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Music, Aesthetics & Making Sense


Music, Aesthetics & Making Sense


in conversation with Andrew Bowie

Can music make sense of the world or even transcend it? Philosopher and jazz musician Andrew Bowie talks to four by three about the connection between music, aesthetics, language and time with reference to Adorno and Heidegger, about the relationship between philosophy, arts and science, asking: why does art matter?

Art is supposed to engage your whole being and not just your conceptual capacity
— Andrew Bowie

The philosophy and philosophical significance of music has been a major preoccupation of much of your writing. What is it that motivates you to write philosophically about music?

Andrew Bowie: When I started doing philosophy, I used to regard my playing as completely separate from my philosophy, because I wasn’t very good at playing in any case (I still am not great, but I have got better). Reading Adorno, even though I didn’t believe him on jazz, made me think that jazz is just something I do for fun, to meet nice women, and so on. But slowly, over the years, it became apparent – which I think should happen to far more philosophers – that if you don’t join up what you do with what you think, then something is going wrong. Then I had to start thinking about how the fact that I have got more and more interested in playing for its own sake – and clearly this is never going to go away – connects with what I think philosophically and what interests me philosophically. At that point, I had started looking at the history of German Idealism and Romanticism.

The other way music had played an intellectual role was when I wrote a chapter in my PhD thesis on Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, which brought me back to classical music after school had put me off it. Jazz was actually still considered as a kind of oppositional music in the English public school I went to (on a state scholarship, I should add), which gave one considerable motivation to play it. It was reading Dr. Faustus during my first year as an undergraduate that made me listen to late Beethoven, particularly the Missa Solemnis, the late quartets and piano sonatas, which play a role in the novel, and which have been very important to me ever since: this is music you can’t get bored with. When I wrote about literature, I was happy to talk about music and why it mattered. However, when I actually wrote (and write) about music, I was rather ashamed of what I wrote, because I didn’t feel I could do justice to music. But when I started thinking about why I am still playing jazz, why this is something that might be self-justifying and at the same time socially meaningful, I realized how I might join it up with philosophy. What followed this was a realization about philosophy, which I would never have had just through studying the history of philosophy, namely that at the same time as you get the philosophical turning point around the time of Kant you have also the rise of what Carl Dahlhaus calls the ‘idea of absolute music’, which involves the sense that music has a special aesthetic and philosophical status that puts it above the other arts. These two changes are so striking that it seemed that there had to be a connection. Now what the connection is, I have written various books about, arguing that there is not a connection, but that there is a plethora of connections. What my next project is about is the significance of how the changes in philosophy and music in modernity coincide with the rise of aesthetics as a notionally separate discipline. The connection to jazz here has to do with its ever-present need for new forms of expression and new connections, and this relates to what happens in philosophy and music in the second half of the eighteenth century.


How do you relate your musical and your philosophical understanding? Has playing music given you a different understanding of philosophy and how is it that by playing music you can get a different and deeper insight into writing about aesthetics and music? Or do you think that these are separate from your personal experiences as a musician?

AB: The crucial element in playing and practicing music is that you become absorbed by it. Hence, it is a particular mode of being. The nearest equivalent is probably meditation. However, playing music also differs from meditation, as you are physically active and you are trying to make sense in what you do, by seeking to create a kind of space for yourself and other people. I also find the aspect of just practicing the instrument on my own amazingly helpful, because it absorbs you and you cannot be thinking of anything else. The other manner in which playing music relates to meditation is that it involves a focus on breathing, which is a hugely significant element in playing the saxophone. It involves your whole body, and is a form of contact with yourself and the objective world through a symbiotic relationship with your instrument – an experience really unlike any other. My obsession with saxophone tone, that was set off in particular by hearing Johnny Hodges playing live with the Duke Ellington band when I was still at school, has something to do with the fact that the sound you make is literally touching other people, and that this is a neglected aspect of interpersonal relations. It’s an expensive one, though: I spend a fortune on saxophone mouthpieces. The relation to philosophy here has to do with the realization that it is only through participation in a specific kind of practice that you come to new kinds of understanding. That dimension is missing from too many ways of thinking philosophically, which can tend to see understanding primarily as understanding of objects or states.


Does this imply that the space of a philosopher is different in nature to the space of a musician? When are they congruent and when at odds with one another?

