Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Aesthetics Paper

Between necessity and freedom:

Ludwig van meets the blues

- A paper on aesthetics and meaning in music by Marc Hannaford -

* * *

The world is an endless series of changing relationships.[1]

In my previous paper on rhetoric and music I stated that “in my opinion . . . it is this play between the ‘formalist’ and ‘expressionist’ ideals . . . that allows music expressive potential.”

By examining changes that took place during the Enlightenment regarding music production and the surrounding philosophies I hope to reveal that improvisation may play a significant part in allowing music this movement between the ‘deterministic’ and ‘aesthetic’ worlds.

This kind of movement echoes a concept that Lydia Goehr calls “doubling”:

Tying them together is the claim that ‘doubleness’, as I call it, serves as a successful technique by which to produce a philosophical theory that respects its own limits or, in other words, sees through its tendency towards systemization. This respect enables a theory to accommodate the primacy of the practice it seeks to describe and prescribe. Doubleness supports a theory of open and critical practice.[2]

Reminiscent of Hegelian philosophy, doubleness maintains an “open and critical practice” while allowing movement between two disparate concepts. The rise of aesthetics in music can be thought of as a continual shifting in emphasis between the concepts of the ‘necessary’ and ‘free.’

Many regard Beethoven as the exemplar in the movement towards post-enlightenment musical autonomy.[3] His exploration of Sonata form, for example, pitted the (necessary) structure of form against the (free) will of the composer. With autonomy came the emergence of the concept of the musical work as a fixed object.

Given Novalis’s statement that the fluid nature of the world was best understood through music because “music was not directed towards referentially fixing objects in the world,” and Herder’s that music is “not a finished product or work, and is valuable precisely for that reason,”[4] how are we to now regard the often paralysing nature of the concept of a musical work?

To me improvisation suggests a way out of this conundrum, restoring the interplay between the ‘fixed’ and ‘free.

Analogous to Beethoven’s sonata form, the blues form is, for many contemporary musicians, rich in possibilities. In this case the deterministic (the blues form as a structure) and aesthetic (the improvisatory and compositional content) elements are in a continual state of flux, emphasising the temporal nature of music. Here, then, improvisation has allowed an “open and critical practice” where the modern conception of a work may not.


Bowie, Andrew. "Philosophy of Music, III: Aesthetics, 1750-2000." Grove Music Online.

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

———. The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[1] Andrew Bowie, "Philosophy of Music, III: Aesthetics, 1750-2000," Grove Music Online: 4.

[2] Lydia Goehr, The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics and the Limits of Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 5.

[3] ———, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford University Press, 1992).

[4] Bowie, "Philosophy of Music, III: Aesthetics, 1750-2000," 4.

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