Few, if any of us, go very long without hearing music. We have available to us more hours of streaming than ever we could hear in several lifetimes. It sits available through every device; it attends nearly every commercial, every television show. The quality of a movie may be greatly enhanced, or perhaps even ruined, by the accompanying score. But what is music? We may define it narrowly, that is, with respect to its form as such: some articulation of sound as organized with pitch or rhythm for the purpose of being heard… and find this dissatisfying.
Antiquity’s Approach to Music
As with many questions, we have much to learn from antiquity. Saints Augustine of Hippo and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius both wrote treatises on music, and for both—as for Plato—music formed an integral part of education. Within its doctrines were contained not only vocal and instrumental performance but also lyrical meter for poetry. And perhaps much more important, and much more telling, was the intrinsic connection of the musical to the moral.
…since there happen to be four mathematical disciplines, the other three share with music the task of searching for truth; but music is associated not only with speculation but with morality as well. For nothing is more characteristic of human nature than to be soothed by pleasant modes or disturbed by their opposites. This is not peculiar to people in particular endeavors or of particular ages. Indeed, music extends to every endeavor; moreover, youths, as well as the aged are so naturally attuned to musical modes by a kind of voluntary affection that no age at all is excluded from the charm of sweet song. What Plato rightfully said can likewise be understood: the soul of the universe was joined together according to musical concord. For when we hear what is properly and harmoniously united in sound in conjunction with that which is harmoniously coupled and joined together within us and are attracted to it, then we recognize that we ourselves are put together in its likeness. For likeness attracts, whereas unlikeness disgusts and repels.Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius c.505 AD: De institutione Musica, lib.1, c.1, in the translation by Calvin M. Bower, p.2.
Perhaps, if we wish to understand what music is, we should recover and re-examine these classical sources. But perhaps we can draw on some other sources, as well.
The Poles of Feeling and Intellectuality
One such source, and far from the only contemporary thinker deserving of consideration with regard to this question, is the late John Deely, who once offered a definition that may provoke an interesting conversation. He wrote:
An idealized system of prospective audial experiences which will evoke, sustain, or counter within an Innenwelt basic elements of mood, emotion, or feeling. Within this prospective, in fact, there is an analog range between the asymptotic poles of sheer feeling vs. sheer intellectuality, along which the system can be formalized in an endless variety of relational patterns, according to emphasis within which definite types or styles can be conventionally constituted (“classical”, “folk” “Indian”, “African”, etc.).Definition of John Deely provided in a handwritten note to Eero Tarasti and his wife [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqUldV0D5DU @ 15:30]
As a quick explanatory note, the Innenwelt is “like a cognitive map that relates the self to the world of objects” (in the words of Kalevi Kull). To have asymptotic poles of feeling vs. intellectuality as evoked, sustained, or countered within the Innenwelt is to have one’s thoughts and feelings able infinitely to approach one another but never fully coalesce into a perfect unity; and conversely, to be repelled by one another, but never to be fully separated.
This definition hardly stands as definitive—and even in what it provides, there remains much to be clarified. But it is provocative nonetheless. As such, we would invite you to join us this evening for our Philosophical Happy Hour (from 5:45–7:15pm ET) to engage in a conversation about music: its nature, purpose, structure, value, and function in our human lives, from the mundane to the sacred and everything in between. Use the form below.