AB: My extreme view, which many people find ludicrous, is that if philosophy is supposed to be about making sense, most philosophy in fact does not do that. It just produces dissent and conflict. Now that can be fine, because you know if you are doing science, that is how you eventually get positive results that work. However, this is not fine within philosophy, because philosophy does not often produce anything that works: it often just produces more philosophy. Philosophy is therefore often seen as an endless commentary on the text of Western philosophy, but I don’t think that is enough either. I am in some respects Nietzschean about the history of philosophy, believing that much of it is now Platonic junk. We are living in a time where many things are changing very rapidly, and I think we need to go somewhere else philosophically. That is the reason, for example, why I am into Heidegger. And I think music can suggest new directions more than some other cultural forms. Philosophy should not be about trying to get to ‘what kind of things there really are’: the line I always quote from Timothy Williamson, who at present probably best represents the kind of philosophy I want to get away from. I do not really care what kind of things there really are, because the idea makes no difference to me, at least in the form the task is conceived of in traditional metaphysics. I am interested in Quantum Physics as a way of understanding the physical make-up of the universe, but this should not be confused with philosophy, because philosophy, it seems to me, if it is about anything at all, is about sense making. That is my extreme view, though I do also enjoy philosophical arguments at times. But there comes the point when I want to know what exactly we are doing by doing philosophy. And this is not a question you are ever likely to be asked when you are playing music. Hence, if you are looking for something that is in some sense absolute – that is not relative to something else – then involvement in music may give you more of a sense of the absolute than philosophy does. It does seem to me that the history of philosophy, deeply interesting as it is, has to reflect on the failure of most forms of traditional metaphysics in a different way. You can, for example, either become Hegelian and argue for progress towards truth via the overcoming of the deficiencies of previous metaphysics, or you follow the other temptation and become Nietzschean, claiming that metaphysics is a random series of power moves. But again, you might think that you can tell another story, and this is why I think music becomes so important at the beginning of the modern realization in the eighteenth century that Platonism is over, that is, that God is dead. At this point what interests me about broadly conceived aesthetic issues becomes vital.    

I do not really care what kind of things there really are, because the idea makes no difference to me, at least in the form the task is conceived of in traditional metaphysics

Do you believe that there is a certain liberation of the self, maybe even a political liberation that arises from the directness of improvisation? Is this also one of the dimensions that make jazz more attractive to you than most other genres?  

AB: Liberation can take place on various levels: I wouldn’t say jazz necessarily attracts me more than other kinds of music (though it does as a player), as I think similar issues arise in the great Classical traditions from Bach to Schoenberg and beyond. The pattern of great music is that it constantly moves beyond what has been done already. This is very apparent in jazz, because the development of jazz is so rapid. I started playing New Orleans Jazz, then Swing , then Bebop, then Post-Bop. It is a constant overcoming of wherever you are. I don’t understand how some people stay still stylistically, though I suppose in a way you can try to perfect your ability in a certain style of playing. I am also still very happy to play in the styles I grew up with. But the substance of the history of jazz is a constant overcoming, being forced to move on, in order for things not to become stale. This is the real enemy in jazz, when what is played just repeats what has been played before. All the great players start off by having something to react against. Jazz is political right from the beginning, because it is Black music, which is ‘our music’ for an oppressed community. It becomes overtly political with Bebop, where people deliberately start playing in ways that can exclude people, unless they can devote themselves to it totally, because it’s otherwise just too difficult. It involves creating an identity via a music that does not fit in, that is demanding, at least as demanding as what goes on in Classical Music. Listen, say, to Charlie Parker: playing like that, especially working out how to do it yourself from scratch and then doing it on the fly, is incredibly difficult – something that only a few people could possibly do. But once it has been established as a way of playing you can learn to sound like Parker, if you spend forever practicing. However, this can easily itself become pointless. Instead what you should do, is to realize that you have been given a language, that has been opened up by him, which you can subsequently use to try and create new sounds with. You might not be able to move very far from such a model, but you should always seek to say something that is particular to yourself.

