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What Is a Philosophy of Music?

The philosophy of music studies the reasons behind emotional responses to music.
Music can convey a mood or emotion.
The philosophy of music asks how music shapes history and culture.
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  • Written By: Melanie Smeltzer
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2014
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Many people wonder what makes music music, why certain songs make us feel happy or sad, or how music serves to shape culture and history. These common musings are some of the fundamental questions asked and studied in the philosophy of music. As with the philosophy of science or psychology, this branch of study requires some background knowledge of the subject. Unlike the other two disciplines, however, music is something that most people have some understanding of — whether through the act of listening or through the complex art of performing.

Many forms of art, such as painting or literature, can be easily interpreted. Paintings generally focus on distinct shapes and forms that make the artist's statement obvious, while authors are able to verbally express emotions, ideas, and thoughts. Music, on the other hand, is largely considered abstract and open to interpretation. Thus, the philosophy of music is often a broad subject that is frequently debated.

One of the most common debates when it comes to the philosophy of music is how to define this art form. The broadest definitions state that music is either organized sound or the art of creating organized sound. Some contend that these statements are too broad, as speech and mechanical noises may be classified as organized sound, and poetry may also be placed into the category of creation. Other theories state that music can be defined by varying tones and pitches or by the intention of the person creating the music.

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Another hotly debated subject in the philosophy of music is meaning and purpose. This debate questions why humans respond to certain types of music. Some believe that emotional responses and song interpretations are a result of cultural conditioning. Others, however, take a more scientific approach by suggesting that how we react to music is directly related to the evolution of our brains.

Value is also an important debate in the philosophy of music. Some feel that the great value we place on music is based on personal experience and emotional response, while others suggest that value is created solely on the mechanics of the art form. Another debate on the subject of value is whether or not we should hold such esteem for music. One position states that music is an integral part of society, while others contend that the simple pleasure of listening to music is trivial and unessential.

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