Ontmusic1. What is a musical work?
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Candidates for musical works
- 3 Can there exist a mono-instantiated musical work, which is a musical work that can be performed or played only once?
- 4 Why the existence of mono-instantiation types is relevant to musical works
- 5 Reasons why each jazz improvisation is a musical work type
- 6 References on Musical Ontology
- 7 NOTES
Candidates for musical works
- A musical work is a stable compositional type. Often a musical work is identical to a song.
Generalized candidates for a musical work seem either to be abstract objects (abstracta) or physical objects (concreta). If the abstract or concrete distinction is exhaustive, then musical works must either be abstract or concrete. There are significant difficulties encountered regardless of which side of the division one tries to defend. The table below considers proposals for such candidates in either camp with the associated difficulties or objections stated.
Table of Possible Candidates for Musical Works with Objections to Each
|Musical Work Ontology Type||Characterization||Properties||Objection(s)|
|Abstract object||abstract objects exist independently of space-time||eternal existence; not created||Musical works are created so cannot be abstract objects.|
|The musical score as an abstract type of which this piece of paper is an instance||abstract objects exist independently of space-time||eternal existence; not created||Musical works are created so cannot be abstract objects.|
|Concreta because sum of all actual performances||sums are sets and therefore are abstract objects||abstract objects are not concreta||(1) Proposal is self-contradictory. (2) Additionally, musical works can have multiple performances, but they are each performances of a work, they are not the work itself.|
|The musical score||physical object||pieces of paper and ink||(1) Musical scores just being made of paper and ink are not heard, but musical works are heard. (2) The existence of a score is independent of and accidental to the existence of a musical work.|
|The composer’s thoughts about how the work is to be performed||mental existence||false beliefs about one's own musical work are possible||(1) False beliefs about a musical work are not part of a musical work so composer's thoughts cannot be identical to the musical work. (2) Additionally, thoughts cannot be heard, but musical works are, at least sometimes, heard. Thoughts, not being sounds, cannot be heard so cannot be identical to a musical work.|
If a musical work is a concrete object, which concrete object type could they possibly be?
The standard candidates are: the musical score sheet, the composer's intentions as thoughts, or the (mereological) sum of all performances. Because there are significant objections to each of these candidates for a musical work it would seem to point against identifying a musical work with a concrete object. Hence, if there are musical works, they would seem to number amongst the abstracta.
What is the objection to musical works being some kind of abstract object?
The primary objection concerns intuitions that composers create the musical work. If they are not creating it, then what are they doing such that credit for the production of that musical work can get both credited to that composer(s) as well as applying various degrees of commendation to the composer(s) for having produced that particular work?
Jerrold Levinson has made the case for the intuition had by many that a (musical) artwork has been created when he defends that creativity claim.
[The creativity claim] is one of the most firmly entrenched of our beliefs concerning art. There is probably no idea more central to thought about art than that it is an activity in which participants create things—these things being artworks. . . . The notion that artists truly add to the world . . . is surely a deep rooted idea that merits preservation if at all possible.
Is Levinson right about this? Are all artworks created by an artist(s)?
It turns out that there are reasons to doubt this creativity claim depending upon how one characterizes what category constitutes creation.
Readymades are artworks that have already been created and made by someone other than the artist. So, if create means that an artwork has to have been physically manipulated and constructed by the artist responsible for the production or existence of the artwork in question, then readymades, whose existence and physical properties were not made or caused by the artist would appear to be counter-examples to Levinson's creativity claim.
Furthermore, Julian Dodd disputes the characterization being assumed for what creativity requires for creativity to have occurred. What Dodd has in mind is a different way to characterize an artist's creativity when art objects themselves are eternally existing abstract object types. Here's how Stecker and Wilson explain Dodd's point of view when they review and summarize his position in their article, "Dodd On Music & Ontology."
“Dodd disagrees, because all abstract structures exist at all times. (The position that types and universals exist at all times is often called Platonism.) [From a Platonism point of view] Creativity does not involve creating types. It involves selecting a type from among the always-existing abstract structures. Selection is a kind of creativity, so Platonism does not deny creativity to composers, poets, etc. A scientist’s discovery can be creative, as when Albert Einstein discovered special relativity, yet no one thinks that Einstein created the laws of physics. . . . The central question of the debate is whether musical composition involves creation, or merely creativity. . . . For Dodd, our talk of creating and initiating types is merely a recognition that a particular person was the first to generate tokens of the type. . . . . Dodd argues that humans cannot create abstract types: we cannot, because their parts must be abstract parts, and we have no power over abstract things that could involve joining them together into new patterns. (We cannot cause things to happen to abstract things.)
Can there exist a mono-instantiated musical work, which is a musical work that can be performed or played only once? 
One can be of two minds in answer to the question whether mono-instantiated musical works can exist. Those two minds answer with opposing Yes's and No's.
Reasons Why There Cannot Be Mono-instantiated Musical Works
By definition there cannot be any mono-instantiated musical works because any entity that counts as a musical work will always be a musical work type and any type can theoretically have multiple instances or exemplifications of that particular type. Hence anything that could possibly be a musical work must always be a musical work type and any type can always in principle have more than one instancing.
Reasons Why There Can Be Mono-instantiated Musical Works
Apriori linguistic arguments that rule out possible entities on the basis of conceptual impossibilities are fraught with failure when confronting real life phenomena such as the nature of quantum mechanics or of infinity, for example. The paradoxes of set theory are a surprise to common sense that there cannot be a set of all sets.
In response to the argument that all musical works are musical work types so it is always possible to have multiple instantiations of that type thereby ruling out any possibility of mono-instantiated musical works one may reply that some types are only singularly instantiable.
Are there mono-instantiable types?