What is at issue here can be connected to the German Idealist/Romantic philosopher Schelling’s idea of freedom as the overcoming of resistance, rather than as some capacity for absolute beginnings in the manner of Kant. I am opposed to most metaphysical debates about freedom because they generally just end up with interminable reflections on whether there is ‘freedom of the will’ or not. Here, again, I don’t care very much, because it makes so little difference to what actually goes on in the world. Freedom is best understood in terms of overcoming resistance: you cannot be wholly wrong about the experience of having overcome something that is inhibiting you, unless you are desperately self-deceiving, and in music it is hard to remain self-deceiving for ever. Hence, jazz involves an overcoming of things that can oppress people, which can suggest why jazz became linked to the emancipatory aims of the Civil Rights movement. The idea was to talk in a language, which is truly that of an oppressed community and which is going to be disturbing, so as to reflect the lives in that community, which are often disturbing. Most great jazz musicians I have met have been very thoughtful and extremely aware that they are doing something that has significance as a socio-political activity, despite it also being entertaining – which is a pretty good combination. It is certainly a practice of the self, a way of devoting yourself to something, in which by restricting yourself in the form of the discipline of learning to play you can come to liberate yourself. I was always interested in jazz as a musical expression of oppressed people, but it really does have concrete socio-political implications as a social practice.


The idea that you get with the rise of absolute music, which you have touched upon earlier, is that music is valuable in purely formal terms, that it is non-representational and non-signifying. Could you elaborate on this?

AB: I have changed my mind on this quite often. The non-referential aspect of music is important. In modernity you get the ability to represent the world truly in science, at least in some sense – though the idea of representation is a dodgy metaphor and does not really work in philosophy in any strictly defensible way. As you get to the point that you can get more and more reliable and warrantable assertions in science, more and more of what you can say about the world is under control in an instrumental sense. There is then a moment, towards the end of the 18th century in Europe, when people realize that science is going to control more and more of nature or explain it, and that this process is never going to stop. At that point a new kind of concern arises with what cannot be expressed with the cognitive means available to us, and this sets up in turn a tension between differing modes of interpreting what music is, that continues to this day.

Take neuroscience: Stephen Pinker claims that music is ‘auditory cheesecake’, because musical pleasure is a stimulation of certain parts of the brain that can be stimulated in other ways. People get excited by such claims, but they thereby tend to ignore the kind of sense I was talking about earlier. Obviously emotions are objectifiable in some respects, and they are a legitimate object of scientific inquiry, but objectification can obscure meanings that are not objectifiable. Such meanings can, though be appropriated by the culture industry as a means of manipulation, so one has to be very careful. A medium, like music, that is not conceptually fixable and is in at least one sense  essentially formal, both offers new potential for making sense, and yet can still simultaneously be used as a form of ideology. Adorno famously stated that ‘form is sedimented content’, and understanding music involves cashing out how form has content. Things develop in certain ways, because of social pressures, cultural pressures, psychological pressures, and so on and coalesce into cultural forms, whose content becomes contentious, especially if it is not straightforwardly conceptual. The key issue is how that content is understood, which is why the tension between Pinker’s view, and the view of music as making a special kind of sense beyond what science can say, is important.

Form is sedimented content
— Theodor W. Adorno

Don’t get me wrong, I am not ‘anti-science’ – that would be just absurd. In lots of areas we have the ability to massively expand our knowledge by establishing deterministic laws that govern phenomena, and objectifying them in ways, which render things technologically manipulable, which can be, and often is great. However, this also creates the need for a something that does not just see things in objectifying terms, and this view of things is one which contemporary culture can often obscure or ignore. Music or abstract paintings that render things visible in new ways, or literature that breaks down traditional forms fall most obviously into this other realm. The sense they make is precisely new sense, not sense based on establishing new theories and facts. At the same time, such sense can become the basis of new knowledge, because it renders aspects of the world manifest, which were previously hidden.


A connected issue is perhaps the way, in which aesthetics is treated in the Anglo-American world, namely as a sub-discipline of philosophy. In contrast, however, you have consistently argued for its centrality. Where does this centrality stem from and why should one study aesthetics?

