01 May 2011


I'm halfway through Peter Kivy's "Music Alone" and have therein unearthed one of my earliest philosophical fascinations (it's a pet peeve, actually), namely the far-too-great demands placed by much musicological discourse on the words "understand" and "comprehend." One of my very first efforts at writing words about music was on this subject; I was in over my head and more or less gave up, but my early intuition that the sense in which so many of us use these terms is not entirely valid (or, at the very least, not ideal) remains strong.

Schoenberg famously wrote that, "What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility," later revealing that by "comprehensibility" he more or less means "familiarity." Kivy takes a similar tack, equating the extent of musical understanding with the ability to describe the music (sounds silly when stated so baldly, but he defends it well), which is, of course, largely a matter of familiarity. To me, though, familiarity and understanding are not the same thing; there is much music with which I am intimately familiar (most of which I also heartily enjoy) that I nonetheless could not claim to truly understand in any sense of that word I'm aware of.

When pressed, a certain authority on such matters once told me that there is no philosophical consensus on what it means to understand a piece of music. Why, then, I asked, does there seem to be such broad philosophical consensus that "understand" is the right word? It has always seemed to me that we chose the word first because it sounded good, then went looking for support only after we were in too deep. The conclusion of my adolescent treatise was that musical pleasure and intellectual understanding (i.e. of anything in particular) are similar sensations arrived at by very different pathways, and that this has essentially fooled our musical culture into describing them as more or less equivalent rather than only vaguely similar. (Perhaps one even encompasses the other, but I would still argue against describing them so similarly.) I'd likely take a different path to this conclusion today, but would probably arrive there just the same. I can't help but view the concept of musical understanding as purely metaphorical and certainly less-than-ideal for the purposes of a rigorous philosophical discussion. Here's one youthful view I've not yet outgrown.

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