The Deep, Confounding Joys of Music

Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Febreze/AP Images

What compels us to listen to music? To bob our heads and learn all the lyrics? To collect the records and lay around alone at home beside our listening devices, savoring every beat, melody, and bridge? For Aeon, professor Roger Mathew Grant looks back in history to the thinkers who have tried to make sense of the pleasure music gives us, from Aristotle to René Descartes to Leonard Meyer. Does music’s pleasure come from the melody, anticipation, or the challenge of deciphering a puzzle? It all gets very theoretical, a far cry from a simple “I dig it,” but in these philosophical inquiries, you might hear something that rings true for you.

Twining and Krause get us closer to the view that music is pleasurable not for its reproduction of objects or imitations of emotions, but for its opacity. In this view, it is the inability of musical tones to refer or represent that affords a certain pleasurable contemplation. This idea – which flips the earlier theories of imitation on their head – received its fullest elaboration in Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music (1854), a screed against emotional interpretations of the art. Hanslick took direct aim against earlier theorists such as Mattheson, who had proposed systems for linking musical materials with the emotions. For Hanslick these efforts were sentimental and misguided, and they encouraged listeners to hear music in the same way that they might enjoy a warm bath. Deriving this sort of pleasure from music was, for Hanslick, both lazy and wasteful. To hear music thus was to misunderstand the true nature of the art, which, he suggested, is hidden in the details.

In Hanslick’s thinking, music consists of nothing but sounds and motions, which together create a play of forms. This formal play aims at the creation of the beautiful in music, and while the contemplation of this beauty might arouse various emotions, these are distinct from the beautiful as such. The pleasure of listening to music instead arises from the intellectual satisfaction that derives from attempting to follow the compositional design of a piece. This is a difficult, almost athletic task – not a soak in the tub. Led in unexpected ways from one moment to the next, the listener is sometimes rewarded and other times frustrated in the play of expectations. A particular kind of musical difficulty is prized in this system, which depends on our temporal encounter with varying degrees of musical familiarity and novelty. Hanslick described this as an ‘intellectual flux and reflux’, or a kind of ‘pondering of the imagination’ that is particular to music. The cultivation of this aesthetic listening strategy was, as he saw it, an art itself.

This is an extreme position on musical pleasure. It’s one that divorces music not only from the representation of emotions but also from the outside world. It posits the existence of ideal types of listener and composition, reifying a certain kind of play with formal conventions and expectations as the essence of musical composition. And although this type of thinking has been the subject of withering critique from countless critics and musicians, elements of it persist in our current thinking on musical pleasure.

Read the story