AB: Analytic philosophy just gets it wrong about aesthetics, it seems to me at least. The questions analytic philosophers are asking are mostly conceptual, although the growing dialogue between differing kinds of philosophy has started to expand the scope of what many analytically oriented philosophers do. Analytical aesthetics, though, does not in the main get at why art is practiced and matters in the first place. I once gave a talk to the University of London Aesthetics Seminar and challenged the participants to tell me whether they have ever changed their philosophy because of what a piece of art revealed to them, rather than trying to define what a work of art is: whether it is expressive or conceptual, and so forth. It seems to me that analytical philosophers of art bypass what interests people most about art, because they see aesthetic questions as essentially ontological questions of a very circumscribed kind. There are many things going wrong here at the same time. Analytical aesthetics takes one central model in analytic philosophy, which is predominantly devoted to establishing the conceptual status of x, that is analogous in some respects to a natural science model. This is obviously important, because our society is dominated by scientific methods of explaining x, in many respects to society’s massive benefit. Nowadays the consensus is too often, though, that if we cannot explain something scientifically, then it is somehow not worth inquiring into at all, and is ‘merely subjective’, or something. For me, though, contemporary analytical aesthetics is not getting at what matters most, because its role should not be to explain art or to establish its conceptual status: if your explanation really succeeded, it would presumably obviate the need for art anyway. The task is rather to uncover how art makes sense of things at all, which is in the main a thoroughly historical issue that cannot be dealt with just by seeking to establish the essential nature of something in conceptual terms.

Nowadays the consensus is too often that if we cannot explain something scientifically, then it is somehow not worth inquiring into at all, and is ‘merely subjective’

You have to build a sense of what an artwork is disclosing to us in the world, and not what it is qua classifiable object. Only then is it possible to go back to some of those questions, such as ‘Is art expressive?’: but most of the answers to such questions will be just ‘sometimes, yes, sometimes, no’, because the issue is essentially historical. Such questions cannot be answered by, for example, defining ‘expression’. What is seen as expressive is inevitably an historical issue, and it changes in relation to other ways, in which the world changes in history. Adorno talks about art in relation to the way experience is constituted historically at different times, and this seems to me the right approach. Or read Heidegger, even though he is wrong about some of the empirical examples in The Origin of the Work of Art. He makes you aware of how it is that great painting enables you to see things differently, even though you are not always able to articulate what exactly it is in the painting that makes things manifest in new ways. You have to go through the experience of the work to see how the world manifests itself differently via the work. Wittgenstein, for example, says that sometimes the best way to understand a piece of music is to dance to it.

I just think that the analytic approach to art too often makes it seem dull. We should not assume that analytic philosophy is going to tell us what a work of art is. To be frank, I do not care what a piece of music is, but I do care about what music does, why I care about it, why I cannot get away from it, and how it is that music is so important to so many people, whereas philosophy as presently constituted often isn’t.


Adorno’s idea was that art/forms have been changed by the dominance of the ‘identity thinking’ that is essential to modern science and modern capitalism. You might say that the supposed meaninglessness of music is a response to the forms of meaning, which dominate modern societies. What are the means of making sense of things in this context?

AB: Adorno seems to say that sense making in modern societies is so distorted that things do not really make sense at all, and art should reflect this by refusing to make sense in the manner of the dominant society. But this is clearly questionable, as forms of sense making nearly always exist in ways, which are not all subordinated to dominant social mechanisms. There is a play between existing forms of making sense and what subverts them. When existing forms of sense cease to make sense, the counter to this is not not making sense, but making a different sort of sense. This kind of sense may initially be regarded as not making any sense, but then, over time, the world may catch on to new things that resonate with what is going on. This is what makes art interesting: things that initially did not make sense, come to make sense. This element is very clear in the history of jazz, as it relies on coming to make sense of notes and other musical elements, which in the existing vocabulary make no sense, so you play, for example, the sharp eleventh/flat fifth, which virtually no one did up until the end of the 1930s. It was even referred to in the middle ages as the ‘devil in music’. Subsequently the sharp eleventh becomes the basis of large parts of modern jazz vocabulary, making complete sense. So in the history of jazz (and much the same goes for classical music) you do something ‘wrong’ and then you try to make it right. But how do you make wrong right? This dialectic is what goes on in most of modern art: and in it you can open up an area of the world, which was previously closed.

