In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Analytic Philosophy of Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Expression
  • Ontology of Musical Works
  • Performance
  • Understanding and the Experience of Music
  • The Value of Music
  • Jazz and Improvisation
  • Rock and Popular Music
  • Richard Wagner and Opera
  • Music and Culture

Philosophy Analytic Philosophy of Music
Stephen Davies
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0067


Analytic philosophy, with its emphasis on clear, topic-based argument, is usually dated to the early 20th century and is contrasted with Continental philosophy, which is more often concerned with overarching systems and theories. Analytic philosophers did not turn their attention to music until the last decades of the 20th century. Of course, they were influenced by and commented on earlier, philosophically motivated discussions of music, starting with the Greeks and much later including relevant work by musicologists, composers, critics, and psychologists as well as philosophers. Three topics became prominent: the expression of emotion in music, the nature of musical works, and what is involved in understanding and appreciating music. Philosophers asked if music expresses emotion, and if they answered yes, as most did, they asked how this is possible and whether the attribution could be literal. Is music expressive by virtue of some connection with the world of human feeling or in its own, perhaps indescribable fashion? Why is the listener moved by the music’s expressiveness if no one undergoes the emotions it expresses? In the case of works, the interest was in their connection to notational specifications and performances. If they are abstract, does this mean they are discovered rather than created? Philosophers considered what makes a performance a performance of a given work, whether faithfulness to the work is important and what it entails, and in what respects the performer is free to interpret the work. In addition, they debated the prerequisites for musical understanding: for example, is knowledge of musical technicalities helpful or even necessary, and should the listener track the music’s large-scale structure? And why do we value music so highly given that it does not provide useful information? As these topics imply, the primary focus at first fell on notated classical Western music composed for multiple, live performances by instrumentalists, and the main perspective was that of the listener. When the scope of interest was broadened, different issues emerged. Jazz, for example, raised questions about the nature of improvisation and about how the appreciation of music not intended for replay might differ from that appropriate for notated works. Rock, with its reliance on electronic mediation and recordings, provoked new debate about the nature of recorded works and about the relevant differences between recordings of works intended for live performance and recordings of works that essentially involve electronic manipulations and the kind of editing that cannot be achieved in real time. The range of philosophical topics invited by consideration of music and its role in human life continues to expand, though this article concentrates on those matters that have received most attention.

General Overviews

A surprising number of introductions to the philosophy of music are available, including Hamilton 2007, Kivy 2002, Ridley 2004, and Sharpe 2004. These works canvas the most commonly addressed issues in a comparatively accessible style. Also providing an excellent overview is Kania 2010. Several books (Alperson 1994, Alperson 1998, Stock 2007) bring together original work by many authors on a spread of topics within the field. The most comprehensive and detailed of these is Kania and Gracyk 2011.

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

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    An overview by Francis Sparshott is followed by fourteen original chapters by different authors, both philosophers and musicologists. Covers a wide range of topics, including the nature of works, the role of the performer, musical movement, song and drama, musical understanding, and evaluation.

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

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    Contains fourteen chapters by different authors, generally of high quality, and an introduction. Covers musical representation; the expression of feeling; the metaphysics of operatic speech and song; the composition and understanding of music; music in relation to feminist theory, politics, and racial identity; and recording technology. Includes discussion of non-Western and popular music.

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

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    Unusual for an introductory text, this work alternates chapters on the history of musical aesthetics from the Greeks to Theodor Adorno with more abstract chapters on aspects of music and its performance, including discussion of the differences between music and sound art.

  • Kania, Andrew. “The Philosophy of Music.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2010.

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    Masterly, up-to-date overview. Covers definition, ontology, expression, understanding, and value.

  • Kania, Andrew, and Theodore A. Gracyk, eds. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music. London: Routledge, 2011.

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    The only such book: fifty-six in-depth entries and six hundred pages. Comprehensively covers general theoretical issues, emotion, history, philosophical figures, kinds of music, and connections to related disciplines. An important resource with many high-quality contributions.

  • Kivy, Peter. Introduction to a Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002.

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    Not a general introduction but rather a defense of Kivy’s “enhanced” formalism, according to which musical understanding is more a matter of tracking structure than of being moved.

  • Ridley, Aaron. The Philosophy of Music: Theme and Variations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

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    Introductory text with discussion of representation, expression, performance, and profundity. Laments the neglect of song by philosophers of music.

  • Sharpe, R. A. Philosophy of Music: An Introduction. Stocksfield, UK: Acumen, 2004.

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    Clear and interesting introduction to the philosophy of music covering works, meaning, expression, and value.

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

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    Ten original chapters by different authors covering ontology (including differences between music and electrosonic sound art), expression, rhythm, and musical meaning and irony. Generally of high quality.

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