The Subjectivity of Profundity

Submitted by Anthony John Andrews on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 1:19 PM

I had trouble with the Ridley reading because of the very subjective nature of qualifying a certain piece of music as "profound".  While Schopenhauer may find Beethoven's 9th symphony to be evocative of the human experience, a listener who does not relate in any way to Western Classical music would simply find it irritating.  Experiencing profundity in music is very much a subjective, personal listening experience.  Furthermore, some people don't enjoy listening to music (as strange as it sounds) or don't have time to listen to music.  Surely, for these people, music is in no way profound because if it were, they would a) enjoy listening to music and b) find the time to listen to it.  Music is only profound inasmuch as the subjective, isolated listener deems it to be so.  Without a human perceptual system, music would either not exist at all (or would it? (John Cage's 4:33), or it would at the very least not exist to be experienced as profound (if a tree falls in a wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?).  My end conclusion is that whether or not a work of music has the ability to be profound is completely up to the subjective listener.  In my humble opinion, it can be.  

Absolute Music as its Own World

Submitted by Michael B. Ng on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 12:58 PM

I have to disagree with Kivy's view that absolute music differs from other fine arts because it does not represent our own world, but rather an entirely new world unrelated to ours. Kivy argues that unlike his Pagnol's trilogy example, absolute music does not "plunge us into our own lives and our own problems." This I cannot agree with, as the emotions that arise from listening to good absolute music very much start in its own art world, but end up carrying over into facets of our own lives. In fact, that is what makes particularly moving pieces so moving in the first place. Kivy can argue this because he shoots down the musical persona theory earlier in his book. However, as a proponent of the musical persona theory I cannot accept Kivy's response here.

A question about semantics?

Submitted by Zachary I. Bleemer on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 11:56 AM

I'm sorry I'm posting a little bit late. I was having a hard time last night thinking of anything interesting to say about these articles, mostly because I'm having a hard time pinning down exactly what's meant by calling something "profound", and I think Sean's post enlightens this question in a way by offering another alternative. The view presented by Ridley is that in order for an object to be profound, it is necessary and sufficient that it fulfill one of two qualities: that it enlighten us about the world, or that it describes in some way an underpinning fact about the structure of another object. He presents Kivy's view that since music can't talk about anything but itself, then the only possibility is that it is profound in that it hold great explanatory power of some sort in speaking of itself, and I think this view is rightly denied.  His alternative, speaking of music as an emotional pathway that can somehow be "profound" in both ways described above, seems equally questionable to me, and it comes down to the question Ridley himself asks at the beginning of this chapter: why is it that people call music profound, anyway? And I answer that question differently than he does: I don't think people do call music profound, at least not regularly, as far as I know, and I have no idea what they could mean if they did. We've been talking about the kinds of properties that musical works can hold for much of the semester, and we've been talking about them coming from one direction: building up from the conception of a musical work. This week, we're doing something very different, building down from a "common conception" about musical works to try to figure out if our model of works holds water, but to do so with a conception like profundity, which itself has at least three distinct definitions which might or might not have anything to do with music or musical works, is just really confusing to me; I don't know where to start, because it seems like there are so many starting points to choose from, or perhaps none at all. And in the end, I think the source of my confusion is not having ever thought of a musical work as profound, in a way that I think literature or poetry or other syntactical expressions are, and without that, I don't really know what to talk about.

Putting the nature of profundity itself aside, I think that Sean makes a really interesting point about music, and I think Kivy's point is interesting as well- it both draws us towards it with its splendor, or maybe sublimity, and many works can teach us a lot about music structure and aesthetic taste. Is that what people mean when they call a musical work profound? I actually have no idea.

The Source of the Scholarly Disagreement

Submitted by Farris D. Hassan on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 11:50 AM

I agree with Ridley: Those who think a musical work can’t be profound rely on the premise: when one understands a piece of music, there is nothing that one understands beyond the music itself. That premise is false, and hence, their view is false.

Under the guise of “musical purism”, Kivy states that music is a quasi-syntactical structure of sound understandable solely in musical terms and having no semantic or representational content, and making no reference to anything beyond itself. Sure, I would say. That is the case of the object itself, but not the human experience of it, which involves associations, as Schopenhauer described. The war of words stems from a confusion between these two references—the music itself and the human experience of it, or we might say, the music internally and the music externally, internal traits and external, relational traits.

Isaiah Berlin, the renown and eloquent intellectual historian, described a profound work as thus: every time you return to it, new vistas and valleys of meaning open up. The content seems bottomless.