The line I take on Adorno in my book Music, Philosophy, and Modernity is that he turns the music he finds most important into ‘philosophical music’, even though he is really at his best when he writes ‘musical philosophy’, philosophy, which does the kind of things music can do by changing our relationship to the world. Adorno too often misses out much of the everyday experience and practice of music. His take is interesting, but it involves a kind of Hegelian story of the moves of world spirit that occur in the music tradition from Bach to Schoenberg. This kind of story is now rightly seen as questionable, because the development of music culture is not straightforwardly progressive, and music from different world cultures can make differing sense in many different contexts. I would add, though, that I am happy to argue that the music of that tradition probably should have more call on our attention than lots of other music, because its depth and complexity enacts the kind of things I want from great philosophy. The same goes for the greatest jazz, like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Towards the end of his life, Adorno did start to realize that significant music does not simply take one essential course, and he admitted that jazz had a lot to teach classical performers about rhythm, so undermining some of the indefensible things he said about jazz elsewhere.

Aesthetics is absolutely essential to philosophy, because philosophy, as Hegel claimed, should be ‘its age depicted in thought’

The basic move of turning something from being devoid of sense into something which makes sense, seems to be crucial to aesthetics. Despite being initially a very crude idea, once you go into the specifics, it can do a lot of work. Within professional philosophy the guy who does ‘philosophy of art’ is, though, generally still the bloke somewhere down the corridor whom everybody ignores. I would argue, in contrast, that aesthetics is absolutely essential to philosophy, because philosophy, as Hegel claimed, should be ‘its age depicted in thought’. But the question is which philosophy succeeds in that aim. I think that the philosophy that matters most questions how the ‘scientific image’ relates to the ‘manifest image’ of the everyday world we inhabit. Science cannot explain quotidian sense making, not least because it necessarily relies on it for its own practices, and this is where philosophy should step in. There is, then, a role in philosophy for critical social inquiry that has to involve the ‘deep’ issues associated with traditional metaphysics, but these have to be seen in relation to the contingent history in which they are located, which changes their significance. That’s why I take Heidegger’s attempts to think in terms of the ineluctable fact of our finitude very seriously.


Adorno argued that ‘[m]usic is the logic of judgmentless synthesis’ [Adorno, 1993: 32]. Could you elaborate on this claim?  

AB: In this context I always refer to rhythm. Schelling argues that rhythm is ‘the music in music’. Rhythm is, he says, the ‘the transformation of a succession which is in itself meaningless into a significant one’. This is essentially what goes on in music: it always involves some kind of repetition, otherwise there would only be disintegration or randomness, which would not make any sense, because sense has to do with the establishing of identity. In music you are creating forms of identity – often very complex ones – which can give pleasure. Anthropologically you find this in very basic forms of human existence. There is something about repeated articulation which is absolutely fundamental to our lives. You can differentiate such articulation and make it ever more complex, but you can also create boring patterns or patterns, which turn rigid. Hence, there is a constant challenging of that rigidity in significant music. So sense is grounded in rhythm, in the very broad sense of meaningful repetition, which happens before you get to the semantic level of sense – hence Adorno’s idea of judgementless synthesis. Rhythm structures time in a way that makes it more meaningful than time measured chronologically. That is also why Adorno is suspicious of certain kinds of rhythm. Rhythm can make intolerable things more tolerable, as it does in work songs, say, but it can also be a means of discipline and control, as it is when used by the military. People’s desire to lose themselves in rhythm is therefore two-edged, listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or dancing at a rave can allow one to transcend habitual ways of being in a way which enriches one’s life, but one can lose oneself in ways which are much less benign. Rhythm is a form of ‘synthesis’, because if there are just random sounds there is no rhythm: only when a relation between sounds occurs does sense occur. So the baseline of synthesis, which plays a role in accounts of thought like that of Kant, can be said to be a form of rhythm – Dewey and Deleuze have interesting things to say about this. Rhythm then plays a role in other complex forms of sense, such as literary prose. Great writers’ prose moves in a certain way and that is why I cannot get on with a lot of contemporary literature – it sometimes does not have a command of prose rhythm of the kind you get in Flaubert, Kafka, or Proust, for example. The vital idea in all this is that semantically elaborated sense depends on this prior ‘judgementless synthesis’, an idea which also occurs in relation to Heidegger’s concern with ‘being’, the fact that anything is meaningful at all.    


Can music express something we are unable to express in verbal language or logic, offering pure expression, liberated from convention and pre-existing meaning? Or can one go even as far as claiming that music is a universal language? And what are the expressive limits of music?

