The Varieties of Musical Experience

Pragmatism Today 5 (2):93-100 (2014)
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Many philosophers of music, especially within the analytic tradition, are essentialists with respect to musical experience. That is, they view their goal as that of isolating the essential set of features constitutive of the experience of music, qua music. Toward this end, they eliminate every element that would appear to be unnecessary for one to experience music as such. In doing so, they limit their analysis to the experience of a silent, motionless individual who listens with rapt attention to the sounds produced by either musicians a on stage, a stereo, or a portable device. This approach is illustrated in recent work by Nick Zangwill. Drawing on essentialist assumptions, Zangwill concludes that properly musical experience is effectively disembodied and radically private. While this seems plausible when we consider the essentialists’ paradigm case, Zangwill’s conclusion seems odd once we consider the wide variety of ways that people experience music. One’s body and social situation seem ineluctably enmeshed within the experience of, e.g., hot jazz played in a nightclub, where listeners bob their heads and dance to the music, cheer on the musicians, and socialize with their fellow concertgoers. The question this paper aims to answer is: should we consider this and similar experiences of music properly “musical”? I maintain that we should. Far from the world of pure music that Zangwill and others relegate properly musical experience, I conclude that our musical experiences are fully enmeshed within the somatic, affective, and interpersonal dimensions of human life.

Author's Profile

Brandon Polite
Knox College


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