A Critique of Susanne Langer’s View of Musical Temporality

Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics, Vol. 10 (2018)
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Susanne Langer’s idea of the primary apparition of music involves a dichotomy between two kinds of temporality: “felt time” and “clock time.” For Langer, musical time is exclusively felt time, and in this sense, music is “time made audible.” However, Langer also postulates what we would call ‘a strong suspension thesis’: the swallowing up of clock time in the illusion of felt time. In this paper we take issue with the ‘strong suspension thesis’ and its implications and ramifications regarding not only musical meaning, but also the purported metaphysics of music construed as essentially inhering in felt time. We argue that this thesis is overstated and misdirecting insofar as it purports to describe what we experience when we hear music with understanding. We discuss a selection of examples of repetitive formations, from mediaeval music to contemporary music, which show that persistent, motion-inhibiting repetition undermines the listener’s ability to identify order and coherence due to a relative inability to anticipate the next occurrence of a differentiating musical event. We argue that Langer’s one-sided view of musical temporality, which patently relies on the conceptual framework of memory time and the specious present, exemplifies what we propose to call ‘the searchlight model of musical understanding,’ wherein the constant span of illumination of the searchlight (representing the span of the specious present) moves continuously parallel to, and along, its postulated target, i.e., the music heard, as it ‘illuminates’ it. We argue that, in the last analysis, memory time conceptually presupposes the publicly identifiable means of chronometric length. One maintains the ‘strong suspension thesis’ on pain of conceptual confusion.
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