AB: I think that all forms of expression in their own domain are ‘limited’, and every domain needs other domains to fill out the space and sense which they are lacking. I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘pure expression’, but liberation from convention and pre-existing meaning seem central to significant music. Adorno usefully sees this in terms of a dialectic between expression and convention, where you have to have both. There is nothing inherently wrong with propositional language: saying that would be absurd. However, it also involves other dimensions, such as rhythm and tone and so on that are inseparable from how it is understood in real contexts, rather than contexts arrived at by philosophical abstraction. You might say that the test of discursive writing about music is whether it illuminates music or not, rather than whether its claims are true, which is why good writing about music is so often metaphorical. It is significant that conductors often use metaphors to convey how they want a piece to go to an orchestra.

I would not say that music is the or even ‘a’ universal language. At the same time, it is notable that you can play music with almost anyone anywhere in a productive way if you have the skill and the commitment. That seems to be terribly important, as you may not be able to communicate with the same people in other respects. Music enables connections between people that only a few other forms of human interaction do. We really do live in a world, in which we need things that help us to connect with others, in the way that we do when we improvise and jam together. The kind of give and take and the negotiations required to do this successfully have analogues in most forms of human interaction, but music offers the possibility (which is certainly not always actualised) of a specific kind of overcoming of cultural, political and psychological barriers. There is so much rapid movement and there are so many cultural barriers in the globalised world – which is why I am very suspicious of identity politics. I love jazz so much, because it will try to adopt and adapt absolutely anything musical that seems likely to work. What I say here may appear rather naively positive: the world of music is riven by conflict and the abuse of power, as recent revelations about abuse in music education have reminded us, but one should not lose sight of how music still does offer possibilities for transcending obstacles. One just has to be very wary of how this is played out in concrete social contexts. My experience of playing jazz across the world has been very predominantly positive: I got to know many of my best friends through playing jazz with them, and my experience of jazz musicians at all levels is often that they have an openness to the world based on a shared sense of commitment to the music that can be lacking in other social domains.


Heidegger speaks a lot about temporality and our existence within the world as temporal beings. When you speak about rhythm and other elements within music, they are obviously tied into time and how we relate to it. If you think about the temporal aspect of our existence along Heideggerian lines, how would you tie in music?

AB: The difficulty of this question lies in what temporality means with respect to Heidegger. He is not referring to chronological time, but to the manner, in which the world is ‘open’ to us. There has to be a prior openness of the world before we can start to understand and talk about it in objective terms. I think that what you and I have been talking about is in some respects precisely this. Music can keep open a sense of the world which is not wholly controllable and which transcends our ability to conceptualize and objectify it. So music may be one way of getting at what Heidegger is concerned with in the idea of the ‘clearing’, the primary horizon of sense which resists analysis in terms of the propositional sense which it itself makes possible.  

It is not as if Heidegger gives you a definition of time, as he is actually talking about temporality in the sense I just indicated. One of the few good remarks in the recently published Black Notebooks from the 30s and 40s, where his Nazism is very much in evidence, is when he says that the supposed loss of eternity and the loss of metaphysics in modernity should not properly be seen as a loss. We have, he thinks, got to get away from that way of seeing it. The form of our existence is, in these terms, not something inherently lacking: it is also a constant unfolding, but it is not necessarily unfolding as something that is going somewhere in a big way. Heidegger tends to move in the direction of a big answer when he tries in such a disastrous way to connect his ideas to politics. Thomas Sheehan’s recent book is very good on his failings here. So I think music may be one place to understand Heidegger, and this can sometimes actually be better than reading more and more Heidegger, because the differences of kinds of temporality can be found in different kinds of music in ways, which Heidegger often struggles to express at all adequately. Many of the things he says about language in On The Way to Language can be transferred to music, and music sometimes is more appropriate for understanding his approaches to language than is poetic language. More people seem likely to be grabbed by this sense of a different way of understanding the world and ourselves in music than they do in the kind of literature that Heidegger focuses on, important as this literature undoubtedly is. It should be clear, though, and Heidegger says as much, that the kind of view of music I am advancing is not one he would have accepted.


Is music world-disclosing in a Heideggerian sense, that is, does it make you see things in ways you would not have done otherwise? Or is it also a means of transcending what we are surrounded by and thrown into?  

