Convention and Representation in Music

Philosophers' Imprint 23 (1) (2023)
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In philosophy of music, formalists argue that pure instrumental music is unable to represent any content without the help of lyrics, titles, or dramatic context. In particular, they deny that music’s use of convention counts as a genuine case of representation because only intrinsic means of representing counts and conventions are extrinsic to the sound structures making up music. In this paper, I argue that convention should count as a way for music to genuinely represent content for two reasons. First, the view that only intrinsic ways of representing counts is too stringent. If use can ground meaning in language, then use might also ground meaning (and representation) in music, too. Second, even if we were to insist on intrinsic features, convention should count as a way for music to genuinely represent because convention is an intrinsic feature of music. Without knowledge of musical systems and encultured listening, music wouldn’t even be recognized as music, so convention is already baked into our listening practices.

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Hannah Kim
University of Arizona


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