like understandinga clock: one knows how it works. If, however, we press this analogy further, it quickly breaks down. Tounderstand how a clock works, we must understand, first, what a clock isfor: we must know that its purpose is telling time. For we may know thatthis cog pushes that lever, and that lever pushes the other gear; but untilwe know how the whole mechanism ends up "telling the time," we willunderstand neither the mechanism nor the clock. And here, of course, iswhere the analogy with music fails; for string quartets, as opposed toclocks, have no purpose at all. If someone were to get up, after listeningto the third Rasoumovsky, and ask, "Whats it for?" we could only con-clude that he was a man from Mars or someone asking some deep philo-sophical question, perhaps meaningful, but light-years away from thequestion of what the purpose is of a clock, or a printed circuit, or a canopener. Well surely, it will be replied, string quartets, and symphonies, andthose kinds of things do have a purpose: their purpose is enjoyment,appreciation, a pleasureable experience. True enough; and not beside thepoint, as I will suggest in a moment. But before we get to that it is impor-tant to understand that whatever role enjoyment, and so forth, play inour account of what understanding music is, we should see that they donot play the role of "purpose" that time telling plays vis-a-vis clocks,short-wave receiving plays vis-a-vis printed circuits, and so on. For all ofthose things can also be enjoyed, appreciated, afford pleasurable experi-ences. But a string quartet qua string quartet, or qua music, has no specificpurpose at all beyond enjoyment, if that really is a "purpose" in the full-blooded sense of the word. String quartets are meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, experiencedpleasurably. As mightily platitudinous and philosophically unfruitful asthat statement might seem, it must hold the answer to the question ofwhat we are talking about and asking about when we talk about and askabout understanding music. How is musical enjoyment related to musical understanding? On oneview, almost universally held in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,and still, in my experience, widely held by intelligent and musically sophis-ticated listeners, music is a stimulus and musical enjoyment a "natural"response, in much the same way as a drug is a stimulus and the "high" it
  • 4. Kivy: Its Only Music 73gives the "natural" response to its chemical structure. On this view, "under-standing music" can only mean understanding the mechanism by whichmusic acts on the human physiology to produce musical enjoyment, as"understanding drugs" means understanding what drugs are made of andhow what they are made of produces their particular felt effects. Noticethat on this view, I, the listener, need understand nothing about music toenjoy it, any more than I need know anything at all about chemistry andhuman physiology to get drunk. Knowledge is for experts-composers,music theorists, musicologists; and although I may be expert and listenertoo, my expertise has no more to do with my musical enjoyment than achemists has to do with the high he gets when he shoots up on heroin. I think there is no quicker or more convincing way of refuting the"stimulus-response" view of musical enjoyment and understanding than bydrawing this conclusion; for, surely, whatever view we have of the relationbetween the musical understanding and musical enjoyment, we are nomore inclined to think that our enjoyment of music has nothing to dowith our understanding of it than that our enjoyment of literature hasnothing to do with our understanding of it, however much the two casesmight differ in other respects. It seems clear, then, that the question, Doyou understand music? cannot be analogous to the question, Do youunderstand drugs? if you mean by the latter, Do you understand themechanism by which chemicals have the natural effects that they do onhuman beings? Music just is not that sort of thing. Let us change our strategy at this point to see if we can finally get atleast the beginnings of answers to our questions. What sorts of things dothe people who are supposed to understand music really say about it whenthey are exhibiting their knowledge and expertise? Leaving the historiansof music aside and going first to the music theorists, what we find themdoing, much to the puzzlement of people who take the word "theory"seriously in the phrase "music theory," is to give us very elaborate descrip-tions of music by use of a technical vocabulary that few laymen under-stand. And to the extent that "theory" is more than mere description,comprising, among other things, explanation and prediction, for example,music theory is not "theory" at all. Music theory is an elaborate and, insome respects anyway, a remarkably precise way of describing musicalobjects. And that, really, is what those who try to talk about music innontechnical language, the various music critics, program annotators, andpopularizers, are doing as well: describing music. To understand music,then, seems to be, at least in part, and in significant part, to be able todescribe it. And so we accept as evidence for an affirmative answer to thequestion, Do you understand music? correct or convincing descriptions ofit. But what is the relation of understanding music, then, to enjoying it?I think we want to say that some kind of understanding is a prerequisitefor enjoyment. However, that seems rather implausible, it might be ob-jected, if understanding music is the ability to describe it. For many peopleseem to enjoy music who would be hard pressed to offer any descriptionof it. Isnt music, after all, notoriously difficult to describe, particularlyfor the layman? Yet musical enjoyment is not the exclusive propertyof the experts. There is a fallacy here. Music is a perceptual object that we enjoy in theperceiving. And contemporary wisdom has it that perception is permeated
  • 5. 74 Journal of Aesthetic Educationthrough and through with epistemic components. Perception is a concep-tual process. Furthermore, music is an intentional object, defined in termsof how we conceptually take it to be. And every listener to music, nomatter how desultory, casual, and inept, understands what he or she hearsunder some sort of description or other, albeit vague and, perhaps, evenunconscious (in a noncontroversial sense of the word). The degree to which one can describe music-the extent and detail ofthe description under which a piece of music is perceived-is, at the sametime, the degree to which that music is understood and the extent anddetail of the perceptual object being enjoyed. And I take it as a firm,though not infallible, generalization that the degree of musical enjoymentincreases as the detail and extent of the perceived musical object increases.In ways that are too complex to go into here-and, indeed, have hardlybegun to be understood by philosophers-musical description, musicalunderstanding, musical enjoyment, and the musical "object" are all inex-tricably intertwined, not as signs, symptoms, or criteria of one another,but, somehow, as one indissoluble whole. The musical understanding has only just begun to interest philosophersof art. At this writing, some tentative moves have been made into thesubject. Roger Scruton has quite correctly contrasted what he calls "thematerial world of sound" with "the intentional world of musical experi-ence" and then gone on, more questionably, to my mind, to characterizemusical experience in terms of metaphorical description and Wittgenstein-ian aspect-perceiving. 1 Michael Tanner has made a very useful distinctionbetween levels of musical understanding and, in general, cleared awaymuch of the conceptual underbrush obscuring the issues. And MalcolmBudd, in providing commentary on both Scruton and Tanner, has furtheradvanced the topic.2 For a long while now philosophers who have beeninterested in music at all (and there have been few) have concentratedtheir attention primarily upon questions of musical "expression" and(secondarily) musical "representation." This is not surprising, for one canget at them "from the outside," as it were; and recent philosophical workin philosophical psychology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language,and representation have given us a new handle on these "ancient" musicaltopics-topics which, however, comprise only a small part of the musicalexperience. What is so much harder to do but, both musically and philo-sophically, so much more important, is to get a handle on the "pure"musical experience: music unadorned by text, title, program, or other"extramusical" paraphernalia. It is a philosophical task whose time hascome; and we will, I believe, see some substantial advances in the nearfuture. The pure musical experience has been waiting a long time to bebrought into the world of humanistic thought. Philosophy, I think, isabout to ease the passage.NOTES1. Roger Scruton, "Understanding Music," The Aesthetic Understanding (London: Methuen, 1983), pp. 77-100.2. Michael Tanner and Malcolm Budd, "Understanding Music," The Aristotelian Society: Supplementary Volume 59 (1985): 215-48.