The Perception of Music: Sources of Significance

Modern Schoolman 86 (3-4):239-260 (2009)
We can experience music as sad, as exuberant, as sombre. We can experience it as expressing immensity, identification with the rest of humanity, or gratitude. The foundational question of what it is for music to express these or anything else is easily asked; and it has proved extraordinarily difficult to answer satisfactorily. The question of what it is for emotion or other states to be heard in music is not the causal or computational question of how it comes to be heard. It is not the question of the social influences on how we hear music. Nor is it the question of the evolutionary explanation, if such there be, of the existence of such perceptions. It is the constitutive question, the ‘what-is-it?’ question, that is my concern here. It is a question unaddressed by purely syntactic analyses of music. A correct answer to this constitutive question constrains all those other, equally challenging, empirical questions about music. I am going to propose an answer to the constitutive question, drawing on the resources of our current philosophy of perception and cognition within contemporary philosophy of mind. In the very tight space available to me, I will not survey the extant competing proposals, but simply offer my own suggestion straight out, while noting some points of contrast with other approaches. My account is built from three components, or more strictly, from two components together with a certain conception of the way they are related to each other in the perception of music. My plan is to expound these components; to formulate the account built from them; to give some examples of what the account can explain; and to discuss very briefly its bearing on some classical issues about the perception of music.
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DOI 10.1093/aesthj/ayp016
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