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According to a predominant view in contemporary aesthetics, a musical work is regarded as something like the class of performances that conform to a certain score.(1) This notion, it seems, complies with at least three requirements of a satisfactory ontology of works of music.(2) Thus, although a Beethoven manuscript would command a very high price, as a physical object it is not very interesting from a musical point of view. (It may, of course, have value for a collector, or sentimental value, and it is indispensable as a source, but unlike a van Gogh painting it has no musical value that any uncorrupted copy of it does not have as well.) Beethoven scores in general, on the other hand, are musically important because they are records of compositions and because they may give rise to performances. Further, the association of the score with its performances has the effect that the focus of interest is shifted from signs on paper to the realm of sound events. This is certainly a step in the right direction, since, ignoring certain varieties of esoteric music, an association with sound appears to be necessary.(3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the reference to a class of performances amounts to conceding, albeit by implication, the need in music ontology to take account of interpretation. A work of music must have some musical properties, and scores, unless somehow interpreted, are devoid of such.
Nevertheless, this current idea as to the nature of musical works is deeply problematic. It seems that an unreasonably heavy burden is placed upon notation when it is used to guarantee correspondence between the score and the performances, and to secure the required identity between the performances that are to make up a certain work. It also appears that this use of notation entails some serious mistakes as to the purpose and nature of musical notation.
For fear of getting too mentalistic, or due to ambitions to exhibit an elegant and economic argumentation, the amount of interpretation (and thence of musical properties) actually allowed to enter into the interpretative process, and thus into the performances making up the work of music, is disappointingly small. This in fact turns out to be quite a well-advised, indeed necessary, restraint, since if interpretation in the ordinary, comprehensive musical sense were allowed, the identity necessary to constitute the work (as conceived in this kind of ontology) would be endangered. But this indicates that the concept of `identity' used in these attempts to formulate the ontology of musical works is unduly impoverished from a musical point of view. It has more to do with `identification' than with the essence of the music involved.
The most discussed and also the most influential version of the score/performance notion of the ontology of musical works is no doubt the one advanced by Nelson Goodman. According to his account, paintings are `autographic', and works of music, since they are recorded by means of a notational system, are `allographic'. Further: `In music, the work is the class of performances compliant with a character' [=score].(4) In order to understand this properly it is necessary to recall the specific meaning that Goodman's theory gives to the terms `score', `notation', and `performance'.
Within Western standard musical notation it is only the subsystems referring to pitch and duration that qualify as `notational', i.e. it is only these inscriptions that satisfy the syntactic and semantic criteria that Goodman propounds. Only these signs have sufficient rigour and precision to define structure, and consequently `scores' are exclusively made up of such signs. It is the inscriptions referring to pitch and duration that must necessarily and with no exception or deviation be respected in order to produce a `performance' that exemplifies the work, and there are no `performances' but such strictly exemplificatory ones.(5) This implies that what a `score' defines, and thereby distinguishes as the work in question, is a pitch/time structure.
Other inscriptions found in actual scores, for instance those that refer to dynamics, are imprecise and therefore not `notational'. Such signs are not definitive of musical;works and do not belong to `scores'; and they need not necessarily be respected to generate those `performances' that, as a class, make up a certain work of music.
This article aims at showing that Goodman's ontology of the musical work is untenable; the role of notation in his theory is musically counterintuitive, and so are several of the consequences of his line of reasoning. It will become evident, however, that the core of my concern is that the preoccupation with notation and pitch/time structure--(seemingly) positive matters--conceals more important issues. So whereas it appears that Goodman merely accounts for a set of identity (or rather identification) conditions with respect to performances of a certain composition, I will plead for a musically comprehensive approach including those essential constitutive traits that make up musical works as the kind of things we have in our minds.(6)
Besides being an exaggeration, it amounts to introducing an alien principle to state that the `primary purpose' of the `notational' subsystems found in actual musical notation is to make `possible recovery of score from performance' and to `ensure identity of work from performance to performance'.(7) It is true that standard musical notation has been used prescriptively by composers. But in order for notation to work as a key concept in defining what a work of music is, the crucial and unexceptional correspondence between score and performance must be maintained by a very strong normative authority on the part of scores and a complementary, very loyal attitude on the part of musicians, and this has not always been the case. …