What do we understand in musical experience

Of the many difficult questions that populate the rather treacherous terrain of the philosophy of music, one of the ones that perplexes and interests me the most often crops up in the myriad books of ‘Quotations for music lovers’ and suchlike. The following version may be said to capture its fundamental idea: given that music doesn’t seem in any obvious sense to be about anything precisely, why do we seem to think that it conveys so much so strongly?

In the long history of attempts to provide an answer to this question in its various forms, one of the most popular starting points has been to draw analogies between music and language. The idea here, generally speaking, has been to show how typical instances of music do seem to signify in certain ways analogous to language; and although the signification is less precise and sophisticated than in language in respect of its semantics, music nonetheless seems to make up for this lack by what might be described as its power of suggestion. Although the analogy is certainly not fruitless, the explanation of why the cognitive decrease seems to be accompanied by an affective increase, as it were, is simply deferred.

For obvious reasons, such analogies between music and language tend to make language the explanand and music the explanandum; it is felt, where issues of communication are concerned, that, of the two, language has the greater explanatory power. One philosopher, however, who worked fairly consistently in the other direction (i.e. drawing on music to understand language) was Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The simple aim of this paper is to examine one brief example from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations where the analogy, which is more implied than outlined, might be considered helpful in respect of our initial question...

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