Howell on Music & Ontology

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Robert Howell. 
My personal comments are in red. 

A musical work has more properties than its mere sound sequence. The time and place of its creation makes a difference -- something that sounds like Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. would be "uncharacteristic [and a] parodic freak" if by Satie. (Howell's point is Iseminger's point about the difference between a text and a poem; the same text is a very different poem, given a slight change in the circumstances of production. The sound sequence is not the musical work.)

The WORK is a structure that is "ontologically tethered" to a composer at a specific time, and a specific social-historical context.

The contrary position, "Platonism" as defended by Julian Dodd, holds that all abstract types are eternally existing objects. They are discovered, not created, by their composers.

Against Dodd, Howell argues that some musical works possess properties that cannot be the properties of an eternal type.

Let S = a sound structure. Then Beethoven's fifth = S as indicated by Beethoven in 1808.

BUT THAT'S NOT ENOUGH. A token cannot accidently possess the S. (If it did, then all times that audiences wait for music but hear silence will be tokens of Cage's 4"33" --- but a late entrance of music is not always 4'33".)  It must have S as indicated by Beethoven and properly connected to Beethoven's so indicating S.

But how can "properly connected to Beethoven's so indicating" be part of the structure of any eternal type. References to BEETHOVEN cannot be part of any eternal type? It cannot.

This is not a point about composers. "Being Abraham Lincoln's son" is a property of Todd Lincoln, yet THAT property certainly can't be one that enters into any eternal type, for that property can't be said to exist until Lincoln actually exists. (Until then, it's merely a possible property. But possible structures, such as being-Lincoln's-son-and-marrying-Grant's-daughter, is not an actual eternally existing structure in any meaningful sense of "actually existing." At best, being-son-of-an-assassinated-President-and-marrying-the-daughter-of-a-successful-general-who-succeeds-the-assasinated-President-by-two-terms-of-office is an eternal type. Unless being President is an initiated type and not an eternal one.)

Yet being S as indicated by Beethoven is a property of the symphony. Therefore the symphony is not simply an eternal structure S.

This point is not special about music. Being an Elizabethan playwright cannot be an eternal type (this is point about Shakespeare -- Romeo and Juliet can't be an Elizabethan play if Dodd is correct. But of course it is, and it matters in interpreting it!)

Recommended solution -- Distinguish three things.

  • Properties -- features of objects that can be features of more than one object.

  • Patterns -- emerge from combinations of properties. Given the properties of lighter and darker, the checkerboard pattern is a possible pattern. In a world with no such properties, there is no such pattern.

  • Types -- patterns that arise out of human practices. For example, "Glank" is not a word type in English, for there is no practice of assigning it meaning and using it. (In contrast, Dodd must say that there is a word type "Glank," because that combination of phonemes is available for use. And the type in which it means "joyful sleep" is different from the type in which it means "silly word," or means anything else!) Why should we recognize the existence of a word that has not yet entered the language?

A practice must attach a meaning or significance to a pattern in order for that pattern to by a type. SO TYPES ARE TEMPORALLY INITIATED, and NOT equivalent with eternal abstract patterns.

A type is an INDICATED type if a particular individual initiates it.

Beethoven indicated the fifth symphony, therefore his activity of composing created a type. In so giving it a cultural initiation, we give it a style, something that the "eternal" pattern cannot have.

Instances/tokens of Beethoven's fifth are restricted to those case of the proper pattern S arising through the practice in question. (A million monkeys at a million pianos over a million years might produce pattern S of Beethoven's "Fur Elise," but that coincidence does not produce a token of "Fur Elise.") Musical works are initiated types; some are indicated types.

                        Last updated July 18, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk