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. Aurelius 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. 


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.

Absolute vs Program Music (a response to Brian)

Submitted by Julian Cullen Budwey on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 9:45 AM

Brian, I had similar thoughts. It seems more that Ridley is showing that something can profoundly illustrate whatever it is attempting to illustrate. I think Tapiola wouldn't do so profound a job if its title were Frosting on a Cake. However, I am also worried that Tapiola isn't absolute enough to fully illustrate Ridley's point.

I find it interesting that Ridley uses Sibelius' Tapiola as his main example of profound music. He is arguing, unlike Kivy, that music can be profoundly expressive. Now, in order for him to argue this well, he should be using a piece of absolute music. While there are no lyrics to Tapiola, it is rather programmatic. Program music, like Berioz' Symphony Fantastique, tell the listener the story that the music is also telling (ie: there is a script of sorts for the listener to follow). While Tapiola doesn't quite have a script, Sibelius (apparently) provides a few lines of text that seem to tell us what the music is representing. Now, to take a piece that claims to represent/express something and to use that as an example of expressive profundity seems to prove little if one does not think that music can be representative. Tapiola is probably in that grey area between the absolute and the programmatic, but it doesn't seem to me to be the best example.

Profound/Liberating Mathematics

Submitted by Joseph T. Kelly on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 8:56 AM

The two chapters that we read this week present different but not necessarily conflicting views about the impact absolute music can have on us. Rather than arguing that either Kivy or Ridley is wrong, I find myself asking, which description of our relation to tremendous music is more accurate, common, and powerful. Unfortunately, I do not listen to enough absolute music to have clear and developed intuitions about the role of absolute music. However, both Kivy and Ridley provide a framework through which not only music can be understood but also mathematics (and I am a math major). Both Kivy and Ridley describe some aspect of the activity of mathematics. Kivy is correct in attributing mathematics a liberating character as it provides an escape from the everyday world into the abstract realm of numbers. However, this fails to capture the essence of why mathematics is powerful or interesting. Additionally, Kivy's account fails to explain why one piece of mathematics would be more powerful or profound or liberating than any other. Ridley provides this answer. On pages 140-141, Ridley likens structural profundity to the effect of completing a puzzle, and I believe mathematical inspiration is the exact same effect. The activity of mathematics is full of "Aha!" moments where the picture finally comes together and the problem makes sense. This is Ridley's structural profundity, and one of the most powerful phenomena of mathematics. The question then remains, if and when does mathematics provides moments of epistemic profundity? One possible answer is that mathematics provides insights into the world through the sciences, and those insights could be deemed epistemically profound. But what about mathematics on it's own terms? For instance, Godel's Incompleteness Proof could be considered epistemically profound for providing insight into the limits of provability.

Provenance and Profundity

Submitted by Brian J. Kim on Tuesday, 4/26/2011, at 7:44 AM

From Ridley's discussion of Tapiola, it seems to me that a lot of the profundity (what I really mean here is the profundity that extends beyond simple musical profundity) is tied to the provenance of the musical piece. For example, what if the piece had been called, "Frosting on a Cake" or something similarly ridiculous. Would it have the same level of profundity? The answer seems to be no, because then, it looks like the composer is intending to represent icy nature of the icing on a cake rather than the icy nature of a god in Finnish mythology, and I think Ridley would agree with me that the decorative nature of a baked good, while perhaps more delicious, is far less profound than the story of Tapio. This is consistent with what Ridley says near the end of the article, where he states, "The attitude that we're now talking about, which is to say, the attitude evinced in the yearning loneliness that structures Tapiola when understood as a representation of Tapio, strikes me as potentially quite deep ..." Here, Ridley is saying that the depth of the piece beyond musical depth lies in the representation of Tapio, something that is part of the provenance of the piece rather than the actual sound structure. Thus, this seems to pose a problem if you want to say that a musical work is its sound structure and does not contain any of its provenance while still preserving the type of profundity that Ridley wants to say is in a piece like Tapiola.


Submitted by Ioanida Costache on Monday, 4/25/2011, at 11:43 PM

I totally agree with Radley that profundity in music is not strictly limited in the way that Kivy posits, where music is profound only in a self-referential way. That limits the working definition of profound to the meaning that Ridley too focuses on-- he uses "structurally profound" as an analog for "important aspect" of the piece. This seems somewhat obvious and uninteresting. He says, counterpoint is "a structurally profound feature of the music in question, and so one that offers a key to understanding the system that that music comprises." So basically counterpoint is an important aspect of that piece. There isn't anything really that profound about concieving of musical pieces as self-contained systems and identifying their important features. When we try to extend the definition of profound to include a more general survey of all music (instead of limiting it to individual musical systems/pieces) it seems like we're returning to day one when we discussed simplicity vs. complexity in the Levithan. Certainly the first time someone wrote polyphonic music in the 1600s it was innovative and profound within that context. Counterpoint fits one of the definitions of profudity because it was an integral part of a musical system. But, that sort of profundity shifts. What about when music no longer uses counterpoint in the 20th century? When compositional tenchiques change, that sort of profundity is obsolete. This is why that Kivyan profundity doesn't seem very interesting. It seems that intutitively for something to be "profound" it should meet the other more extended definition of profound-- that it answers some kind of question about the human condition. When composers of profound music compose they do so because something bothers them and they want to work it out through their music. Examples of music which I consider to be profound all exhibit this characteristic. Mahler was deeply bothered by death, and Shostakovich had to live in fear of the soviet regime in Russia and the constant threat of his imminent death. I think these are examples of profound music.