It's Only Music: So What's to Understand?
Author(s): Peter Kivy
Source: Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 20, No. 4, 20th Anniversary Issue (Winter, 1986),
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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Kivy: It's Only Music 71
5. 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. Danto's theory, see his "The Art World," Journal of Philosophy 15
(October 1964): 571-84; and "Artworks and Real Things," Theoria 39 (1973):
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. CharlesMorris(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934).
It's Only Music: So What'sto Understand?
If I were to askyou the question,"Do you understandmusic?"whatkind
of a questionwould I be asking,andwhatkindof evidencemightI accept
for an affirmativeanswerto it? For it is clearthat the question,Do you
understandX? would be a verydifferentquestion,andthe evidencefor an
affirmativeanswerto it a verydifferentkind,dependinguponwhatwould
be substitutedfor the placeholderX.
If I askedyou, "Do you understandGerman?"it is clearwhatkindof
a question I would be askingand that the evidencedirectlybearingupon
an affirmativeanswerwouldbe your demonstratedabilityto providepara-
phrases,in other languages,for Germansentences. It is equallyclearthat
there is scarcelyanyone who has thought seriouslyabout music prepared
to take this as a satisfactorymodel for musicalunderstanding.For it is
agreedon all handsthat music is not a languagein any but anattenuated
or metaphoricalsense;and that it certainlypossessesno semanticcontent.
To provide"paraphrases"in Englishof pureinstrumentalcompositions-
and it is "pure"instrumentalmusicof whichwe arespeakinghere-would
surelybe consideredmusicallyunsophisticatedin the extreme.Sucheffu-
sions might, under certain circumstances,be a charmingliteraryconceit,
perhaps,but not to be takenseriouslyasmusicalanalysis.
There is, of course, a related question I might ask about linguistic
"objects,"by which I mean literaryworks of art, that can plausiblybe
extended to suchnonlinguisticartformsassculptureandpainting.I might
ask, "Do you understand Goethe's Faust?" or "Do you understand
Raphael'sSchool of Athens?" and expect, as evidenceof an affirmative
answer,some kind of "interpretation":"It is about the value of human
striving,"or "It is about the reconciliationof philosophywith religion."
For we think that literary works can "mean" something, as wholes,
beyond what the individualsentences mean that make them up; and at
least some paintings,though by no meansall,seemto be ableto bearsuch
"meanings"too. But,again,thereappearsto be no foothold in pureinstru-
ournal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter 1986
1986 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
72 Journal of Aesthetic Education
mental music for that. I suppose there is the rare instance. Perhaps it
makes some kind of sense to say that Bach's Art of the Fugue is "about"
the fugue. However, anyone who tried to find such musical interpretations
in any kind of thoroughgoing way would quickly come a cropper, or
enter the cloud-cuckoo-land of the Romantic imagination, with music as
the 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 ask
someone: "Do you understand clocks?" That is short, I take it, for "Do
you 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, so
a symphony or string quartet, when "taken apart," reveals a wealth of
"internal" happenings that one might be tempted to call its "musical
machinery." Understanding a string quartet, then, is like understanding
a clock: one knows how it works.
If, however, we press this analogy further, it quickly breaks down. To
understand how a clock works, we must understand, first, what a clock is
for: we must know that its purpose is telling time. For we may know that
this cog pushes that lever, and that lever pushes the other gear; but until
we know how the whole mechanism ends up "telling the time," we will
understand neither the mechanism nor the clock. And here, of course, is
where the analogy with music fails; for string quartets, as opposed to
clocks, have no purpose at all. If someone were to get up, after listening
to the third Rasoumovsky, and ask, "What's 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 the
question of what the purpose is of a clock, or a printed circuit, or a can
Well surely, it will be replied, string quartets, and symphonies, and
those kinds of things do have a purpose: their purpose is enjoyment,
appreciation, a pleasureable experience. True enough; and not beside the
point, 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 in
our account of what understanding music is, we should see that they do
not 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 of
those things can also be enjoyed, appreciated, afford pleasurable experi-
ences. But a string quartet qua string quartet, or qua music, has no specific
purpose 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, experienced
pleasurably. As mightily platitudinous and philosophically unfruitful as
that statement might seem, it must hold the answer to the question of
what we are talking about and asking about when we talk about and ask
about understanding music.
