Ontmusic1. What is a musical work?
- A musical work is a stable compositional type. Often a musical work is identical to a song.
Generalized candidates for musical works seem either to be abstract objects (abstracta) or physical objects (concreta). If the abstract/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.
Musical Work Proposed Ontological Entities with Objections Table
|Musical Work 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||proposal is self-contradictory. 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||piece of paper and ink||musical scores just being made of paper are not heard, but musical works are heard. The existence of a score is independent of and accidental to the existence of the musical work|
|the composer’s thoughts about how the work is to be performed||mental existence||false beliefs about ones own musical work are possible||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 if these 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 the artist?
It turns out that there are reasons to doubt this creativity claim depending upon how one characterizes what category constitutes create.
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 readymade, whose existence and physical properties were not made or caused by the artist would appear to be counter-examples to Levinson's creativity claims.
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.)
References on Musical Ontology
- "What a Musical Work Is," by Jerrold Levinson, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 5-28.
- [ "Musical Works As Eternal Types,"] Julian Dodd, British Journal of Aesthetics, (2000) Vol. 40, Issue 4, pp. 424-440.
- "Unperformable Works and the Ontology of Music," by Wesley D. Cray, in British Journal of Aesthetics (2016), Vol. 56, Issue 1, 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.”