Music and philosophy: together at last?

What does music mean? What does it signify? Is musical meaning ineffable? What is music, anyway?

These questions, and more, have been topping the agenda at the RMA Music and Philosophy study group conference in King’s College, London this weekend. Using every available conceptual tool at our disposal, we have been valiantly chipping away at the inscrutable coalface of musical meaning.

However, I can’t help feeling that some of the talks that I’ve attended have been missing the point a little bit. For me, what the entire thorny mess of musical meaning boils down to is one basic question: Why do we even do music at all? That is, what does it mean, not in itself, as some kind of ineffable entity, but for me? At this moment? Right now?

There is a tendency in the philosophy of music to talk about Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms; to hanker wistfully after the days when music and philosophy were true bedfellows. But there’s an elephant in the room. Instead of evaluating how music and philosophy used to be two sides of the same coin, why not make it so again? Why not abandon attempts to reconstruct what it was like to think about music in the nineteenth century, and instead ask, why do we do music now? It seems to me that, if I want to address that question, I have to at least consider music as it is now. This conference is happening in London, one of the most vibrant scenes for contemporary music, from classical and avant garde to electronic and jazz, in the entire world. And yet, the innovation, the expressive striving, the sheer dynamism of the music that is happening right now in this great city gets ignored by its philosophers.

And considering that music, now, is inherently wedded to that scene itself, the venues, the crowds, the participants, it seems as though a philosophy of this new way of doing music must change its tack somehow. If philosophy is interested in what drives this hive of musical activity, what music means for those who seek it out, then we must ask some new questions about musical experience. Questions of ontology, for instance, don’t sell out shows in Shoreditch. Aesthetic experience is not a matter solely for conceptual analysis – although of course, conceptual analysis must have its place. But aesthetic experience is also something that we need, something that we actively seek; it’s part of the everyday. It involves bodies, not just brains. It involves other people, not just detached, contemplative thought.

Andrew Bowie suggested yesterday that music is about making sense of things. So is philosophy. So surely, what philosophers must really try to do is to make sense of music as it really is. This means  bringing the music of today into our conferences, and testing our ideas in our own musical practice. Philosophy must embrace the music of now, not just the music of the past. It must try to make sense of the new sounds and gestures that are unfurling in the dimly lit, crowded spaces of this city that shimmers beyond the closed doors of our lecture theatres.

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