Musical Meaning and Expressionby Stephen Davies

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  • Scots Philosophical AssociationUniversity of St. Andrews

    Musical Meaning and Expression by Stephen DaviesReview by: Alan H. GoldmanThe Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 185 (Oct., 1996), pp. 533-535Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Scots Philosophical Association and theUniversity of St. AndrewsStable URL: .Accessed: 28/06/2014 12:18

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    Musical Meaning and Expression. BY STEPHEN DAVIES. (Cornell UP, I994. Pp. xii + 417. Price not given.)

    The topic of musical expression of emotion has been much discussed, both

    historically and recently, by philosophers of music. Stephen Davies' book on the

    subject is so thorough and so complete that one would expect it to be the last word in this area, at least for the near future. We may profitably compare it to two other recent books on the topic, by Peter Kivy (Sound Sentiment, Temple UP, 1989) and Malcolm Budd (Music and the Emotions, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, I985).

    Kivy, who is most responsible for revival of interest in the subject, has through several editions of his book and several articles defended a cognitivist view: we re-

    cognize emotion properties in music without having the like emotions aroused in us. Budd provides a survey of earlier theories, such as those of Pratt, Hanslick and

    Langer, but his conclusions are simply negative. Davies provides an even broader

    survey than Budd: his knowledge of the relevant literature is encyclopaedic, as is evidenced by the twenty-two pages of works to which he refers. The position he defends is similar in broad outline to Kivy's, but is more plausible, at least in its corollaries. For example, while Davies agrees with Kivy that musical expression is not to be analysed in terms of arousal of emotions in listeners, he believes that listeners often do feel the emotions they hear in music and that the key to the value of musical expression lies therein.

    Davies begins and spends the bulk of the book in criticizing alternative theories.

    According to him, musical meaning and expression is first of all not like linguistic meaning and expression. The former lacks vocabulary, syntax, a predicating function, quantifiers and modal indicators. He distinguishes between natural mean-

    ing, intentional use of natural meaning, systematized intentional use of natural

    meaning, conventional meaning, and systematized conventional meaning. Language constitutes the last category; music typically utilizes the middle three.

    Nor is musical meaning like pictorial depiction. Here Davies proposes and defends criteria for depicting that are quite plausible. But this is one example of a

    lengthy treatment of a peripheral topic that may interest some readers but may try the patience of others interested more in music than general aesthetics. If this book has a fault, it lies in the meticulousness with which Davies treats every subject he takes up. Here he holds that while music occasionally depicts natural sounds, expression of emotions is not to be confused with depiction, since music does not

    necessarily refer to emotions when it expresses them. Emotion properties are in the music instead of being represented by it.

    This last claim refutes the theories of Goodman and Langer that music is

    symbolic (in a special sense) of emotions. Davies points out that Goodman's theory of metaphorical exemplification presupposes the possession of expressive properties rather than explaining it. Furthermore, while metaphors are eliminable by para- phrase, description of musical works in emotion terms cannot be translated. Thus the conclusion is reached again that emotion properties are literally possessed by music, but in a secondary sense (in the primary sense only sentient beings can have

    ? The Editors of The Philosophlual Quarterlr, 996

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    emotions, which must be felt by them). The expression of emotion in music is not

    symbolic in any sense for Davies - not linguistic; depictive or sui generis. (He later waffles somewhat, however, on the question whether music typically refers to the emotions it expresses.)

    Finally, the expressiveness of music does not consist in its expressing felt emotions of its composer or arousing such feelings in listeners. The dismissal of the first alternative here could be a simple empirical matter, appealing to composers who did not feel the way their music sounds. Or it could be based on the conceptual point that ways composers felt must be irrelevant to which properties can be heard in their music. Davies instead characteristically provides detailed analyses of different ways of communicating felt emotion to show that none fits the case of music. He dismisses the second alternative by noting that sad music sometimes fails to cause sadness in listeners even in standard conditions and that, when it does, this is because it is

    expressive (an explanation, not a definition). In regard to his positive theory, Davies claims that the kind of emotion property

    found in music, which is not wedded to a thought-content and is not felt, is com-

    monly found outside music as well. In this secondary sense emotion terms refer not to experiences but to appearances - of human and animal faces, of voices and de-

    portment, of trees, and so on. All these look or sound but do not feel sad. Emotion

    properties are attributed to appearances because the latter often express emotions in the primary sense, because they are often symptomatic of felt emotions. Davies claims nevertheless that we ascribe such properties to appearances without regard to occurrent feelings standing behind or expressed through them.

