Written for a course in the philosophy of music taken (by distance) through California State University, as part of a masters degree program in humanities. (Jan. 1997). During the length of the course students kept essentially a listener’s diary with prompt questions.
Questions on the thing itself
6 When—and where—does the piece exist?
This is a difficult question. Certainly, the piece exists when it is played, because I hear it. Or, at least, I hear something that is said to be Mozart’s “Menuet” No. 6 for Piano, in D Major. However, I feel this is only a probabilistic venture into certainty. I can imagine a situation or two where the being of the piece as a piece of music could be called into question. For instance, if I were a long lost tribesman just emerging from the Stone Age (which is actually still happening in places like Papua New Guinea) and had no idea what “music” is, what should I think were the menuet to come suddenly sounding through hidden stereo speakers in the grinning anthropologist’s field office? Would the sounds transmitted fly come together in my awareness as a coherent cohesive unity, even if I didn’t understand its purpose and origin? Or would the composition erupt in my primitive mind like a sudden unusual chorus of bird twitterings, perhaps new to my experience, but unidentified as music? I like to think that the unity implied by the humanly manufactured sounds would somehow strike the primitive as something not only new to his experience but also as something of human origin, the piece perhaps resonating with a pitch and tone that mimic and utter the thinking processes of the primitive’s own mind, i.e., he is able to distinguish a self-reflexive analogy in the menuet that he cannot distinguish in the twittering of the birds. He can hear an expression of a condition, a response to being, that he can identify with, even if he cannot say to himself in his primitive tongue “that is a piece of music.”
Similarly, does the Mozart piece exist for a deaf person? If so, how so? Would the deaf person be able to place his or her hands on a stereo speaker and feel the piece as it’s transmitted through the box? Would that feeling be the same as the heard piece, or does the sense of touch have its own criteria for knowing music? Or is tactility a normal part of the whole knowing-music process in which the absence of a part of that process (hearing) must diminish the experience of the object to be known? Or maybe the piece could be known by .the deaf person by watching a pianist’s fingers as they tinkle up and down the keyboard;perhaps he could discern a system in the rise and fall of the ebonies and ivories. Or maybe it’s enough just to see the work on composition paper as set down by Mozart?
There is no question in my mind that the piece must be transmitted to me through my senses, and primarily through my hearing, as that was its intended medium of transmission. So, it exists if it affects my senses. But it exists as music, only if it affects my senses (especially my hearing) as I am accustomed to knowing the concept of music, realizing, of course, that customs change according to forces exerted on societies and cultures at a given time and place, and so, consequently what constitutes the nature of music differs from age to age.
A further problem in coming to terms with the existence of this musical piece is the very phrasing of the question itself, which fully stated is: Where—and when—does Mozart’s “Menuet” No.6 for Piano, in D Major [the piece] exist? This is really a loaded question. It presupposes that you can identify the piece as a piece by Mozart. If you do not know what a menuet is, how can you distinguish it from a rondo? Surely a familiarity with Mozart’s previous five menuets for piano would, at the very least, enhance or deepen the later work, thus rendering its existence more certain than probabilistic. Are Mozart’s menuets for other instruments qualitatively or structurally different from those composed for piano? Or does it even matter, so long as the criteria for what constitutes a menuet (by Mozart) is maintained? If I know nothing beyond the rudiments of music, how would I know if the menuet would contain any more or less existence had it been written in another key? (Why D Major (as opposed to, say, G minor) anyway?