AB: What you are asking has to do with what is probably the main point of Heidegger, even though his line is so difficult to understand. It took me years and I am not even sure that I really do understand it now. Heidegger’s line on ‘unhiddenness’ is not that the thing was there as such before it becomes unhidden. What ‘there’ means depends on where you are, what context you are in, and so on. The unhiddenness of things involves a happening which reconfigures how the world is, but not in a way which can be controlled or predicted. That is what goes on in the history of great music: even though one can see a kind of logic to its development in retrospect, the new sense which emerges, say, in Beethoven does not preexist Beethoven. Once there is Beethoven’s music, rhythm and harmony take on a new relationship to melody which cannot be conjured away, but his establishing this new relationship comes about by him realizing potential that nobody, in one sense including him, knew was ‘there’ at all. What he does is clearly determined by historical and social factors – relating obviously to things like the French Revolution, the new temporality of modernity, etc. – but it also takes us beyond such factors, which is why it still retains the capacity to make sense beyond its contexts of emergence. It can disclose aspects of their world to someone in a completely different context. That has been my experience of Beethoven and other great music.

I am generally against the sort of philosophy which tries to define what music really is. This is because there are in music a whole series of things which you can only understand through being involved in music: the difference is partly captured by thinking about how observation and participation give rise to very different kinds of sense. I think it is generally a mistake to believe that music is best approached as a philosophical mystery, as it standardly is by philosophers of music, or as a physical or psychological phenomenon, as it is in natural scientific disciplines (which is not, I must stress, to say that we learn nothing from such approaches). The primary aspect of music for those engaged in it, tends not to be puzzlement as to why it seems to matter, or what it means, or how it is to be explained in terms of acoustics, psychology, etc.: that puzzlement itself arises through attempts at objectification of music, through seeing it as an ‘entity’, rather than understanding its ‘being’, to put it in Heidegger’s terms. Instead, the most significant aspects of music are experienced by participants as ways of connecting to what we are of a kind that are lacking in some of the forms which dominate much of life in modernity. So yes, music can involve a kind of transcendence, but of an ‘immanent’ kind, i.e. not one that takes one to another world, or beyond time, or whatever, but one which renders this world more meaningful.

Let’s end with one of my musical obsessions. Bruckner was a devout Catholic, and a naïve, socially inept man, as well as being a great composer. His Eighth Symphony adapts, in a massively expanded form, the pattern of Beethoven’s Fifth: it begins in C Minor and ends in C major. This conclusion comes after a series of struggles, hesitations, outbreaks of passion, moments of near triumph that are not finally fulfilled (there is a sexual aspect to this), and so on. It ends like this – though this passage from the very end doesn’t really make sense without the preceding 80 minutes or so of music, you get some idea of just how glorious the culmination is simply in sonic terms.

For me this is one of the greatest passages (in context) in all music. It can be heard in religious terms, in terms of a certain kind of mystical ecstasy, or as an overwhelming confluence of many of the motifs which structure the whole symphony: the descending bit of the major scale, ending on the tonic, at the very end echoes the equivalent descending bit of the minor scale in the opening bars of the first movement, and so on. Above all, it seems to me, it can give rise to an affective exultation that would not exist without the religious background from which it emerges, but which is not tied to this background. Maybe this does not matter in the grand scheme of things, but this piece of music has accompanied me since I first heard it as a research student, and forms part of my life that I would find it hard to be without. It is just one example, but without such examples, that can come from other domains of art (think of the significance of certain paintings in Proust) a vital dimension of our existence goes missing. At a time when the need to reexamine the process of secularization has, in the light of all kinds of both benign and pernicious revivals of religion, become pressing, we can learn a lot from the issues concerning the sense made by music that I have tried to suggest.

Andrew Bowie recommends

Classical music:
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ludwig van Beethoven
Richard Wagner
Anton Bruckner
Gustav Mahler
Arnold Schoenberg

Jazz music:
Charlie Parker
John Coltrane
Johnny Hodges
Louis Armstrong
Duke Ellington
Wayne Shorter
Ornette Coleman
Chris Potter


Andrew Bowie is Professor of Philosophy and German at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research is concerned with core issues in modern philosophy, particularly those explored by the German tradition from Kant to the present. He does not see the philosophical issues in question as separable from other key cultural responses to the problems of the modern world, and has written extensively about music and literature as well as philosophy.