How is musical enjoyment related to musical understanding? On one
view, 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
Kivy: It's Only Music 73
gives the "natural" response to its chemical structure. On this view, "under-
standing music" can only mean understanding the mechanism by which
music acts on the human physiology to produce musical enjoyment, as
"understanding drugs" means understanding what drugs are made of and
how what they are made of produces their particular felt effects. Notice
that on this view, I, the listener, need understand nothing about music to
enjoy it, any more than I need know anything at all about chemistry and
human physiology to get drunk. Knowledge is for experts-composers,
music theorists, musicologists; and although I may be expert and listener
too, my expertise has no more to do with my musical enjoyment than a
chemist's 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 by
drawing this conclusion; for, surely, whatever view we have of the relation
between the musical understanding and musical enjoyment, we are no
more inclined to think that our enjoyment of music has nothing to do
with our understanding of it than that our enjoyment of literature has
nothing to do with our understanding of it, however much the two cases
might differ in other respects. It seems clear, then, that the question, Do
you understand music? cannot be analogous to the question, Do you
understand drugs? if you mean by the latter, Do you understand the
mechanism by which chemicals have the natural effects that they do on
human beings? Music just is not that sort of thing.
Let us change our strategy at this point to see if we can finally get at
least the beginnings of answers to our questions. What sorts of things do
the people who are supposed to understand music really say about it when
they are exhibiting their knowledge and expertise? Leaving the historians
of music aside and going first to the music theorists, what we find them
doing, 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, in
some respects anyway, a remarkably precise way of describing musical
objects. And that, really, is what those who try to talk about music in
nontechnical language, the various music critics, program annotators, and
popularizers, are doing as well: describing music. To understand music,
then, seems to be, at least in part, and in significant part, to be able to
describe it. And so we accept as evidence for an affirmative answer to the
question, Do you understand music? correct or convincing descriptions of
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 prerequisite
for enjoyment. However, that seems rather implausible, it might be ob-
jected, if understanding music is the ability to describe it. For many people
seem to enjoy music who would be hard pressed to offer any description
of it. Isn't music, after all, notoriously difficult to describe, particularly
for the layman? Yet musical enjoyment is not the exclusive property
of the experts.
There is a fallacy here. Music is a perceptual object that we enjoy in the
perceiving. And contemporary wisdom has it that perception is permeated
74 Journal of Aesthetic Education
through and through with epistemic components. Perception is a concep-
tual process. Furthermore, music is an intentional object, defined in terms
of how we conceptually take it to be. And every listener to music, no
matter how desultory, casual, and inept, understands what he or she hears
under some sort of description or other, albeit vague and, perhaps, even
unconscious (in a noncontroversial sense of the word).
The degree to which one can describe music-the extent and detail of
the description under which a piece of music is perceived-is, at the same
time, the degree to which that music is understood and the extent and
detail of the perceptual object being enjoyed. And I take it as a firm,
though not infallible, generalization that the degree of musical enjoyment
increases as the detail and extent of the perceived musical object increases.
In ways that are too complex to go into here-and, indeed, have hardly
begun to be understood by philosophers-musical description, musical
understanding, 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 philosophers
of art. At this writing, some tentative moves have been made into the
subject. Roger Scruton has quite correctly contrasted what he calls "the
material world of sound" with "the intentional world of musical experi-
ence" and then gone on, more questionably, to my mind, to characterize
musical experience in terms of metaphorical description and Wittgenstein-
ian aspect-perceiving. 1 Michael Tanner has made a very useful distinction
between levels of musical understanding and, in general, cleared away
much of the conceptual underbrush obscuring the issues. And Malcolm
Budd, in providing commentary on both Scruton and Tanner, has further
advanced the topic.2 For a long while now philosophers who have been
interested in music at all (and there have been few) have concentrated
their attention primarily upon questions of musical "expression" and
(secondarily) musical "representation." This is not surprising, for one can
get at them "from the outside," as it were; and recent philosophical work
in philosophical psychology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language,
and representation have given us a new handle on these "ancient" musical
topics-topics which, however, comprise only a small part of the musical
experience. 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 has
come; and we will, I believe, see some substantial advances in the near
future. The pure musical experience has been waiting a long time to be
brought into the world of humanistic thought. Philosophy, I think, is
about to ease the passage.
1. 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.