Understanding Music

Animals can hear music in a sense – your dog might be frightened by the loud noise emitted by your stereo. But we do not hear music in this way; we can listen to it with understanding. What constitutes this experience of understanding music? To use an analogy, while the mere sound of a piece of music might be represented by a sonogram, our experience of it as music is better represented by something like a marked-up score. We hear individual notes that make up distinct melodies, harmonies, rhythms, sections, and so on, and the interaction between these elements. Such musical understanding comes in degrees along a number of dimensions. Your understanding of a given piece or style may be deeper than mine, while the reverse is true for another piece or style. I may hear more in a particular piece than you do, but my understanding of it may be inaccurate. My general musical understanding may be narrow, in the sense that I only understand one kind of music, while you understand many different kinds (Budd 1985b, 233–5; S. Davies 2011c, 88–95). Moreover, different pieces or kinds of pieces may call on different abilities, since some music has no harmony to speak of, some no melody, and so on. Many argue that, in addition to purely musical features, understanding the emotions expressed in a piece (of Western classical music, at least) is essential to adequately understanding it (e.g. Ridley 1993; S. Davies 1994; Levinson 1990e, 30; Scruton 1997; Robinson 2005, 348–78). (We have seen, in the previous section, the role this claim plays in some explanations of why we seek out music that elicits negative emotional responses.)

Though one must have recourse to technical terms, such as ‘melody’, ‘dominant seventh’, ‘sonata form’, and so on, in order to describe specific musical experiences, and the musical experience in general, it is widely agreed that one need not possess these concepts explicitly, nor the correlative vocabulary or in order to listen with understanding (Budd 1985b; 245–8; S. Davies 1994, 346–9; Levinson 1990e, 35–41; see DeBellis 1995 and Huovinen 2008 for dissenting views). However, it is also widely acknowledged that such explicit theoretical knowledge can aid deeper musical understanding, and is requisite for the description and understanding of one's own musical experience and that of others.

At the base of the musical experience seem to be (i) the experience of tones, as opposed to mere pitched sounds, where a tone is heard as being in ‘musical space’, that is, as bearing such relations to other tones as being higher or lower, or of the same kind (at the octave), and (ii) the experience of movement, as when we hear a melody as wandering far afield and then coming to rest where it began. Roger Scruton (1983; 1997, 1–96) argues that these experiences are irreducibly metaphorical, since they involve the application of spatial concepts to that which is not literally spatial. (There is no identifiable individual that moves from place to place in a melody (S. Davies 1994, 229–34).) Malcolm Budd (1985b) argues that to appeal to metaphor in this context is unilluminating since, first, it is unclear what it means for an experience to be metaphorical and, second, a metaphor is only given meaning through its interpretation, which Scruton not only fails to give, but argues is unavailable. Budd suggests that the metaphor is reducible, and thus eliminable, apparently in terms of purely musical (i.e., non-spatial) concepts or vocabulary. Stephen Davies (1994, 234–40) doubts that the spatial vocabulary can be eliminated, but he is sympathetic to Budd's rejection of the centrality of metaphor. Instead, he argues that our use of spatial and motion terms to describe music is a secondary, but literal, use of those terms that is widely used to describe temporal processes, such as the ups and downs of the stock market, the theoretical position one occupies, one's spirits plunging, and so on. The debate continues in Budd 2003, Scruton 2004, and S. Davies 2011d.

Davies is surely right about the ubiquity of the application of the language of space and motion to processes that lack individuals located in space. The appeal to secondary literal meanings, however, can seem as unsatisfying as the appeal to irreducible metaphor. We do not hear music simply as a temporal process, it might be objected, but as moving in the primary sense of the word, though we know that it does not literally so move. One way to develop a position out of this intuition would be to emphasize Scruton's appeal to imagination while dropping the appeal to metaphor. For instance, one might argue that our hearing the music as moving is a matter of imagining that it so moves. Davies might respond with his observation that we do not even hear in the music a reidentifiable individual that moves: ‘The theme contains movement but does not itself move; the notes of the theme do not move, although movement is heard between them’ (1994, 234). If this is so, the content of the proposed imagining might be too incoherent to form the core of a viable theory. But it is not obvious that we do not hear a melody, say, as containing reidentifiable individuals which move up and down. This would explain the naturalness with which we understand, for instance, some early Warner Bros. cartoons, where a single note on a staff jumps from one line to another, thus creating a melody.

Moving from basic musical understanding to the appreciation of complex works of instrumental music, Jerrold Levinson makes a case against what he sees as the paradigmatic conception of musical understanding as a matter of the apprehension of form (1997). As a replacement for this ‘architectonicism’, he promotes ‘concatenationism’: the view that basic musical understanding consists in following the musical and emotional qualities of passages of music, and transitions between them, that are short enough to be apprehended as a single experience (‘quasi-hearing’). He qualifies this basic idea considerably, allowing for the experience of previous parts of the piece, and anticipation of future parts, to modify one's experience of the music in the moment. He also allows that architectonic awareness may play a role in enhancing one's moment-to-moment experience, and may even play an ineliminable part in the understanding of some pieces. Nonetheless, Levinson maintains that the part played by architectonic knowledge in basic musical understanding is minimal, and that the cases where architectonic knowledge is necessary are very much the exception.

Peter Kivy has taken up the gauntlet on behalf of the architectonicists (2001; see also S. Davies 2011c, 95–9). While Kivy acknowledges that the kinds of experiences Levinson champions are necessary to basic musical understanding, he defends the idea that grasping the large-scale form of most pieces of Western classical music, at least, is necessary for an adequate understanding of them. He does not deny that the experience of the form of a piece in listening to it is more intellectual than quasi-hearing, but he rejects Levinson's argument that it is non-perceptual, and thus marginal to an adequate experience of it as music. Rather, Kivy argues, such experience is a matter of bring one's perceptions under sophisticated concepts. (A tactic Kivy does not consider is an attempt to hoist Levinson with his own contextualist petard, arguing that even if architectonic listening is non-perceptual it is a well-established mode of understanding pieces of music in the Western classical music world, and thus that to argue music must be understood primarily perceptually is to beg the question.)

Despite the heated debate Levinson's view has generated, it is not clear that there is so much disagreement between the architectonicist and the concatenationist. Both agree that the aspect of musical understanding the other emphasizes is a non-negligible component in the full understanding of a musical work. Levinson has been explicit since the first publication of his view that he intends it more as a polemic against, and corrective to architectonicism, rather than as a replacement for it (1997, ix-xi; 1999, 485; 2006b). Perhaps that purpose has now been fulfilled.

(For more detailed introductions to these and other topics in musical understanding, see S. Davies 2011c and Huovinen 2011.)