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I CLAIM that music provides a test-case for many general theories of art; not because all arts aspire to the condition of music but for the prosaic reason that its distinctive character easily is overlooked. General theories must deal with the spread of arts and must respect the ways in which the arts differ. Judging by the subject of publications, more theorists are expert in literature or painting than in music. Where the ground is unfamiliar, the theorist is more likely to stumble. And even if she is expert on music, she might pay undue regard to the dominant art forms. Because music has its own nature, it is useful to look to music in seeking counter-examples to the hypotheses proposed in broadly based theories. In Part I, I outline some features distinguishing (mainly Western, 'art') music from (mainly Western, 'art') literature and painting. In other parts I argue that aspects of some general theories--Danto's end of art thesis, Goodman's account of expression, and Walton's theory of artworks as representations--do not readily accommodate the case of music.
The ontic character of musical works distinguishes them from works of literature and painting. Musical works typically admit of multiple instances, as do literary works and prints (if not watercolours and oils) but, whereas literary works and prints are completed by the production of a model instance, this usually is not so in music. The musical piece is composed when the final version of its score is produced, if the work has a score. By contrast, an author who has produced the plan of a novel, or a painter who offers sketches for a painting, or an artist who makes blocks for a print has yet to produce the work. It follows that, for music but not for literature and painting, a work might exist in the absence of any instances. Moreover, while very different-sounding performances of a musical work might be equally faithful to its score, the various instances of a novel or print usually resemble each other closely. Accordingly, for music but not for literature or painting, an account of the relation between the work and its instances involves close consideration of the difference between essential and constitutive properties.
Most musical works, as well as involving performance, are written for performance and in this differ from literature and paintings. The performer's role is a creative one, for the composer's specification underdetermines the properties an accurate instance of the work possesses. Musical works admit of interpretation not only by the audience or critic but also by the performer, whereas literary works and paintings allow for interpretations of the former type only. Moreover, in contrast to a prevalent view in literary theory, I maintain that the audience's or critic's accounts, unlike the musician's interpretation in performance, do not generate instances of the artwork. Any adequate theory must capture the fact that musical works are mediated by performances as literary texts and paintings are not. Performances have properties, including artistically important ones, such as that of being too slow, the work does not. Given our interest in musical works as the works of their composers, the performer, who provides the only access for many to the work, owes duties to the audience and composer that the critic of literature or painting does not owe to the author or artist or their audiences. And given our interest in the efforts of the performer as well as those of the composer, the performer is a focus of attention, whereas the critic of literature or painting rarely is. Because composers usually write for performance, a concern with the performer's role is not separable from an interest in the composer's achievement; an appreciation of what is involved in coaxing the sounds specified by the composer from congeries of wood, bamboo, bone, gut, hide, hair and metal is relevant to understanding not only the performance but also the work. All these considerations suggest that general theories of interpretation and evaluation require special subtlety if they are to be adequate to the complexities of the musical case.
Though everyone seems to enjoy some, much music preserves a distance between itself and the public because it relies on a distinctive notation, because criticism makes use of a technical vocabulary--third-inversion minor-ninth on the flattened supertonic, for example--and because its analysis involves theories frightening in their complexity and level of abstraction. The average auditor is alienated from some music and ways of talking about music, whereas the novel and painting are more accessible to their publics. Ignorance of music theory and techniques of analysis does not prevent people from enjoying music but it does inhibit their descriptions of music and its effects; music often is characterized in terms of …