Sunday, December 14, 2008

Toward a Theory of Profundity in Music

White, David A. "Toward a Theory of Profundity in Music." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 50.1 (Winger 1992): 23-34.


By Megumi Okamoto



            This is an article that relates philosophical concerns regarding the profundity of music (a notion that is discussed in Peter Kivy's book, Music Alone) with insights in theoretical analysis. It discusses some explanations on what some people hear in music and think is profound, which inevitably produces an interpretative, subjective discussion; the individuals who experience it cannot account for the reason for such experience. However, according to the author, this is "not a wasted philosophical enterprise."  

The author elaborates on the importance of "passage of time" and repeated hearings, depicting the indispensable role of memory and anticipation in listening. The linear experience of the work works in the way that the understanding of the present listening experience depends on the memory of what was heard from the beginning of the work to that moment. Also, on subsequent hearings, the consciousness of what is being heard in the present moment is inclusive of the memory of the entire work. Furthermore, the more we listen, the more the details within the work become interconnected to one another, thus delineating the unity of the work. And these understandings that are brought to us by memory and anticipation help to justify the "profundity" of a given piece of music. Thus, aesthetic experience is highly reliant on memory.

The author feels that the sense of profundity is incomplete until the work as a whole is finished, where the listener is presented with the matter of profundity. He opens a discussion regarding the content of Beethoven's Op.131, picking apart various elements that may or may not be accountable for being able to cause a "profound experience."




Bennett Reimer's article that I previously read, called "The Experience of Profundity in Music," concludes that it is impossible to describe any particular musical features that cause profound experiences. Rather, the aspect that contributes to this experience is familiarity: For instance, if the music is very foreign to the person, then there is a very little chance that they would have an optimal experience.

David White's article elaborates on this point by explaining the importance of "passage of time" and repeated hearings. I feel that this issue is related to the well-known effect in social psychology called the familiarity principle. This principle is based on the findings that simply exposing subjects to an unfamiliar stimulus leads them to rate it more positively than other stimuli that have not been presented. This principle is a foundation to commercial advertising, but seems to be applicable in music as well, to some extent.

Also, it is interesting that there are no particular musical features that cause profound experiences, and that any type of music can become a profound experience to those who are familiar with them. This concept is related to the Mozart effect, in which we discovered that the music does not necessarily need to be Mozart in order for it to produce positive effects.

When discussing the unity of work in regards to aesthetic experience, the issue of whole and part is raised. The author feels that repeated hearings can strengthen the memory and anticipation, thus revealing the overall unity of the work. I think that this is not only the metaphysical concern, but also a highly practical one, as we can see in scholarship such as "How Children Learn Music" by Eric Bluestine: This book depicts the whole-part-whole process in which 1) introduction (overview of the whole), followed by 2) application and specific study of the parts, which is then followed by 3) reinforcement and the understanding of the whole, can greatly enhance learning. I think that the active, repeated listening that the author of the article discusses is based on such concept of the whole-part-whole process.



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1 comment:

Lee Bartel said...

I need to get the book by Kivy - I know his earlier books well but not this one. Thanks for stimulating my curiosity. The familiarity idea - relates to the inverted U response - you donot like it at first, as youhear it you get to like it and as you hear it many times your liking drops off. But all this runs into the face of Meyer's ideas. Odd.