Mistaking Music: Boundary Conditions of the Aesthetic


Recently I began considering the question of mistakes in music, of aesthetic error. This rather provocative way of phrasing the matter was to be used as a launching point to a discussion of the broader principles of musical understanding–that is, to approach the notion of musical understanding by way of musical misunderstanding. In the course of following up on secondary issues and questions inspired by my general premise, one common issue began to recur. The common issue was that many of the questions and problems had to do with confusion over the boundaries of the aesthetic. Even the choice of an apt metaphor to describe this confusion is problematic. Sometimes a physical or spatial metaphor seems appropriate to describe the aesthetic, for example, when we speak of an aesthetic “object”.[1] In this case we can indeed look for “boundaries” and “perimeters” of the aesthetic. But just as often we need to think of the aesthetic as a set of processes and events. This is especially true when we concern ourselves with more general social issues regarding the aesthetic. In this case the boundary metaphor is weak. Instead we need to take an analytic, reductive approach and then rate constituent processes and events using “belonging to” metaphors such as importance, relevance, or the category of fitness offered to us by Nelson Goodman, whose work on aesthetics and epistemology influences much of this paper. The discussion that follows, then, will wind its way down a number of paths, but questions of boundary conditions, understanding and misunderstanding will always be close at hand.

Before proceeding it will be necessary to examine notions such as “aesthetic object” and “understanding”, which were offered so cavalierly in the preceding paragraph. Nelson Goodman suggests in Ways of Worldmaking [2] that many of the intractable problems concerning the question “what is art?” are resolved if we re-phrase the question as “when is art?” Goodman cites the trivial example of a painting that is art when hung in a gallery but is not art when its canvas is used as a blanket. He then offers the more thought-provoking example of so-called found art. Indeed the stones and other common objects sometimes displayed in galleries often cause the skeptical to wonder “but is it art?” As evidence for the no side it is asserted that admitting found objects into the realm of the aesthetic would force us to re-evaluate our gravel driveways, our shoes–everything would become aesthetic. This exhortation to re-evaluate the everyday world aesthetically may well be an aim of artists who make found art, but Goodman’s point is that the stone can function as art, can be art, when it is in the gallery but not when it is in the driveway. Goodman goes on to consider how the stone functions differently when used at the gallery. His novel approach is to suggest five “symptoms of the aesthetic” that tend to be present in varying degrees and proportions and degrees in art works. Without going too deeply into Goodman’s symptoms, it is enough to say here that objects suggest different aspects of themselves when they are art. When the stone is in the gallery rather than the driveway we consider its line, shape, form, texture. Already this approach to the aesthetic poses severe challenges to the art “object”. But we can still retain that intuitively useful term provided we keep in mind the difference between the object as art and the related non-art object. This may seem tricky when considering the case of the stone found art object, whose aesthetic qualities are evanescent. But in fact we use “object” as a sliding term all the time when dealing with aesthetic situations we are more comfortable with. When we ask someone to “hang that picture over there,” we are of course referring to the canvas, frame and paints, not the aesthetic object of the “picture”.

Another trait of Goodman’s approach that seems particularly apt when dealing with aesthetics is his placement of questions of knowing before questions of being. To put this in philosophy jargon, this means that epistemology precedes ontology. This is because we have no direct access to things that are in the “real world”; we only have access to our various systems of knowing, representing and understanding the real world. To use Goodman’s general term, we only have “versions” of the real world. Therefore we lose nothing if we dispense entirely with the notion of the real world. To put it another way, the more independent a world is of our systems of representing it, our versions of it, the less we can have anything to do with it. The naive realist’s view of the one true, absolute, independent real world is on that account the most easily dispensed with. The most common objection to this way of thinking, the most common appeal for the real world is that we need it to test our versions against it, otherwise our versions could be entirely incorrect. Goodman’s response is that we test our version for internal cohesion and for usefulness in relation to other versions. It may sometimes occur that a version which works well on its own comes into conflict with another version, which is also useful on its own, in such a way that both versions could not be true of the same world. Even this does not trouble Goodman. Instead, he happily relegates the conflicting versions to separate worlds. Not only do we compile versions, we also construct worlds, hence Goodman’s title. This multiplicity of reality is, of course, antagonistic to the naive realist who resides in each of us. I bring it up here not to be a metaphysical proselytizer, but because it is another useful way of thinking about aesthetic objects. For example, in terms of the above, we can dispense with the idea of the one true, absolute Eroica Symphony and instead focus on our various systems of knowing and understanding it. By adopting such an approach we can accommodate many different useful and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the Eroica, but this approach also has a price: we have no single true Eroica to act as arbiter of our ideas. Instead we have to evaluate our versions ourselves, with no more than the tools we had when compiling the version and constructing the world.


