by J. Mark Scearce*

Music and philosophy have a long history together – from Pythagoras and the foundations of tonality to Plato and his invectives against the dangers of art and music, in particular, to sway a society. Nietzsche and Wagner weighed in on the powers of music, at least until one night in Sorrento when Friedrich couldn’t take the overbearing Richard any longer.

The 20th century is filled with philosophical dialogue about music, and that is probably why I, as a composer, chose to take time off from my music-making to study philosophy – and why, later on, early in my teaching career, I developed a matching game – for both musicians and non-musicians alike – to provide a better understanding about this elusive art form we are always having to talk about with audiences before listening.

Music and philosophy have a lot in common, and I want audiences and musicians alike to think about this, about the creation of music, through philosophical introspection and all that it reveals about what it is that we do.

In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , under the heading of Analysis , there are listed five categories or aspects of music that can be analyzed, or torn apart, to view just how they work. In other words, there are five ways of looking at music, calling it music, and thinking about it as music.

No. 5 is the Experience of Music. It is probably the aspect with which we are most comfortable but also least likely to attribute to the word. Sure, the Experience is Music, but we refer to it as listening to music – and what is Music, really?

It is No. 4, Performance, the aspect with which we are most familiar . This is what our symphony does, what rock and country and jazz bands do. It is the only way we can experience electro-acoustic musics or improvisation. What is Music? Performance .

But these – the performance and your own personal experience – are aspects that I, a composer, have very little control over. Imagine that. As a composer, you are judged not by what you do but how others reinterpret what you do. The next three aspects, however, are the composer’s domain.

Let’s take them out of order, back to the top. What is Music? No. 1 – the idea in the mind of the composer at the moment of conception. When does my work become music? When I have the idea for it. But only composers, like philosophers, can give an idea any credence. So, what must happen to that idea?

The composer must create No. 2, a score, using a language of communication. What is Music? It is the scrawl on the page. A cellist leans over and says to her stand partner, “Let me see the music .” That’s physical; that’s No. 2, the score or part, the written language.

Now No. 3, the only one left to define, is a heady concept. How does a performer know how to make a performance (No. 4) out of a score (No. 2)? By No. 3: the sound-image of the score. If the composer has done his or her job right, the sound-image will be the idea projected into a score, so the conductor or the performers will be able to hear – in the mind’s ear – what the piece is to sound like before they actually play it.

Thus I read a score, like a book, so it projects a sound-image. I can hear a symphony, all 100 performers, in my mind. The trick is getting it out of my head and onto the page in a language that others can read, can “hear” in the mind, and can recreate for the audience to hear in the hall.

I am often asked how this is done. Is it a gift or a learned trait? Clearly, some people are naturally capable of reading music and hearing it in the mind. Yet I believe that every serious student of music – and of composition, in particular – can be taught – and can learn – to hear music in the mind.

Everyone knows we are visual animals. Suggest a pink and purple-polka-dotted elephant or a dancing banana and we all have immediate visual images in our mind’s eyes. And yet, to suggest something as simple as a C-major chord played by a bassoon, an oboe, and a muted trumpet sends even the most serious musician into paroxysms of constipated imaginings!

The Mental Ear must be exercised. It is far less developed than our Mental Eye but just as real. This concept of sound-image – which should be central to music – is the least understood of our five aspects and is often ignored altogether in the process. This lack of understanding of a Mental Ear, I posit, puts Music at risk. It is a subject music educators need to address, and soon.

So our five aspects of music are as follows:

1. The Idea
2. The Score
3. The Sound-Image
4. The Performance
5. The Experience

That’s Music: The idea, the score, the sound-image of the score, the performance, and your experience. Now, bear with me for a moment.

I studied philosophy in college to have a broader handle on the world. In philosophy there are five basic areas of study.

a. Aesthetics
b. Ethics
c. Epistemology
d. Logic
e. Metaphysics

Aesthetics is the study of the beautiful – actually, it is the judging of quality. Ethics is the study of right, wrong, good, evil – choices of morality. Epistemology is the study of how we learn – and how we know. Logic is the study of order – syntax and categories of thought. And metaphysics is the study of those things beyond the physical – the concept of God, Love, and Concepts with capitol Cs.

We can match up the definitions of music and the areas of philosophy by finding which one is closest to defining or representing the other and – in the process – learn more about both. This is an exercise in abstract thinking, assuring a better quality by a more complete examination, regardless of the discipline or art form.

Here goes. The idea of a composition is in the composer’s mind. Which philosophical category comes close to expressing a concept? Metaphysics. Which philosophical discipline implies a language akin to the score or language system? Only one discipline of philosophy is actually constructed as a language: Logic. And the sound-image of the score, or the way performers know how to interpret, equates quite well with Epistemology, the system of knowledge.

Up to this point, there is seemingly little discussion. A metaphysical process is confronted by a logical process to create language. Embedded in this language, if the processes are handled with care, is not only the information to be conveyed but also the key to unraveling the puzzle, the epistemology, the ways of knowing.

These are the hooks and handles performers need to accurately recreate the idea out of the language. More on that in a moment, when the performer’s role is brought to light.

What we have lost in our educational methods is the way to recognize this underlying code. And if we have lost the ability to find the code, we are certainly not taught to embed the code in our creative efforts. To do this, one must hear in the mind’s ear the idea as it is being translated into language.

But with these three philosophical aspects assigned, we are left with the two value systems, Ethics and Aesthetics. One determines right or wrong and the other, quality. How can we determine if a thing is beauty, is art? Only through experience. Thus the experience is best judged with Aesthetics, leaving the choices the performer makes in performance to Ethics. This is no simple concept – and it is absolved by current education. There is a responsibility in performance, and Ethics represents this well.

1. The Idea = e. Metaphysics
2. The Score = d. Logic
3. The Sound-Image = c. Epistemology
4. The Performance = b. Ethics
5. The Experience = a. Aesthetics

What does all this mean? Only what we care to apply to our own understanding, our own creation, our own performance. But here is a cross-disciplinary study that elucidates, in a very short amount of time, the many facets of Music that many would not even consider without having to think of it in this way.

That the idea is metaphysical is not earth-shattering. That sound is conveyed in a kind of symbolic logic is also not arguable. But that the concept of a sound-image is acknowledged and yet ignored in the educational process is something music educators would do well to ponder and discuss.

That aesthetic judgment requires experience is not the issue here, but that aesthetic judgment itself is rarely ever considered as a genuine part of the experience is worthy of dialogue. And just who is equipped to do the judging – and why?

And then there remains the problem of Ethics. It is a problem in the society at large and no less a problem in the making of music. Abdicating one’s ethical role in performance creates bad performance, plain and simple. So just what is the ethics of music, and how is it equitably applied?

For the composer, this matching game provides a system, a framework in which to place his or her work. It provides an understanding of the mutual responsibilities all participants in the musical endeavor share. And it underscores the fact that, when all is said and done, it is the composer who is ultimately responsible .

*J. Mark Scearce has five degrees in Music and Philosophy, including the doctorate in composition from Indiana University. He is the Director of the Music Department at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Note : This is the first of what we hope will be a series of guest columns by the heads of our college/university music departments and other distinguished artists and educators. Reader feedback is welcome.