Jerrold Levinson on Wittgenstein and “Musical Thinking”


[Posted by BR]

Posting about Stephen Davies’ NDPR review this morning got me thinking about another distinguished philosopher of music, Jerrold Levinson. For those not familiar with the philosophy of music, Levinson and Davies are long-time interlocutors and argumentative opponents in that sub-field of the broader philosophy of art: Davies’ “appearance emotionalism” and Levinson’s “hypothetical intentionalism” are (as far as I can tell) two of the leading, and competing, candidates for the best current explanation of musical expressiveness in analytic aesthetics: see, for example, the very interesting debate staged between them, on the issue of aesthetic expression, in this Blackwell “Contemporary Debates in Philosophy” volume. And then, thinking of Levinson’s work on music, I remembered that some time ago, I had came across an interesting online essay in which Levinson wrote about Wittgenstein, so I thought I’d post a link to it here. Levinson’s essays is entitled “Musical Thinking,” and it was published in a Fall 2003 issue of The Journal of Music and Meaning ( an “on-line peer-reviewed journal for multidisciplinary research on music and meaning,” according to the journal’s About page). Levinson’s essay, taking advantage of its online format, includes audio recordings of various musical examples.

Here is the abstract for Levinson’s paper:

Is music thought? This essay seeks to explore that question, taking as a springboard various remarks of Wittgenstein on the musical experience of performers and listeners. Several senses of ‘musical thinking’ are distinguished, and examples drawn from classical music and jazz are offered in illustration. Parallels between music and language figure prominently in the discussion.

To read the whole essay, click here. And the following is an excerpt from its beginning:



It has sometimes been remarked that making music – that is, composing, performing or improvising it – involves thought or is a form of thought. If so, what is the nature of the thinking that goes on in making music? And what of listening to music? Is the experience of the comprehending listener also a kind of thinking? How does musical thinking differ from the paradigm of thinking, that is, the formulation and manipulation of thoughts in words? Can musical sequence itself, rather than the activity of producing or auditing it, be regarded as a kind of thinking? In short, is music thought?

In the course of trying to shed light on these issues I will take as a springboard various remarks of Wittgenstein on music that are to be found here and there in his writings. I will also yield to the temptation to emulate, in a small degree, Wittgenstein’s elliptical, oracular manner, a manner particularly apt to the exploratory stages of a philosophical investigation, which is certainly the case here. Whether what results should be considered an homage, a parody, or some mixture of the two, I leave to my audience to decide.


It seems clear from a number of Wittgenstein’s remarks, especially ones directed to particular composers, that he was indeed inclined to regard music as thinking. In one place we find the following invocation: “The strength of the thoughts in Brahms’s music.” (CV 23). In another place we are told that one “…can point to particular places in a tune by Schubert and say: look, that is the point of the tune, this is where the thought comes to a head.” (CV 47)

What is most striking about these observations is how natural it seems for Wittgenstein to think of music as a kind of thinking, how little in need of defense he appears to take that to be. What if one invoked, by contrast, “The strength of the thoughts in the cuisine of les freres Troisgros”, or “The strength of the thoughts in Michael Jordan’s basketball playing”? Would this seem as natural? Could we easily speak of a moment in Jordan’s progress to the basket, or of a dish in a ten-course meal at Troisgros, where “the thought comes to a head”? I suggest not.


In the Investigations and elsewhere, Wittgenstein remarks that one might describe the effect of a passage of music by saying ‘Here it is as if a conclusion were being drawn’. (PI 182)

There are a couple of things to note about this. First, Wittgenstein does not say that, in such a passage, a conclusion is being drawn; rather, it is as if a conclusion were being drawn. So far, then, we are in the realm of analogy or metaphor, or perhaps of the dawning of an aspect. Second, the character of some passages of music to which Wittgenstein is calling attention is specifically that of seeming to draw or reach a conclusion, as after a period of reflection; it is not the idea of merely concluding, in the sense of stopping or terminating. Compare the endings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 110 or Dvorak’s 7th Symphony, which seem to sum up and crystallize what has gone before, with the endings of, say, minuet movements from symphonies of the Classical period, even great ones such as Mozart’s 40th or 41st. The former have this special rhetorical character of concluding, whereas the latter have only the mundane character of coming to a close – however satisfyingly.


Wittgenstein treats the phenomenon further in another place:

If I say, for instance: here it’s as though a conclusion were being drawn, here as though someone were expressing agreement, or as though this were a reply to what came before – my understanding of it presupposes my familiarity with conclusions, expressions of agreement, replies. (CV 52)

What Wittgenstein is underscoring here about the appreciation of music is this. Music is not understood in a vacuum, as a pure structure of sounds fallen from the stars, one which we receive via some pure faculty of musical perception. Music is rather inextricably embedded in our form of life, a form of life that is, as it happens, essentially linguistic. Thus music is necessarily apprehended, at least in part, in terms of the language and linguistic practices that define us and our world.

But by the same token, should we not expect that our understanding of linguistic phenomena will sometimes be inflected by our musical understanding, especially in light of the fact that our musical capacities are awakened at least as early as our linguistic ones? For example, we may describe certain speech as “sing-songy”, a conversation as not having the right “rhythm”, and the papers at a conference as not “harmonizing”. Furthermore, in tonal languages, such as Japanese or Indonesian, the distinction between speaking and singing is to some extent effaced. Though language may be essential to the human form of life – whereas music, though universal, arguably is not, since we can presumably imagine human life without music, but not without language – once both are present their interpenetration is assured, and we cannot help interpreting the one in terms that are rooted in the other.

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