If we adopt for the present a version of Alan Meriam’s [3] model of music in culture, which portrays music as a complex interaction of social activity, sound, and cognition (or, more generally, culture), the problem that arises is to sort out other concurrent activities in these three fields that might be mistaken for music. For example, how much cultural baggage and cognitive baggage–or shared irrelevancies and individual irrelevancies–clutters the picture in a given music event? Aspects of social activity and cognition will be dealt with in later sections; for the time being we will consider some of the problems posed by sound.

The possibilities of interpreting, and hence misinterpreting, sounds are endless. First of all, sound in music can generally be classified as an analog system rather than a digital system. In a digital system, a symbol will display its meaning entirely even though it may be distorted, provided the distortion still permits identification of the symbol. If we recognize a depiction of the number five, for example, even though it may have been drawn sloppily, we still obtain the entire meaning of the symbol as a number. In an analog system, however, any deviation in a symbol has at least the potential to carry meaning. If our number five is now a work of visual art, the particular sloppiness of the rendering becomes part of the meaning of the picture. Two number fives which are alike in being sloppily drawn will be completely different pictures if they are not alike in the particulars of their sloppiness.

Since musical sounds belong to an analog system, there is at least the potential for every aspect of every sound to carry meaning. (But sounds sometimes function in a digital manner; certain distortions are assumed to be irrelevant.) In the case of pitch, leaving aside for the moment the complexities of formal systems of pitch structure, even the identification of pitches can be problematic. The theoretical gamut of a music is usually far smaller than the number of discrete pitches encountered in performances. The difficulty is classifying pitches according to the gamut, identifying pitches not specifically included in the gamut, and determining their function–that is, whether they are expressive or mistakes.

For example, consider the pitches produced by a singer in the lieder tradition. Pitches will be prescribed by the score, and reference pitches provided by the piano, neither of which approaches the complexity of the pitches leaving the singer’s mouth. Portamento and vibrato constantly enrich and modify the gamut, but when do they become excessive? The singer has made a mistake if vibrato obscures pitch beyond recognition, although under certain circumstances even this may be acceptable, as in for dramatic emphasis.


If our approach to a given music is mediated through societies and coloured by their concomitant cultures, then we might have to sort through competing groups that lay claim to the same music. Particularly in contemporary urban society it is not uncommon to find different social groups clustered around a music, whose ideas about that music, whose versions of it, to use Goodman’s term, are so radically different that one must struggle to find any common links between them at all. This clash of conflicting viewpoints can take place at widely different social strata. For example, a common trend in rock music is for a rock group’s audience to change in character as the group grows in popularity. In the case of many alternative groups, a relatively small, devoted set of fans, who often adopt distinctive styles of dress to set themselves apart, will give way to a much larger, more heterogeneous audience. Usually in situations like this, conflicts arise between the earlier, distinctive fans, and the later, comparatively indistinct fans. This cycle was carried through time and time again in the 1980s–a typical example was The Clash, who went from punk to pop in a few years. Note, however, that it was still possible for The Clash to serve both their punk and pop audiences for a while. The punk listener would focus on the group’s politically-aware lyrics and anti-establishment style, while the pop listener enjoyed the group’s more mainstream aspects.

Such conflicts are in no way limited to pop music, however. In the case of symphonic music there are disputes over what constitutes the most appropriate repertoire. For some concert-goers, the symphony orchestra is seen as a musical museum for works of the 18th and 19th centuries, with more recent works grudgingly admitted where absolutely necessary. Others see this attitude as self-destructive, or at least decadent, since it tends to discourage advancement or new development in symphonic music. These attitudes will certainly affect the way different music is perceived, since both groups may see the other’s repertoire as potentially threatening. Groups can also come into conflict over differences in socio-economic status. I would like to examine this last type of conflict in somewhat greater detail.

