Absolute music
Absolute music is a concept in music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

 that describes music as an art form separated from formalisms or other considerations; it is not explicitly about anything; it is non-representational
Representation (arts)
Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements...

. In contrast to program music
Program music
Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative. The narrative itself might be offered to the audience in the form of program notes, inviting imaginative correlations with the music...

, absolute music makes sense without accompanying words, images, drama, or dance, or other kind of extra-musical idea. The idea of absolute music developed at the end of the 18th century in the writings of authors of early German Romanticism
German Romanticism
For the general context, see Romanticism.In the philosophy, art, and culture of German-speaking countries, German Romanticism was the dominant movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. German Romanticism developed relatively late compared to its English counterpart, coinciding in its...

, such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder
Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder
Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder was a German jurist and writer. With Ludwig Tieck, he was a co-founder of German Romanticism....

, Ludwig Tieck
Ludwig Tieck
Johann Ludwig Tieck was a German poet, translator, editor, novelist, writer of Novellen, and critic, who was one of the founding fathers of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.-Early life:...

, Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

 and E. T. A. Hoffmann.

A related idea from 19th century composers, but often contested, considers absolute music as a form of divinity itself which could be evoked by music.

The aesthetic ideas underlying the absolute music debate relate to Kant
KANT is a computer algebra system for mathematicians interested in algebraic number theory, performing sophisticated computations in algebraic number fields, in global function fields, and in local fields. KASH is the associated command line interface...

's aesthetic disinterestedness from his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, and has led to numerous arguments among musicians, composers, music historians and critics.

The Formalist debate

‘Formalism’ is the concept of ‘music for music’s sake’ and refers only to instrumental music without words. In this respect, music has no meaning at all and is enjoyed by appreciation of its ‘formal’ structure and technical construction. The 19th century music critic Eduard Hanslick
Eduard Hanslick
Eduard Hanslick was a Bohemian-Austrian music critic.-Biography:Hanslick was born in Prague, the son of Joseph Adolph Hanslick, a bibliographer and music teacher from a German-speaking family, and one of his piano pupils, the daughter of a Jewish merchant from Vienna...

 argued that music could be enjoyed as pure sound and form, that it needed no connotation of extra-musical elements to warrant its existence. In fact, these extra-musical ideas detracted from the beauty of the music. The 'Absolute', in this case, is the ‘purity’ of the art.
“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” — Eduard transand

Formalism therefore rejected genres such as opera, song and tone poems as they conveyed explicit meanings or programmatic imagery. Symphonic forms were considered more aesthetically pure. (The choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as the programmatic Sixth Symphony, became problematic to formalist critics who had championed the composer as a pioneer of the ‘Absolute’, especially with the late quartets).

Carl Dahlhaus
Carl Dahlhaus
Carl Dahlhaus , a musicologist from Berlin, was one of the major contributors to the development of musicology as a scholarly discipline during the post-war era....

 describes absolute music as music without a "concept, object, and purpose".

Opposition to instrumental music

The majority of opposition to the idea of instrumental music being ‘absolute’ came from Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner
Wilhelm Richard Wagner was a German composer, conductor, theatre director, philosopher, music theorist, poet, essayist and writer primarily known for his operas...

 and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a German philosopher, one of the creators of German Idealism. His historicist and idealist account of reality as a whole revolutionized European philosophy and was an important precursor to Continental philosophy and Marxism.Hegel developed a comprehensive...

. It seemed ludicrous to these men that art could exist without meaning, for then it had no right to exist.
“Instrumental music is not strictly art at all.” — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Wagner considered the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be the proof that music works better with words, famously saying:
“Where music can go no further, there comes the word… the word stands higher than the tone.” — Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner also called Beethoven's Ninth Symphony the death knell of the Symphony, for he was far more interested in combining all forms of art with his "Gesamtkunstwerk".

Contemporary views

Today, the debate continues over whether music has meaning or not. However, most contemporary views, reflecting ideas emerging from views of subjectivity in linguistic meaning
Linguistic meaning
The nature of meaning, its definition, elements, and types, was discussed by philosophers Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. According to them 'meaning is a relationship between two sorts of things: signs and the kinds of things they mean '. One term in the relationship of meaning necessarily...

 arising in Cognitive Linguistics
Cognitive linguistics
In linguistics, cognitive linguistics refers to the branch of linguistics that interprets language in terms of the concepts, sometimes universal, sometimes specific to a particular tongue, which underlie its forms...

, as well as Kuhn
Kuhn is a surname of German origin, derived from the Old German name Conrad. It may refer to the following people:* Abraham Kuhn , Alasatian otolaryngologist* Abraham Kuhn, American banker, founder of Kuhn, Loeb & Co....

's work on cultural biases in science and other ideas on meaning and aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...

 (e.g. Wittgenstein) on cultural constructions in thought and language), appear to be moving
towards a consensus that music provides at least some signification or meaning, in terms of which it is understood. The decay of spiritualism in the 21st century has also led to a weakening of the absolutist position.