    Here is one place where doubts may arise about his theory and the analogy on which it is based. If we learn that a person is not sad, then we no longer say that his

    drooping face or slow gait expresses sadness. He may continue to look sad, but the look no longer expresses sadness. Similarly, willow trees may look sad or wistful, but

    they do not express sadness to us. Music is different in this respect, since Davies is correct that the composer's feelings are irrelevant to the expressive qualities of the music. This disanalogy, denied or ignored by Davies, may or may not raise further

    questions about his broader theory. It does indicate that if the theory is correct, there may be some error behind the language of expression as applied to music, perhaps some assumption of the rejected Romantic theory according to which

    composers communicate their feelings when they compose. According to Davies, music has these secondary-emotion properties partly by

    resembling vocal expressions of emotion, but mainly because of the resemblance between perceived movement in musical passages and human expressive behaviour. Movement, like emotion, is ascribed to music literally, but in a secondary sense. The

    dynamic character of music is partly natural and partly conventional and relative to

    style. Davies agrees with Kivy that it is heard as similar to human behaviour because of our tendency to animate perceived objects when it seems fitting to do so.

    As pointed out earlier, he disagrees with Kivy on the subject of arousing emotions in listeners. Audiences sometimes mirror the emotions expressed in music, which is then the cause but not the object of their emotions. Just as we tend to animate per- ceived movement, so we tend to respond to perceived emotion properties in

    ? The Editors of The Philosophical QuarterlI, 1996

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    appearances. There may again be some problem with this claim, since we do not

    respond to willow trees and St Bernards by becoming sad in their presence. But this

    may be because we do not perceive them as human or as human products. According to Davies, responding to a musical work emotionally is part of under-

    standing and appreciating it, which is the source of our enjoyment of it. I agree that

    responding affectively to a work is a proper part of our total engagement with it, but it seems to me that understanding is somewhat too narrow and cognitive a notion to

    capture that full engagement of which emotional reaction is a part. Davies is on the mark, however, when he claims that we can grasp the value of expression, and

    especially that of expressing negative emotions in music, only in this broader context of its full appreciation. Negative emotions are part of the challenge not only of many artworks, but of life itself, and therefore of music as a celebration of life. Davies' discussion of this topic in this broader context is the best I have read.

    The book ends with a chapter on the nature of musical understanding itself. Davies plausibly holds that to understand a piece of music is to hear its sound as

    organized according to the conventions of its style. It is to hear how its parts fit

    together, to recognize repetitions, variations, closures and so on. This formalist ana-

    lysis may seem not to fit so well with the emphasis on expressiveness as a necessary object for understanding, but for Davies expression, like closure, is an effect of the

    organization of sound. Understanding is being able to hear all these effects for what

    they are. Such grasp of musical structures must be verbally expressible, but not in the technical vocabulary of the musicologist. Here Davies once again takes a

    plausible middle ground: musical training can facilitate but is not necessary to

    understanding. Complete comprehension of a piece, however, does require know-

    ledge of its historical context, genre and style. There is much else of value and good sense here, and much that reveals Davies'

    knowledge not only of the philosophical literature but of a variety of musical types. The final chapter, for example, contains a very nice and succinct comparison of

    baroque and classical styles. Whether or not this book is the last word on the subject, and it well may be for a time, it certainly must be read by anyone interested in the

    philosophy of music.

    University of Miami ALAN H. GOLDMAN

    The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism. BY ROGER SCRUTON.

    (Manchester: Carcanet Press, I994. Pp. xviii + I58. Price fI9.95.)

    In the development of aesthetics philosophers have been concerned with questions about the character of art taken broadly: its ontology, its relation to nature, its con- nections with the other human disciplines; or with questions concerning the 'pure' arts: for instance, painting, music and poetry. Why, then, is Scruton so concerned with architecture, an art perhaps thought to be compromised and made deficient by its inherently functional condition?

    Throughout these essays we are reminded that what might otherwise be thought to 'contaminate' architecture (its functionality) is that which makes it human.

    ? The Editors of The Philosophical Quartellr, 1996

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    Article Contentsp. 533p. 534p. 535

    Issue Table of ContentsThe Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 185 (Oct., 1996), pp. 433-562Volume InformationFront MatterAn Unconnected Heap of Duties? [pp. 433 - 447]A Furry Tile About Mental Representation [pp. 448 - 466]Time, Tense and Topology [pp. 467 - 481]DiscussionsWhy Preference is Not Transitive [pp. 482 - 488]Modal Fatalism [pp. 488 - 495]Defending Promiscuous Realism About Natural Kinds [pp. 496 - 500]Public Justification and the Transparency Argument [pp. 501 - 507]

    Critical StudySmith's Moral Problem [pp. 508 - 515]

    Book Reviewsuntitled [pp. 516 - 518]untitled [pp. 518 - 522]untitled [pp. 522 - 524]untitled [pp. 524 - 526]untitled [pp. 527 - 530]untitled [pp. 530 - 532]untitled [pp. 533 - 535]untitled [pp. 535 - 537]untitled [pp. 537 - 541]untitled [pp. 541 - 544]untitled [pp. 544 - 546]untitled [pp. 547 - 550]untitled [pp. 550 - 551]untitled [pp. 552 - 553]untitled [pp. 553 - 554]untitled [pp. 554 - 556]untitled [pp. 556 - 558]untitled [pp. 558 - 561]untitled [pp. 561 - 562]

    Back Matter