A Response to Sean

Submitted by Spencer C. Russell on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 11:42 AM

I, like a couple other people so far, seem to have similar sentiments to Sean regarding the way in which we experience music, and where the profundity in music lies.  I think he raises a great point about the ability of sublime music to make us stop and listen to it.  We immerse ourselves in it, and it seems to be able to stir up some of the feelings he describes, like " the ability to remove us for a moment from the world of thought and action that we live in, and bring us to state of pure feeling... a state [where] we remember how beautiful it is to feel and, possibly, how lucky we are to be alive to have the ability to feel at all." I wholeheartedly agree that sublime music, like few other things has this ability. 

However, I question whether or not I am able to conclude that according to this view, the profundity of music lies solely in the sound structure, and that it is the sound alone that evokes such a pleasurable sensation.  Perhaps I am missing Sean's point, or making a slightly different point, but I think provenance could, and sometimes does factor into our ability to remove ourselves from the world around us and feel the music.   I think of a case of absolute music produced by, say, a child in a battle with cancer immediately before dying.  I think that knowing some of the touching background and provenance for the piece might actually incline us to hear it- particularly the beauty in the midst of pain- as sublime when we otherwise might not have.  This example would also seem to evoke the same feeling of how fortunate we are to be living and feeling, and how the world around us might stop as we immerse ourselves in the music.  Yet, I can also understand the notion that in this example, perhaps provenance, instead of contributing to a state of "pure feeling," might confound it.

Profundity Response

Submitted by Christopher W. Payne on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 11:20 AM

Ridley's claim that music can be profound because of its ability to represent or highlight certain world events and Kivy claim that music is only profound because of its ability to self-reference itself and be compared to other musical works are both very bold and do greatly contrast one another.

I do want to talk about Sean claim though. I like Sean's idea that music can be profound because it offers food or substance to our ears. He states that the profundity of music lies in the ability of great works makes us want to listen. Sean states that, "Music has the ability to remove us for a moment from the world of thought and action that we live in, and bring us to state of pure feeling; a state where one is entirely engrossed in the experience of sensation".

I wholeheartedly believe that this indeed is a vital aspect of music which makes it profound. Music more than anything is enjoyable. We listen to music in order to feel something- whether it is happy or sad. Music is a tool used to evoke certain emotional feelings as well as sentimental thoughts. 

I think that both Kivy and Ridley offer very poignant ideas but overall I feel as though they have missed this key element of music. 

Profundity Located In Time

Submitted by Yamira C. Serret on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 10:54 AM

The ‘alethic’ quality Pugmire contends is a necessary feature of whatever can be called epistemically profound (in this case, musical works) strikes me as an uncomfortable prerequisite of pieces that speak from the perspective of certain musical heritages. That is, when for a work to be called, at least, (potentially) profound, it must display “an attitude or outlook [that] must answer to the way things are, or might truthfully be thought to be”, such attitudes or outlooks are dependent on where they derive from, more specifically the historical/situational happenings that shape them (152). The work of some (insert name) incredibly gifted, classical composer could warrant the praise and attention of the important figure heads of its day who consider the piece to be profound because it offers “a perspective which gives perspicuous structure to our thoughts about matters that are of real significance to us” (152). But the ‘us’ used in this statement can have different opinions on what is of ‘real’ significance depending on their particular demographic and historical positioning. The musical work that is described as profound intends to communicate something significant about the world it was composed in, which means that what it means to say about the truth of certain matters are located in the historical space of that time. For lack of a better example, an imagined musical piece of classical music (by some European composer) may provide insight into the world, but may provide only provide a profound insight into the world that it exists in then (say 17th century Germany, perhaps). The perspective the piece exhibits in one time may have a way of affecting us differently than it would in another, causing us to question the supposed ‘alethic’ quality it has.

Kivy/Ridley

Submitted by Samia K. Hesni on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 10:19 AM

Ridley challenges Kivy's theory of profundity by moving beyond the structural confines of Kivy's formalism. As I read the beginning of Ridley's article, I wondered if he was getting at a possible 'profundity' that did not completely deny the possibility of Kivy's formalism. What if, rather than music being profound at or about a problem or subject matter, it could be profound for some ineffable - or at least semantic-less - purpose?  This option would present a compromise of sorts between Kivy and Ridley's views on profundity, and perhaps resolve some discrepancies between them.