The Canadian Opera Women’s Committee Annual, entitled Arias 1992, is “a magazine to celebrate and support the operatic arts in Canada and specifically the Canadian Opera Company,” so notes the president’s message. But rather than celebrate the specifically musical and theatrical elements of opera, the magazine celebrates opera as an expression of social privilege and economic rank. The cover of the magazine presumably reflects the committee’s self-image, and also the image to be presented to those outside the group. In evening-clothes glossy black with unadorned white text, the cover features a renaissance portrait, which couples high-art appeal with sophistication. The choice of portrait reveals a glimpse of what is to follow inside. The woman in the portrait, with a restrained hint of a smile, slightly cocked eyebrow, sumptuous but refined gown, is an icon of quiet dignity and unmistakable high class. The portrait genre itself presages the first main piece in the magazine, portraits of four women whose lives have been “touched by opera.” And the style period of the portrait certainly says something about the presumed status of opera, allying it with the same museum culture as renaissance painting. What must be inferred from the cover is made explicit in the body of the magazine. Quiet grace gives way to unrestrained appeals to wealth and status. Advertisements for expensive jewelry, real estate, cars, fashion and travel dominate the magazine and at times become indistinguishable from its other content. A particularly blatant example occurs in a piece on the conductor Mario Bernardi, who is shown washing his luxury Infiniti sports car, which not only appears in the photo, but is even mentioned in the text of the piece, including its capability of doing 240 km/h (although Bernardi himself only admits to just exceeding 200). Meanwhile an ad proper for Infiniti is prominently placed on the magazine’s back cover.

The piece on four women touched by opera reveals, along with some unoriginal sentiments about war-horse operas, some interesting details. Each woman recalls her first experience with opera, which in none of the cases took place in Toronto–home, after all, of the COC. Instead these initiations took place at Riga, Rio de Janeiro, Vienna and New York. Also revealing are some of the more philosophical comments offered by some of the women: “Catherine feels, while a greater audience base enhances Canadian success, that the move towards more avant garde operatic pieces might be at the expense of both sophistication and quality. ‘We may have sacrificed a little bit,’ she ponders.” Curious here is the link between avant-garde music and a greater audience base. The loss in sophistication associated with avant-garde opera can hardly be a loss in musical sophistication. One must also keep in mind what would have to pass for avant-garde at the Canadian Opera Company: any recent score at all by a Canadian composer, and the most famous and popular modernist European operas such as Schoenberg’s Erwartung or Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Even pieces like the last two are unlikely to be programmed unless they have scored recent popular successes at the Met. This of course is the case with the Schoenberg and Bartok.

As much as the COWC is not interested in making an appeal for opera to the people who do not share its members’ economic status, the committee is similarly unconcerned with the lack of ethnic diversity among its audience. The magazine is littered with faces–in pictures of real estate teams, at galas, in advertisements. In all, something on the order of 450 faces are pictured in this magazine. Of these 450 faces, eight are black–three of which appear in an ad for a charity for preschool education (there are no white faces in this ad), and two of which are different pictures containing the Honourable Lincoln Alexander, former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. In short, and to put the matter in the terms offered at the beginning of this section, the COWC’s claim on opera poses many potential conflicts with other claims on opera. In order to reach an understanding of opera one must first navigate the obstacle course thrown up by the likes of the COWC. It is no wonder that so many people avoid this obstacle course altogether and simply dismiss opera as elitist or irrelevant. To put the matter in the terms offered at the beginning of this paper, the COWC’s problem is partially a question of aesthetic boundaries. By emphasizing childhood memories of European opera encounters, the COWC is including as aesthetic prerequisites few of us share.


In seeking to gain an understanding of a music, it is likely that at some point we will want simply to ask the people involved. But it would be unwise to assume that all participants in a music speak with authority about it, and even that those who do speak with authority are necessarily correct in their statements. In its basic form, the intentional fallacy is the mistaken assumption that an author’s intent must necessarily translate into content in a given work, the operative word here being “necessarily”. Take the case of a hypothetical abstract expressionist painting consisting of two red stripes flanking a blue one. There are many things that the painter can tell us about the painting that are necessarily true, or at least potentially true depending on the painter’s honesty. Which stripe was painted first, what types of brushes were used, when the painting was completed–these are examples of this type of information. Even more important, if less empirical statements can be accepted, such as certain stylistic considerations the painter had in mind when planning the work. But already we are nearing the danger point, because although the painter can tell what she was thinking of while working, she cannot make claims as to how or if these thoughts are expressed in the work.

Having recognised the inherent difficulties associated with statements of intent, it would still be wrong to dismiss or ignore these entirely. Intentional stances are not duty-bound to remain external to the aesthetic operations of a given work. In some cases, often in avant-garde works, the artist’s intent informs the work, provides it with material, or reflects on it in some special way. Such is the case with the introductory note to R. Murray Schafer’s score to Son of Heldenleben. Schafer’s note actually mimics certain structural features of the work itself.