Some scholars such as Berthold Hoeckner
Berthold Hoeckner
Berthold Hoeckner is a German musicologist and is an associate professor of music at the University of Chicago. He was educated at the Musikhochschule Cologne, University of Cologne, and King's College London before earning his doctorate from Cornell University in 1994. Hoeckner grew up in Olpe,...

 feel that the very idea of absolute music was culturally generated; it was fostered by some German composers in an attempt to make it universally accepted.
“The absoluteness of absolute music has never been an obstacle, but is the very condition of its meaning.” — Berthold Hoeckner
Berthold Hoeckner
Berthold Hoeckner is a German musicologist and is an associate professor of music at the University of Chicago. He was educated at the Musikhochschule Cologne, University of Cologne, and King's College London before earning his doctorate from Cornell University in 1994. Hoeckner grew up in Olpe,...

The cultural bases of musical understanding have been highlighted in Philip Bohlman
Philip Bohlman
Philip Vilas Bohlman is an American ethnomusicologist. He is the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago and a visiting professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater...

's work, who considers music as a form of cultural communication:
There are those who believe that music represents nothing other than itself. I argue that we are constantly giving it new and different abilities to represent who we are.

Bohlman has gone on to argue that the use of music, e.g. among the Jewish diaspora, was in fact a form of identity building.

Susan McClary
Susan McClary
Susan McClary is a musicologist associated with the "New Musicology". Noted for her work combining musicology and a feminist music criticism, McClary is Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.-Biography:...

 has critiqued the notion of ‘absolute music’, arguing that all music, whether explicitly programmatic or not, contains implicit programs that reflect the tastes, politics, aesthetic philosophies and social attitudes of the composer and their historical situation. Such scholars would argue that classical music is rarely about ‘nothing’, but reflects aesthetic tastes that are themselves influenced by culture, politics and philosophy. Composers are often bound up in a web of tradition and influence, in which they strive to consciously situate themselves in relation to other composers and styles. Lawrence Kramer, on the other hand, believes music has no means to reserve a “specific layer or pocket for meaning. Once it has been brought into sustainable connection with a structure of prejudgment, music simply becomes meaningful.”

which appears to demand an interpretation, but is abstract enough to warrant objectivity (e.g. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony), is what Lydia Goehr refers to as ‘double-sided autonomy.’ This happens when the formalist properties of music became attractive to composers because, having ‘no meaning to speak of’, music could be used to envision an alternative cultural and/or political order, while escaping the scrutiny of the censor (particularly common in Shostakovich, most notably the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies).

Linguistic meaning

On the topic of musical meaning,
Wittgenstein, at several points in his late diary Culture and Value, ascribes meaning to music, for instance, that in the finale,
a conclusion is being ‘drawn’, e.g.:
“[one] can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head.” (p.47)

Recently, Jerrold Levinson
Jerrold Levinson
Jerrold Levinson is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is particularly noted for his work on the aesthetics of music, as well as for his search for meaning and ontology in film, art and humour....

 has drawn extensively on Wittgenstein to comment, in the Journal of Music and Meaning:
Intelligible music stands to literal thinking in precisely the same relation as does intelligible verbal discourse. If that relation be not exemplification but instead, say, expression, then music and language are, at any rate, in the same, and quite comfortable, boat.

See also

  • Abstract art
    Abstract art
    Abstract art uses a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an...

  • Art music
    Art music
    Art music is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition...

  • Impressionist music
    Impressionist music
    Impressionism in music was a tendency in European classical music, mainly in France, which appeared in the late nineteenth century and continued into the middle of the twentieth century. Similarly to its precursor in the visual arts, musical impressionism focuses on a suggestion and an atmosphere...

  • Musique concrète
    Musique concrète
    Musique concrète is a form of electroacoustic music that utilises acousmatic sound as a compositional resource. The compositional material is not restricted to the inclusion of sounds derived from musical instruments or voices, nor to elements traditionally thought of as "musical"...

    ("Concrete music")

Further reading

  • Chua, Daniel Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Cook, Nicholas Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • Dahlhaus, Carl The Idea of Absolute Music trans. by Roger Lustig (Chicago/London 1989; orig. Kassel, 1978)
  • Goehr, Lydia The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992)
  • Hoffman's Review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
  • Kivy, Peter ‘Absolute Music’ and the ‘New Musicology’ in Musicology and Sister Disciplines. Past, Present, Future. Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of the International Musicological Society, London 1997 ed. D. Greer, I. Rumbold and J. King (Oxford, 2000)
  • Kramer, Lawrence Subjectivity Rampant! Music, Hermeneutics, and History in The Cultural Study of Music. A Critical Introduction ed. M. Clayton, T. Herbert and R. Middleton (New York and London, 2003)
  • Scruton, Roger. "Absolute music." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.
  • Williams, Alastair Constructing Musicology (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Aldershot, Hampshire, 2001)
  • Wolff, Janet The ideology of autonomous art, in: Music and Society in The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception ed. R. Leppert and S. McClary (Cambridge, 1987)
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.