Ridley offers that perhaps profundity is something the music elicits in the listener, and not something the listener must locate in the music. Kivy addresses a similar debate in his earlier chapter on music's emotive properties, and I think he would not dismiss Ridley's suggestion here. The problem with what Ridley goes on to say is that the music must be profound about something -- eg. make the listener think through a certain problem, realize a certain thing about humanity, etc. And it is this turn that seems to pick up Ridley and deposit him outside the realm of Kivysm. Because if music is not representative , then how can it do things like pose complex questions or direct profundity towards a certain theoretical or ideological sphere? Here, I think Ridley is too narrow, and in being so, implicitly rejects Kivy's formalism (though he purports to try to stay faithful to Kivy at certain points).

Kivy's invocation of Schopenhauer is one moment that suggests his openness to the affective power of music. Music's profundity is, at least in part, a function of its ability to do something to the listener -- to grant the listener access to some non-semantic realm, to lose herself in the music, etc. Here is where I will try to offer my own experience of listening to "profound" music in an attempt to square Kivy and Ridley. What if profound music -- regardless of its provenance or context -- is just simply music that instills a sense of wonder in the listener?

ps. I started writing this before Sean posted, but now after reading his response, I wonder if we're getting at the same/a similar thing...

Ridley's Requisites

Submitted by Maxfield H. McKenna on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 9:56 AM

In his discussion of what it takes to make something profound, Ridley lays out four stipulations: depth, insight, significance, and value.  However, in his explanation of these four, I think that he makes his definitions incredibly hazy - particularly for insight and significance - and thereby weakens his argument.  In his discussion of insight, he says that, in order to be profound, the object in question must offer insight into what is going on in a specific example.  But, he goes on, still under the heading of insight, to say that the theory, art, or view must offer insight into something important, rather than something that would be merely "a mildly interesting observation," as in the case of the enlarged '0' in the roulette wheel.  Without this importance, the theory cannot be epistemically profound.  He then goes on to say much the same thing in his discussion of significance though, again arguing that in order to be profound, the theory or view cannot merely describe anything, but something that is important to us.  This importance he leaves very hazy, as far as I can tell, though he finds his own description satisfactory, and moves on to say that, to be profound, the idea must also have value - that is, it must have significance to us.  It seems to me not only that his arguments, particularly for significance, are circular, but largely unnecessary and repetitive, which weakens the argument.  I do not know why he includes the discussion of significance in his description of insight; he could merely say that, in the example of the roulette wheel, that the observation does indeed pass the insight test, but does not qualify as profound because it is not significant.  That is, he can simply describe insight as a necessary, but not a sufficient condition.  It also seems like he can eliminate the discussion of value, as it seems hardly different from his talk of significance to us.  Including all these separate fields in order to fit our intuitions I think obfuscates the main points, which could be handled more concisely, and make for a stronger argument. 

I also find his argument for significance strange independently, as it seems to circle around the idea of what significance is, without really settling much.  He vacillates, wanting to secure some objective criteria for significance, but, unable to do so, seems to settle on a broad, almost universal subjectivism - that is, significance depends on its relation to all of us as humans.  This seems to me to be a very hazy definition, especially in the way in which he circles around, trying to find solid ground on which to base his idea of significance.

A bridge between Kivy and Ridley

Submitted by Sean E. Doerfler on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 9:45 AM

While I really liked Ridley’s explanation of what profundity is, I found is argument that the expressive features of music can teach us or represent something in the world rather unconvincing. As we have already seen in this class, there are significant problems with seeing music as representational in the way Ridley thinks of them. On the other hand I also am unmoved by Kivy’s contention that music can only be profound in a self-referential way.

It seems to me that there is a third option that neither Ridley nor Kivy has considered that I think bridges the best of Ridley’s points with the best of Kivy’s and also speaks to the way we experience music (or at least the way I experience music). In brief, I think the profundity of music lies in the ability of great works to make us stop for a moment and just listen. Sublime music has the ability to remove us for a moment from the world of thought and action that we live in, and bring us to state of pure feeling; a state where one is entirely engrossed in the experience of sensation. In such a state we remember how beautiful it is to feel and, possibly, how lucky we are to be alive to have the ability to feel at all. In this way I think music can offer insight into the human condition by reminding us of the nature of our sensory experience. Notice that according to this view, the profundity of music lies in its’ solely being a sound structure; it is the sound itself, by evoking such pleasurable sensation in us, that offers insight. I think this view fits with Ridley’s understanding that something that is profound “highlights or reveals features of the world that are, or that might plausibly be taken to be, structurally profound for our understanding of them,” as well as with Kivy’s minimalist account of music.

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