If we adopt the idea of music as merely sound, behaviour and cognition, we may be paying short shrift to notation. On the one hand, we could make an argument that notation should be subsumed under the category of behaviour since, after all, isn’t notation a tool used in music production? But this would ignore those places where notation begins to take on a life of its own. In extreme cases of the latter, certain scores of Cage, Schafer, Crumb and many others, the score becomes an aesthetic object in its own right. That these scores are things of beauty must not be confused with the tendency of composers to develop an attractive manuscript style. Somehow the aesthetic impact of the score becomes entangled with the aesthetic impact of the sound. But this relationship is very difficult to describe in specific terms. And as always, matters are complicated by the presence of a great many less accomplished scores in this style, that is scores in which the notational additions seem to be no more significant than pretty pictures along with the notes. The problem is that with the proliferation of undistinguished scores of this type, one may be inclined to become dismissive of the entire genre (this problem is hardly limited to music, however).

There are also less extreme examples of the independent importance of scores. The whole process of score study is one such case. We often consult scores to learn the mundane features of pieces: the type of ensemble, the duration and scope, the general character. In a sense, this is like a fast-forward through the piece, used to gain general impressions. What then is the purpose of score-study with pieces we already know? Clearly it is to gain greater understanding of specific details and events. There are two broad ways of categorizing this process. The first is vaguely Platonic: the score points out details in the soundscape of the music that already exist, and continue to exist even if we fail to notice them. This is a type of “naive realism”, which often represents our default mode of score-study; while it has problems associated with it, is certainly not entirely false. The second description is somewhat more complicated. In this conception, score and sound exist as complementary structures, with much overlap, but each containing elements the other lacks. Our understanding of a given piece increases as we accumulate insights gleaned from both score and sound to form a composite structure. This presupposes an aesthetic that allows a musical understanding that does not proceed directly from aural understanding, which assumption is clearly needed for much twentieth-century music. The assumption is necessary because of the commonness of sound structures containing elements of great complexity that are understandable enough in visual or abstract mathematical terms, but that surpass our ability to “hear” them. The two notoriously complex aspects of much twentieth-century music are pitch-structure and rhythm. As far as pitch-structure is concerned, identities and relationships which are obvious in the score completely elude the unaided ear. In twelve-tone music, for example, it is hard to swallow the notion that the structure of row dispositions bears no aesthetic impact on the work, when composers took so much trouble to create them. Warnings from composers not to pay attention to row technique when approaching their pieces can have other psychological and practical explanations. In Schoenberg’s case, for example, there is perhaps an element of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” syndrome in his warnings to avoid this type of study. Standing before an unfathomably complex object can be awe-inspiring. There is also the matter of protecting trade secrets. And finally, such admonitions offer those who would just as soon avoid the dreariness of row-counting a convenient excuse for turning their attention to other matters, while only increasing the curiosity of those of us who are drawn to such pursuits. In the case of rhythm the stakes are even higher. Where complex pitch structures can at least be accurately rendered (in instrumental music, at any rate), it is common for rhythmic figures to appear which are too complex to be played with any accuracy. At these moments, only the score provides all the information.

Obviously, however, other types of notation exist, and the function of a given notation can change according to the use to which it is put. Popular sheet music, for example, is radically different from Western classical scores. When someone walks into a store and asks for “the” music for a song, often that “the” music has never existed. The song could have been performed entirely from memory, or perhaps a lead sheet, showing chords and phrase structure. What then is the above person asking for? What he or she will get is a notation which only approximates many of the features of the song, which really only exists on a given performance or recording. For example, the instrumentation will be simplified, reduced to a piano part with accompanying guitar chord symbols. The chords given for the guitar will usually be similar in terms of functional harmony labels, but quite different in actual voicing since the amateur pop player knows only a handful of voicings. The sheet music is therefore used to produce a recognizable version of the song. It should be noted here that the notion of version in this type of music is different from that notion applied to Western classical music. Since in pop music so many factors are variable and also because of the presence of improvisation, each performance of a song is a different version of it and in a real sense, a unique musical object. In classical music however, even though Furtwaengler’s version of Beethoven’s seventh symphony differs from Klemperer’s, we still regard them as being the same piece–that is, the composition takes precedence over the performance. It should be clear that this type of notation cannot function in the same manner as classical notation as described above. The score in this case tells us less about the piece than its sounds do. Anything more that it tells us can only be an addition made after the fact. This last point is generally true of transcription, since transcription tells us only what we have already heard. The score has no independent importance and is in fact entirely dependent on the transcriber’s ability.


[1] In this section many terms will be presented that will be used in ways other than common usage. It is hoped that the reader will forgive the ugly intrusion of double quotation marks around these terms at their first appearance, which will hopefully nevertheless be kept to a minimum.b

[2] Nelson Goodman. Ways of Worldmaking. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978).

[3] Set forth in Alan Meriam, The Anthropology of Music.