Profundity in Instrumental Music

Stephen Davies

in Musical Understandings and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Music

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780199608775
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191729669 | DOI:
Profundity in Instrumental Music

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According to Peter Kivy, to be profound, music would have to be about a profound subject that is treated in an exemplary way. Instrumental music does not satisfy this definition; usually it is not about anything humanly important, and when it is, it can convey no more than banalities. Like others, I argue against the propositional character of Kivy's “aboutness” criterion; profundity can be revealed or displayed other than via statements and descriptions. I am less inclined than some of Kivy's critics to argue that music conveys profound insights into the emotions or abstract metaphysical ideas, such as unity and identity. Instead, I draw a parallel with great chess, which illustrates the fecundity, flexibility, insight, vitality, subtlety, complexity, and analytical far-reachingness of which the human mind is capable. That demonstration is of deep significance, given the wider importance of an appreciation of our intellectual and imaginative powers, even if chess says nothing about the skills to which it draws attention. My thesis is that some instrumental music is profound in a similar way; namely, for what it exemplifies and thereby reveals about the capacities of the human mind.

Keywords: music; musical profundity; human mind; great chess

Chapter.  6059 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art

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