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Historical approach

Song for the music


Music was an integral part of literary, artistic, social, and religious life in ancient Greece and
Rome. Beyond the power it has held in every culture, both past and present, music in Greece was
institutionalized as a crucial element of education (mousike). The association with the divine
Muses, as well as the gods, Apollo and Hermes, illustrates its extension into the religious sphere,
where musical performance was pervasive. And yet performance contexts were diverse and
dynamic. Homeric bards recited epic with accompaniment on the phorminx, flute girls played
music at Greek symposia, and carmina were sung at Roman games and festivals. Music held
sway over philosophical thought as well. While the Pythagoreans viewed the cosmos itself as
musical in its mathematical order and perfection, Plato’s Socrates advises that certain modes
have a negative effect on virtue. Such moral and metaphysical ideas continued in the works of
later musical theorists; for instance, Aristides Quintillianus. On the other hand, the movement of
“new music,” an object of Plato’s attack, has increasingly come to be seen on its own terms as
innovating on the musical and poetic traditions. Music was ubiquitous in the ancient world and is
ripe for further inquiry.

The PhD/ MA Program in Classics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
invites graduate students in Classics or related fields to submit abstracts of papers that explore
the theme of music in antiquity. We encourage different approaches, such as philological,
literary, historical, theoretical, archaeological, musicological, and anthropological. On the
whole, we hope this conference will address in different ways what music meant to people living
in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as to those inheriting the Classical tradition.
The Philosopical approach
Song for the music
Philosophy of music is the study of fundamental questions about the nature and value of
music and our experience of it. Like any “philosophy of X”, it presupposes knowledge of
its target. However, unlike philosophy of science, say, the target of philosophy of music
is a practice most people have a significant background in, merely as a result of being
members of a musical culture. Music plays a central role in many people’s lives. Thus, as
with the central questions of metaphysics and epistemology, not only can most people
quickly grasp the philosophical questions music raises, they tend to have thought about
some of those questions before encountering the academic discipline itself. (This is as
good a place as any to note that I, like most in the English-speaking philosophical world,
focus exclusively on Western musical traditions. For criticism of this tendency, see
Alperson 2009. For some exceptions to it, see S. Davies 2001: 254–94) and Feagin 2007.)
Music is perhaps the art that presents the most philosophical puzzles. Unlike painting, its
works often have multiple instances, none of which can be identified with the work itself.
Thus, the question of what exactly the work is is initially more puzzling than the same
question about works of painting, which appear (at least initially) to be ordinary physical
objects. Unlike much literature, the instances of a work are performances, which offer
interpretations of the work, yet the work can also be interpreted (perhaps in a different
sense) independently of any performance, and performances themselves can be
interpreted. This talk of “interpretation” points to the fact that we find music an art
steeped with meaning, and yet, unlike drama, pure instrumental music has no obvious
semantic content. This quickly raises the question of why we should find music so
valuable. Central to many philosophers’ thinking on these subjects has been music’s
apparent ability to express emotions while remaining an abstract art in some sense.
This entry focuses almost exclusively on work in the philosophy of music that is recent—
from within the last fifty years—and in an analytic vein (broadly construed). For a much
broader introduction to philosophy of music, covering its history, major figures,
connections with other disciplines, and a wider range of topics, see Gracyk & Kania

I studied literature in college before pursing a graduate career in


comparative literature. We learned to adopt formalist theory while
evaluating various texts: poetry, novels, and short stories. It meant
gleaning all possible meaning from the texts themselves without
referencing an author’s life or any biographical details. By contrast, the
so-called “Romanticist” approach took its cues from authors’ lives and
personal experiences. These schools of thought were later superseded
by a literary and philosophical article published, “The Intentional
Fallacy,” which countered that a work of art’s meaning could not be
gathered from a creator’s intentions. Accordingly, only the work itself
could stand testament to its own success and merit.

This didn’t always sit well with me. How can you separate, say, Ernest
Hemingway’s World War wounds from his early works? Formalism
dictates that you would have to, but knowing of his personal traumas
only serves to illuminate works for me like “Big Two-Hearted River,” a
1925 short story. Or what about the abject despair suffered by Pyotr
Ilych Tchaikovsky whilst composing his final Symphony No. 6 in B Minor,
Op. 74, the Pathétique?

You may be wondering how I apply any of this critical theory to music.
Labels often send me one-sheet profiles of artists along with their new
works. But when auditioning new music, I actually make a point of not
referring to these before giving an album its first listen, so that my
listening expectations and/or experience won’t be in any way influenced.
For instance, it shouldn’t matter that a sax player’s biggest influence
was Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane—you should be able to discern
things like this simply by listening. After the initial listen, I then always go
back and read the biographical stuff. I feel this helps me to remain
objective rather than being swayed by someone else’s rhetoric used to
describe the music.

As a broadcaster, I suppose that I am (again) donning the formalist hat.


If I like a new piece of music, I, of course, make a point of going back to
always music only.

read about it in order to impart the info to listeners. But the initial test is