Music Aesthetics: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Rachel Matz

Rachel teaches acting and voice. She has an MFA in Acting and an MBA in Business Administration.

Explore the philosophy of music aesthetics in the context of classical and popular music. Learn about how aesthetics play a role in a listener's interpretation of a piece of music.

Musical Aesthetics and Philosophy

Music can tap into how we feel, how we perceive life, and what we think. When we listen to a piece of music, we recognize certain characteristics that provide value to our musical sensibilities. This artistic value is aesthetic, and also, independent.

Aesthetics is often tied to artistic beauty, and music aesthetics is a philosophy that considers the source, type, development, performance, perception, significance, and intention of a musical composition.

Although sound is a primary component of music, the composer's musical structure, culture, and desire for expression all feed into the aesthetics of a piece of music. Also, musical ethics, knowledge, sociology, existence, and relationships are aspects of music aesthetics from a philosophical standpoint.

Further, the aesthetics of classical music differs from the aesthetics of popular music. Let's explore both!

The Aesthetics of Classical Music

Plato philosophized on music as an art form and a doorway into our inner life. Classical music aesthetics focuses on the music only, not words, visuals, or any non-musical part.

In listening to a classical piece, a person experiences an internal reaction, which, in turn, provokes a philosophical inquiry into the auditory nature of the music. Classical music engages the aural sense as opposed to the visual, and the aesthetic of the music is internalized through hearing.

From the Medieval to the Renaissance to the Baroque to the Common Practice periods, classical music developed as a form of art, and musical composition evolved through tonal structure and dimensions.

Philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer discuss the effect of music in terms of beauty, emotions, and expression of will. In addition, philosophers examine the structure, pattern, and movement of sounds in a piece of music as they aesthetically relate to the listener.

  • Does a musical composition build in an aesthetically intuitive fashion?
  • Can you extract the composer's intention from the music through hearing the piece?
  • Do you have an emotional response?

Philosophers examine the structure, pattern, and movement of sounds in a piece of music as they relate to music aesthetics.
A Musical Composition

Example: Beethoven's Fifth

Take Beethoven's Fifth. We are all familiar with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, especially the famous opening. Although he started the Symphony in 1804, Beethoven took four years to finish this masterpiece, and it's popularity gained momentum throughout the 19th century.

Signifying his life and musical style, this symphony tells an extensive story and explores an emotional journey. From the strong opening to the last movement, the four movements of the Symphony develop from distinct moments at the beginning of the piece.

This symphony is a terrific example of music aesthetics. In addition to the technical proficiency of the piece with the modulation from the major to minor key and the distinctive rhythm, we feel an emotional response to the music and an innate understanding of the strength of this composition.

Beethoven's poured his life and feelings into this novel composition, and the impact his Fifth Symphony made on the world is substantial. Our innate aesthetic experience is powerful and memorable.

The Aesthetics of Popular Music

Popular music is considered to begin in the 20th century with a change in focus to commercial and entertainment interests, an appeal to the masses, and the use the song format rather than symphonies or compositions. Classical music is considered a higher art, due to the accessibility of popular music, which is also criticized for lack of complexity.

However, American philosopher Richard Shusterman argues that popular music can offer aesthetic complexity and true artistic significance. Songs have the capacity to incorporate complex ideas and a post-modern perspective, challenging modernist ideas.

He highlights rap, and hip-hop, which have complex rhythms, intricate lyrics, and a life philosophy. Thus, on an aesthetic level, these types of songs fulfill an artistic and intellectual sensibility.

The aesthetic value of popular rock music lies not only in the music, but also, in the presentation; thus, other factors contribute to the aesthetic experience of popular music. Further, classical music is associated with only hearing the music, whereas popular music is heard and felt in the body.

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