9 Has it content?
Given the synthetic, synergistic nature of thinking, especially aesthetic thinking,
which so often seems to merge several strands and fragments of thought and emotion
simultaneously, can we ever be sure what the content of a work of art is? Some critics argue that there is no real content, as such, in any artwork, or, at the least, not the content the artist claims he intended. I think such critics are wrong. There is just as much content communicated in a work of art as in a work of literary or art criticism. To understand the content of a piece, it certainly helps to be familiar with some of the formal structures of the medium. I believe it’s a bit circular to ask if a piece by Mozart called his Menuet No.6 for Piano, in D Major, has content or not, as the title of the piece itself goes a long way in defining the content being inquired ofi; If we accept that the piece is indeeda menuet, then we are saying that it follows the rules set down for such pieces either wholly or in contradistinction to that particular musical genre. Thus, there is a fonn into which are poured the artist’s synthetic strands of aesthetic inspiration. As with a sonnet, a musical piece such as a menuet will be as successful more or less according to the balance it has achieved in keeping to the form without letting the form intrude on the theme or musical message of the woik as a whole. Furthermore, through hearing many examples of menuets, I will be able to distinguish Mozart’s content from, say, Beethoven’s. Naturally, this suggests that authorial style is part of the content. I believe style is most assuredly a part—and an important part—of content. Content is not neutral; it is designed.
Questions about the value of the piece
17 Will it do me good?
The Mozart piece has done me good. I take pleasure in listening to it, over and over. What’s not fully clear, even to me, is why this is so. Not all of my friends like ‘classical’ music, and not all of my friends who like ‘classical’ music like Mozart’s works. Many of my friends don’t like such music at all, preferring instead rock, blues or jazz (all three of which I also enjoy). I enjoy Mozart; his music very often gives me pleasure. His Menuet No. 6 for piano is especially pleasing to me. Thus I am equating the pleasurable with the good. I’m reasonably certain that what gives me pleasure in listening to the Menuet is its apparent simplicity and grace. The simplicity is in the content—the musical message and the style by which it is transmitted. I don’t “know” the message so much as I feel it; and yet, it’s not simply feeling but grasping the aural pattern established in the playing of the notes. The piece is short, fairly straightforward, and without complex encumbrances (arpeggios, difficult inversions, etc.). Yet, even if it were more complex, I’m sure I’d still fmd pleasure in it. Still, when I think about it, I’m not sure it’s entirely adequate to equate the pleasurable with the good. I can think of other pieces of music, such as Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, or even other Mozart pieces, which are certainly good beyond my own tastes. Or maybe it’s that the pleasure I really mean is at a level beyond taste anyway. Somehow music not only reaches an aesthetic level in me, touching off emotions, but appeals to the world-maker in me—I can hear in Mozart’s menuet or Stravinsky’s Firebird a transcendental quality, man remaking himself, not in so many words but in the design or pattern the music suggests itself. I must think this is only good.
18 Will it do me harm?
It’s understandable why so many have thought music capable of corrupting or seducing us.
Questions about the listener
29 How are my own feelings and emotions involved with it?
This is a complicated question to answer. On the surface it seems certain that my response the menuet will vary according to the mood I’m in or the emotions I’m feeling at a particular time. One could go further and argue that I wouldn’t even be listening to the scope of so-called classical music were it not for an emotional affinity that exists at or near the outset of my being. As I said before, many of my friends do not care for classical music: ‘it does nothing for me,’ they say. So, I think there’s the general attraction that already exists, for whatever , which is augmented by moods and emotions. I must say I always find Mozart’s menuets generally light, playful and pleasing. However, I’m not always receptive to the fullness of those qualities found in the music because of a mood. Indeed, when in foul moods I’m much more likely to listen to something other than Mozart (Shostakovitch, say), and when I either want to reinforce the mood I’m in or feelings I’m emoting, I’m more apt to pick a piece to suit my mood rather than one to change it, which perhaps suggests we look for correspondence rather than contrast to our moods. When I’m listening “in the right mood” there is no question that my own emotions seek out familiar tones in the piece to reinforce or add dramatic color to my emotion. That tone is always present in the piece, whether I’m in the mood to hear it or not. Sometimes that tone is more or less present in a piece depending upon who the pianist is and what their skill level is and what their ‘take’ on the piece and, ye§, what their mood is on the day they recorded the piece.
