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The paradox that I want to explore in this paper can be simply stated: our ability to grasp any piece of music as a perceptual whole, and consequently as an aesthetic one, seems frustrated at every turn by the temporality of its object. Thus, on the one hand, the very intelligibility of musical discourse must depend on our capacity to hear each sound not only in relation to the sounds of the immediate phrases that surround it, but also to the sounds of the larger temporal wholes of which these are a part such as those of entire melodies, whole symphonies and even the sounds of an entire musical epoch as when we hear a melody of Brahms opening onto the whole horizon of Romantic music and beyond. On the other hand, all that we ever actually hear as far as our everyday perceptual powers go seems to be one brief snatch of music at a time, coming towards us from a silent future and disappearing into an equally silent past. This, in essence, is the conclusion of the nineteenth-century musicologist Edmund Gurney who has recently been the subject of an article by Jerrold Levinson,(1) himself an advocate of such a view.
If we accept, along with Gurney and Levinson, that musical perception must be limited to the successive snatches of the fleeting `now-moment' the consequences for our appreciation of music are dramatic. As Levinson says:
What is crucial according to Gurney, is involvement in the musical
progression from point to point, the local movement from note to note and
phrase to phrase. The essential form of music is located there . . . and not
in architectonic vistas beyond aural experience.(2)
From this it must follow, as Levinson points out, that the many musical theorists who believe the main Job of musical analysis to be the revelation of large-scale structural relations are largely wasting their time!
In this paper, I shall argue, contrary to Gurney and Levinson, that what limits our power to grasp music as aesthetic wholes is not in the end a problem about the limits of our everyday perceptual powers but rather about the limits of our powers of musical sensitivity.(3) Nonetheless, as the late Frank Sibley would have argued,(4) insofar as such sensitivity must ultimately depend upon our everyday powers of perception to grasp a multitude of sounds spread over time, the separating out of aesthetic from non-aesthetic aural Gestalten is not so easy, for if it is the case that we can only ever hear the temporal flow of sound in brief snatches at a time, then it will indeed follow that our aesthetic Gestalten will be similarly restricted, however sensitive our musical ear. It will therefore be a further aim of this paper to contrast the Gurney/Levinson account of aural perception with that of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, who both argue, on the contrary, that large-scale aural Gestalten are quite possible.
As a preliminary, however, we must first deal with Wittgenstein's caveat that:
Here it is easy to get into that dead-end in philosophy, where one believes
that the difficulty of the task consists in our having to describe phenomena
that are hard to get hold of, the present experience that slips quickly by,
or something of the kind.(5)
It would clearly be a mistake to think that our actual experiences of the elusive `now moments' of sound can ever add anything to the meaning of our musical descriptions since meaning, as Husserl remarks in a similar vein, remains `untouched by the flux of our subjective picturing'.(6) Nonetheless, trying to hear the tune as a whole is clearly not reducible to the bare thought of the tune, as even Ryle came to concede when reconsidering the parallel case of hearing a tune in one's head, in a paper given to the Colloque de Royaumont in 1961. Originally, Ryle had argued in The Concept of Mind that this can only mean thinking how the tune goes without its being played or humming it:
But what stopped me was that I did not know what more to say on this …