A correspondence theory of musical representation

Dissertation, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (2010)
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This dissertation defends the place of representation in music. Music’s status as a representational art has been hotly debated since the War of the Romantics, which pitted the Weimar progressives (Liszt, Wagner, &co.) against the Leipzig conservatives (the Schumanns, Brahms, &co.) in an intellectual struggle for what each side took to be the very future of music as an art. I side with the progressives, and argue that music can be and often is a representational medium. Correspondence (or resemblance) theories of representation, such as the one I offer, have been much maligned in philosophy since the 1960s. Most theories assimilate representation under “meaning,” which has usually been thought to belong primarily to language. As a result, representational content has been taken to be purely conventional in the way that sentential meaning is. People want to know what music “means,” and these theories interpret this as “what does it refer to?” or “what propositions does it express?” I argue that propositional communication is only one (small) part of the issue. Once we overcome the bias of conceiving of musical works as essentially linguistic items, speech acts (performed) or sentence tokens (written), we can begin to take music on its own terms to discover how it represents—one way in which it “means.” The first step is to “naturalize” music’s representational content. Influenced by recent discussions in the philosophies of mind and science, I argue in Chapter 1 that composers represent extra-musical objects, events, and states of affairs through their works by exploiting antecedent relations (such as similarities in pitch, timbre, and structure) in order to secure reference to them. In Chapter 2, I survey and respond to the main challenges that those skeptical of music’s representational possibilities would raise against my theory of musical representation. In Chapter 3, I explore a number of ways through which music has been claimed to represent in order to show how my theory accounts for these diverse phenomena better than its conventionalist rivals, both in terms of the metaphysics and the epistemology. Chapter 4 extends this discussion by offering an account of how we perceive, understand, appreciate, and interpret sophisticated musical representations. I conclude by teasing out some of my theory’s implications and suggesting areas for further research



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Brandon Polite
Knox College

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