32 Must I possess any special or peculiar knowledge to assert that it is good, beautiful, or
Must I possess special knowledge? Well, if don’t already possess it, how would I be able to determine if it’s special or not. In other words, to answer yes or no to this question is to assert that one has or’ does not have the knowledge in question—or, alternatively, that one has the special knowledge but does not believe it is necessary to discuss music’s qualities. As even cobras respond to music at some mystical level, if there is any special knowledge it is already in our possession; it becomes a matter of tapping it. To me, Mozart’s menuet is beautiful in the same way that I find a lot of music beautiful (though by no means all) in that the tones seem to make something out of nothing, a design or pattern, a bit of ordered chaos. In this sense, it wouldn’t matter if I were listening to the Menuet or another piece of music. I would find a purely sensual way of making sense of the world. Music is a kind of interpretation of events, but the interpretation takes place at a subliminal or, at least, sub-linguistic, level (indeed, many would agree that writers achieve greatness the closer their work attains to the poetic, expressing something beyond words, though using the clay of words). Music, then, is an assertion of being. Mozart’s Menuet doesn’t necessarily assert a particular philosophy of life or view, although I do think it contains a particular aesthetic ‘posture’ that can be felt, heard, sensed, even if not fully understood in so many words. Perhaps like a kaleidoscope were an ‘author’ to take the randomness of colors and shapes and somehow orchestrate them in a way peculiar to that author.
Questions about the context of the piece
37 When Mozart lived?
How can we answer this with certainty? Certainly John Cage’s ‘experiments’ in sound this century will be regarded differently by far future generations than they are regarded today, if they are even regarded again at all. Cage wrote his compositions in an age moving away from humanism (even if largely parochial and imperialistically defined) and toward the new ‘thinginess’ of technology. If music, or art in general, is ever a response to the historical context it ‘lives’ in, then to the degree it is purely response it is less than universal and so less likely to survive into future generations without being facelifted, revamped, reinterpreted or re-packaged. Cage’s music may not survive, because so much of the experimental work is reactionary, and so, to a degree time-bound. Certainly, Mozart’s menuet faces the same criteria; it is a response to something, perhaps. But given the prolific output of his work, it does not appear that Mozart was interested making a political statement with his menuet, although, peculiarly enough, he seems to have continued experimenting with the genre when it had reached a musical dead-end; essentially, he put the last stamp on the form. The question naturally arises: What did he see in this form or structure that kept him interested in expanding on it and modifying it when it was already being regarded in his own time as passé ? Was his reluctance to ‘move on’ not itself a political statement, or did Mozart find something embedded in the menuet—its playfulness, levity, dancing movement—that was somehow especially attractive to his peculiar aesthetic center? Whatever the case, the Menuet No. 6 is still pleasing and still regarded as beautiful some two hundred years later by a wide array of people, and there is no reason to suspect that this regard will diminish in the future. There is something in the music itself that has endured.
46 That Beethoven and later composers rejected the menuet in favor of the scherzo (as the
lighter, dance-like movement in the sonata, quartet, and symphony )?
This question is partly answered above. But to reiterate, it seems clear that Mozart himself had some reason for continuing to favor this form, though its flexibility and plasticity had reached its musical (at least, playable) limits. The menuet is in keeping with the spirit of much of Mozart’s compositions, reflecting (despite what I’ve said above) his eagerness to repay the generosity of the royal court audiences that supported him. The menuet certainly recalls this historical epoch of court dances that pre-dates Napoleon and the revolution that would change Europe forever later. Certainly the scherzo, too, has ‘courtly’ qualities, but they are expressed with more idiosyncratic energy and individual form. Perhaps, too, because of his peculiar attraction to the form, Mozart was unable to ‘see’ in the scherzo structure what he found so natural in’ the menuet, i.e., perhaps he had reached his limits as a composer and didn’t have the requisite aural vision to push the scherzo into bloom.