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Jerrold Levinson's Theories of Music
Jerrold Levinson is a modern philosopher whose work looks at depth into the philosophy of music. Through various works, Levinson has considered what music is, how it is created and experienced, how music delivers meaning, and what purpose music serves. Levinson's theories of music will now be considered by focusing on some of the key questions about music that his works have addressed.
A consideration of Levinson's theories of music starts with the basic question of what music is. Levinson addresses this issue in his essay "What a Musical Work Is." In this work he defines music as "indicated sound / performance-means structures" (Levinson 1980, p. 7). This definition combines the two parts that make up music. The first is the actual notes and structure of the music. The second is how and when the music is performed. This takes into account that the piece of music is just one element impacting what it means. The other element is related to how it is performed and who hear it. This provides a basic view of the nature of music and reveals that there is more to music than just sound. For Levinson, music is a form of thought.
In Musical Thinking, Levinson considers whether music is in fact a form of thought. He describes how music is often referred to as if it is a form of thought. He notes that there are points in the music of Brahms where it is said that "the thought comes to a head" (Levinson 2003, 2.2). It must be noted that this reference to the thoughts of music is referring to music without words. Therefore, the meaning is not being delivered by dialogue or text with known meaning, but simply with sound. Levinson goes on to note that there is no definite meaning included in the music. It is as if the thought is coming to a head, but there is no clue as to what the actual thought is. This can be considered as an experience where the feeling of reaching a conclusion is produced, but without the actual conclusion. If it is accepted that we gain meaning via language, it is as if music creates the same feeling but without the actual language. Levinson also goes on to describe Wittgenstein stating that he understands music in terms of conclusions, agreements, and replies. This shows that music is understand on a level based on language, even if it does not have any actual language as part of it. Or, as Levinson states it,
Music is not understood in a vacuum, as a pure structure of sounds fallen from the stars, one which we receive via some pure faculty of musical perception. Music is rather inextricably embedded in our form of life, a form of life that is, as it happens, essentially linguistic. Thus music is necessarily apprehended, at least in part, in terms of the language and linguistic practices that define us and our world. (Levinson 2003, 2.4).
As this statement describes, music is understood based on our perception, which happens to be linguistically based. At the same time, music is created by people, who also have language and linguistics as their basis for perceiving meaning. This suggests that it is not unexpected that people would produce sounds that would mirror the meaning of language and the thought processes of language. Levinson continues his argument and eventually suggests that there are two kinds of thoughts in music. One is the music "wearing an appearance of thoughtful acts" (Levinson 2003, 2.10). This refers to how listening to music seems to mirror thought in the listener. The second kind of thought is the music "giving evidence of thought processes in their creator" (Levinson 2003, 2.10). In this way, music can be seen as a means of communication where the composer and the listener have a shared language. The composer's view of some meaning will be represented in the music. In turn, this will be communicated to the listener, who will interpret the same meaning in the music. As mentioned before, it is not an actual meaning that is produced, but more a representation of that meaning.
The idea that music produces a representation of meaning is also considered in "Music and Negative Emotion." In this essay, Levinson explores the emotion of music. This explanation further shows how music can be considered thought, because the meaning Levinson refers can be considered an emotion. To put it simply, music can make you feel a certain emotion, but without attaching this emotion to any specific event. This is the representation of meaning without the actual meaning that was described above. Levinson refers to this as a mirroring effect, saying that music provokes an emotional response similar to feeling the emotion. The difference is that music does not have the cognitive link required for real emotion. For example, in feeling real sadness a person must know the source of the sadness. They must be aware of the reason for feeling sad on a cognitive level. For a piece of music to make someone feel sad, cognitive feeling is not required. Instead, music can invoke a feeling of sadness that is similar to feeling sad. However, Levinson also notes that the emotions evoked by music are not full-fledged. As he describes:
What I have called the sadness reaction-is not in truth a case of full-fledged emotion. This is mainly because music neither supplies an appropriate object for an emotion to be directed on nor generates the associated beliefs, desires, or attitudes regarding an object that are essential to an emotion being what it is. (Levinson 1997, p. 220).
In this way, music can be considered as producing a simulated form of the emotion. At the same time, this emotion is not attached to any actual experience.
The next question that Levinson investigates is why people gain enjoyment from listening to music that evokes negative emotions. This is key question investigated in the essay "Music and Negative Emotion," with Levinson considering why people find experiencing a negative emotion through music a rewarding experience. In general, people prefer to experience positive emotions rather than negative ones. Yet it seems that in music, people prefer to listen to music that evokes negative emotions. If people do not like to feel sadness, why do they gain enjoyment from listening to music that evokes feeling of sadness? Levinson's answer is related to the way that music only imitates emotions and does so without a person requiring a cognitive understanding of why they are feeling the emotion. In real emotions, this cognitive understanding is the basis of the emotion. That is, a person must know why they feel sad to feel sadness. Without the cognitive component, the emotional component is not present. This can used to suggest that it is not the emotion that a person dislikes, but the reason for the emotion. In turn, music becomes a way to experience the emotion but on a level where it is known that there is not a reason to feel that way. This can be considered as neutralizing the emotion and allowing a person to safely experience it. In Music, Art, and Metaphysics Levinson also considers why grieving or depressed individuals respond to sad music. As Levinson describes, "The grief-response to music is that it allows one to bleed off in a controlled manner a certain amount of harmful emotion with which one is afflicted" (Levinson 1990, p. 114). Even in referring to positive emotions evoked by music, there is a larger question about why people enjoy listening to music at all. Levinson suggests that the answer to this question is based on the fact that humans are emotional beings. Just as people enjoy physical exercise and cognitive exercise, people also enjoy emotional exercise. In addition, people tend to have a curious nature. If there is something to be experienced, then people want to explore that experience, and this includes emotional experience. Music allows people to explore emotional experience, but in a safe way that prevents them from experiencing the full height of negative emotions.
Levinson's theories of music then, are based on the impact that music has on people. He accepts that music is made up of sounds and notes, but also argues that the value of music is not based on an understanding of the structure of the notes, but rather the impact they have when a person is experiencing them. In this way, the meaning of music is based on what it means to be listened to. Levinson describes this in his definition of music, where he defines it as "humanly organized sound for the purpose of aesthetic appreciation" (Levinson 1990, p. 272). This statement shows his focus on the purpose of music, rather than the actual sounds of music. Levinson also considers music as only having an emotional impact when it is being actively listened to. That is, people must be open and actually…[continue]
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