Mono-instantiable types are types that can only ever have one exemplification or instantiation. One can prove that mono-instantiable types are possible if one can provide any examples of such a type that holds up to scrutiny and criticism.
Examples of Mono-Instantiable Types that Can Have Only One Exemplification 
- GOD. Take God, the supreme or perfect being, and consider whether or not there is a type of thing which is a Supreme Being type. If you accept that God has a type then because of the properties of the logic of a supreme being as the greatest possible being, it deductively follows that there can only ever be one instantiation or exemplification of this kind of type. Hence, mono-instantiation types can exist.
- Longest Possible Musical Performance. To prove that it is possible to have a mono-instantiated musical work all one needs to do is produce a conceptual situation wherein a musical work can only be performed once. Here is one such situation that is imaginatively possible. This work occurs at the start of a universe when life and music can first possibly occur. This musical performance then continues uninterruptedly from the beginning to the end of this universe into a Big Crunch singularity. This musical performance that stretches from the beginning to the end of time in this universe can only be performed once in this universe. Therefore, it can only ever have one exemplification in its own universe.
Why the existence of mono-instantiation types is relevant to musical works
Having now proven in the previous section that mono-instantiation types are actual and therefore possible, we turn to look at the relevance of this for the possibility of a free jazz improvisation counting as a musical work type.
Many philosophers and jazz theorists believe on practical as well as theoretical grounds that a (free) jazz improvisation can only ever have one instantiation. Practically speaking, no improviser, unless the musical passage is rather short, can ever sonically reproduce what he or she just played while improvising, whether free jazz improvisations or otherwise. The reasons for this are that the improviser cannot remember absolutely everything that was played in any lengthy past improvisation. Furthermore, even if one could remember every note of a previous improvised solo, one could never theoretically use it as or in an improvisation because repeating a previously established group of notes as one's entire improvisation is not improvising so it wouldn't count as an improvisation even if one could achieve this.
Now assuming the reasoning just used is sound it establishes that, at the very minimum, most substantial jazz improvisations are in fact mono-instantiable musical entities. They are only played one time and have only one instantiation or exemplification throughout the entire history of a universe. The question now remains as to whether each substantial jazz improvisation is its own type or kind.
Reasons why each jazz improvisation is a musical work type
A first thing to consider regarding whether each substantial jazz improvisation is its own type is to ask why not believe it? Are there any objections to claiming that every substantial jazz improvisation, even if mono-instantiable, is its own type or kind?
For certain, everyone agrees that a substantial jazz improvisation is a musical event. Music has been successfully produced. Since all concerned, theorists, critics, musicians, and listeners desire to be capable of re-identifying an individually improvised jazz solo it is appropriate to give the relevant music passage a name. For the purposes of discussion, assume that David has produced a musically satisfying improvisation. Let us refer to this with the phrase 'David's improvisation during the playing of Monk's 'Round Midnight." The question can now be asked, "Is the reference of 'David's improvisation' a kind or type?
Why David's improvisation is a type of music
What purpose or function do types serve? Why bother to classifying anything into a type or kind? What are kinds anyway?
According to Simple Wikipedia, a kind is a “group of things or people that have the same features or category.” Of course, the person who originally wrote this definition was not attempting to resolve all possible philosophical questions about kinds, so let us explore these issues further.
Wikipedia on natural kinds states that one can conceptualize a kind as “something that a set of things (objects, events, beings) has in common which distinguishes it from other things.”
W. V. O. Quine, the late Harvard philosophy professor, understood kinds to consist of sets of things. It is even thought that Quine believed that kinds were conceptually related to similarity classes.
Because everything is similar to itself and one member sets are possible, it follows from this that if a kind is a set of things with something in common then every unit set with only one member forms a kind. It is a kind of thing that has the features of itself.
We know that sets can exist with only one member. The set with Fred's one favorite thing only contains one object. Suppose that Fred's favorite thing is the number three. There is only one number three so the set contains only one object. Is the set containing only the number three a type of thing? There is no reason to think otherwise, is there?
Because substantial improvised solos almost universally have only one exemplification throughout the history of a universe, this now does not rule them out from being a type or kind of musical event. One can find things in an improvised solo that were like other things in a different solo. One might say Coltrane's solo has some similar features here to Ayler's solo. This could show that two different types can still share comparable features just like we can say wolves and bears both have padded paws, even though bears and wolves are themselves different types of animals.
In medieval philosophy wasn't each angel its own species or kind type?
Aren't tropes by definition mono-instantiable types?
Can a person or thing be its own kind? We have already seen that this is possible.
References on Musical Ontology
- "What a Musical Work Is," Jerrold Levinson, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 1, January 1980, pp. 5-28.
- "Musical Works As Eternal Types," Julian Dodd, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 40, Issue 4, 2000, pp. 424-440.
- "Unperformable Works and the Ontology of Music," Wesley D. Cray, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 56, Issue 1, 2000, pp. 67-81.
ABSTRACT: “Some artworks—works of music, theatre, dance, and the like—are works for performance. Some works for performance are, I contend, unperformable. Some such works are unperformable by beings like us; others are unperformable given our laws of nature; still others are unperformable given considerations of basic logic. I offer examples of works for performance—focusing, in particular, on works of music—that would fit into each of these categories, and go on to defend the claim (perhaps counterintuitive to some) that such ‘works’ really are (i) genuine works, (ii) musical works and (iii) works for performance. I then argue that the very possibility of such works is ontologically significant. In particular, the possibility of these works raises serious problems for type-theoretic accounts of the ontology of music as well as certain mereological or constitution-based accounts.”
- Lecture notes by Theodore Gracyk.
- Wikipedia on Natural Kinds.
- W. V. O. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York: Columbia University Press, 1969, p. 119.
- "Natural Kinds", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.