Music Philosophy of Music
Theodore Gracyk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0061


Narrowly construed, philosophy of music encompasses all theorizing about music that arises within philosophy. More broadly construed, it includes any theoretical discussion of music informed by recognized philosophical methodologies and theories. As a result, premodern philosophizing about music is closely associated with scientific speculation (or “natural philosophy”). The scientific revolution of the early modern period encouraged separation of scientific from philosophical inquiry. Like most recent philosophy, contemporary philosophy of music focuses on issues that are not subject to empirical inquiry. Although there are some differences in focus and methodology, contemporary philosophy of music can overlap with music theory. This bibliography will emphasize the narrower construal, in which philosophy of music is non-empirical, philosophically based inquiry into the nature of music. From this perspective, philosophers have discussed music since the recorded beginnings of Western philosophy, with the nature of music playing an important role in the thought of Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 490 BCE) and then Plato (429–347 BCE). Pythagoreanism and Platonism further demonstrate that philosophy of music should not be equated with aesthetic theory as extended to music, for those philosophers did not restrict themselves to narrowly “aesthetic” questions. Philosophy of music has been and remains a much broader field than philosophical music aesthetics. For example, Pythagoreanism investigated music as part of the quadrivium of four mathematical sciences, while Plato emphasized music’s effects on the health of the soul. Music’s mathematical dimension became less important to philosophers after the Renaissance, after which most philosophers adopted the prevailing view that music is an art form rather than a science. After 1700, modern philosophy developed aesthetic theory as a distinct subcategory of inquiry. Since then, philosophy of music has generally reflected, and in many cases guided, philosophical inquiry into the nature of art and of aesthetic properties such as beauty and sublimity. The 19th and late 20th centuries have been particularly robust periods of development in the philosophy of music. Plato’s inquiry into music’s effects on the soul has given way to inquiry into the nature of emotive expression and of music’s power to alter the emotions of listeners. Different accounts of the emotions have generated a range of views on music’s relationship to the emotions, including the influential formalist position that expressiveness detracts from music’s unique value as an art. Accounts of music’s role in cosmology have evolved into sophisticated debates about the distinct kinds of entities that arise in musical practice. Philosophy of music currently reflects the recent, general division of philosophy into the analytic and continental approaches, with relatively little exchange between the two approaches.

General Overviews

Few works attempt to provide an overview of philosophy of music. (However, see also Reference Works and Textbooks.) The most notable exceptions are the three-volume collection of edited primary texts assembled by Lippman 1986–1990, the histories of Western musical aesthetics provided in Lippman 1992 and Bowman 1998, and the cumulative impact of the essays commissioned for Alperson 1994 and Stock 2007 and those collected in Alperson 1998. However, Lippman 1986–1990 overemphasizes the modern period. As a corrective supplementation, Strunk 1998 is the best collection, providing numerous primary texts from ancient Greece. Hamilton 2007 and Alperson 1998 usefully question the implicit elitism of concentrating on Western classical music. Due to the diversity of viewpoints in philosophy, readers should approach each of these works with an awareness of its editorial or authorial perspective and its resulting limitations.

  • Alperson, Philip, ed. What Is Music? An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music. Rev. ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

    A collection of essays that opens with Francis Sparshott’s lengthy overview of philosophy of music as it looked in the 1980s (pp. 33–98), followed by thirteen essays on various topics, many by leading scholars. There is an extensive (but dated) bibliography. The emphasis is on analytic philosophy.

  • Alperson, Philip, ed. Musical Worlds: New Directions in the Philosophy of Music. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.

    This book republishes and supplements a special issue of Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, The Philosophy of Music. Taken as a whole, this diverse set of essays provides an excellent introduction to the range of topics explored in recent philosophy of music.

  • Bowman, Wayne D. Philosophical Perspectives on Music. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Organized chronologically, this relatively accessible textbook begins with Greek antiquity and ends with feminism and postmodernism. A good source on continental philosophy of music but cursory in its treatment of analytic approaches. The bibliography is similarly unbalanced.

  • Hamilton, Andy. Aesthetics and Music. London: Continuum, 2007.

    Organized around selected major topics, Hamilton engages the views of major historical and contemporary writers and supports Critical Theory. It is unique among overviews in emphasizing the elitism that emerges when philosophy of music restricts itself to consideration of Western classical music. Contains a useful bibliography.

  • Lippman, Edward A., ed. Musical Aesthetics: A Historical Reader. 3 vols. Aesthetics in Music 4. New York: Pendragon, 1986–1990.

    Each volume offers edited selections of important contributions to the field, with English translations of all non-English texts. Volume 1 covers antiquity through the 18th century, Volume 2 covers the 19th century, and Volume 3 covers the 20th century through John Cage but neglects analytic philosophy’s impact on the field.

  • Lippman, Edward A. A History of Western Musical Aesthetics. London and Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

    A chronological exposition of major ideas about music in Western thought. It contains informative chapters on antiquity and the 18th and 19th centuries, but Lippman’s antipathy toward analytic philosophy results in an unbalanced account of more recent philosophy.

  • Stock, Kathleen, ed. Philosophers on Music: Experience, Meaning, and Work. Mind Association Occasional series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    This edited collection of ten contemporary essays concentrates on three topics: ontology, musical expression, and musical meaning. It offers an overview of major topics from the perspective of analytic philosophy, and the editor’s introductory overview is very clear. However, several of the essays are specialized and narrow in focus.

  • Strunk, Oliver, ed. Greek Views of Music. Vol. 1 of Source Readings in Music History. Rev. ed. Edited by Leo Treitler and Thomas J. Mathiesen. New York: Norton, 1998.

    This collection provides English translations of a range of documents and is a useful supplement to Lippman 1986–1990, Vol. 1. However, the editorial focus is very broad and some selections contain limited philosophical content.

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