On the Issue of Metamusical Inquiry

The author’s use of the phrase “meta-musical inquiry,” in a previous post, may confuse some readers and be misinterpreted by others.  To avoid ambiguity, it will be necessary both to clarify distinctions implied by the author’s use of the phrase and to define that clarification.  Let it first be understood that when the author says “metamusical,” he is speaking not of a specific piece, genre, movement, method, etc.  Rather, he is attempting to use one word to capture and convey the notion of a metaaesthetic philosophical inquiry into the depths of musical meaningfulness.

What is meant in the author’s use of the term is similar to the definition of metaphilosophy–or the philosophy of philosophy.  As a prefix, meta- conveys a few different ideas, including a sense of going beyond and a sense of being self-referential.  Merriam Webster’s third definition–relating the prefix to the term metaphysics, in which the prefix is “usually used with the name of a discipline to designate a new but related discipline designed to deal critically with the original one”–is perhaps most helpful.  So, when the author speaks of “meta-musical inquiry” he is implying a meta-philosophy of musical aesthetics, in which the philosophizing is meant to go beyond specific philosophies of music and musical aesthetics in order to deal critically with those theories, as well as to explore meaningfulness beyond music per se–i.e., to approach music as a lens toward a deeper awareness of truth, order, goodness, and beauty.

Since ethics and aesthetics are in the same family of philosophy (axiology), this prefix as it applies to aesthetics is best understood by examining the term, “metaethics.”  In the field of ethics, normative ethics investigates theories of right/wrong, while applied ethics examines what is right/wrong in a particular situation.  Metaethics involves the philosophizing about the very nature of morality itself.  Meta ethics investigates such questions as,  ‘What grounds goodness?’ and, ‘Do certain worldview presuppositions allow for such a robust concept or do they reduce it to triviality?’  Metaethics involves both moral apologetics–arguments in defense of universal objective value–and polemics–arguments or skepticism concerning a particular value theory’s ability to ground or deny moral objectivity convincingly.

In the field of aesthetics, then, applied aesthetics would examine what is/is not beautiful/good about a given object/experience; normative aesthetics would investigate competing theories of beauty or movements in the history of the arts.  Meta-aesthetics–philosophical inquiry about aesthetic inquiry–goes on to contrast those theories, and may even question worldview presuppositions, in an effort to press back into questions such as, “What is Beauty?” and although we may disagree on the answer, “Why do we nevertheless live our lives with a deep conviction that some things are in fact good, or beautiful, or meaningful?”  The negation of beauty/goodness brings to another question of both metaethics and metaaesthetic: even if one claims that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, or goodness is a product of culture and utility; “Why do we live our lives with such deep convictions that some things/experiences are in fact evil, or wrong, or grotesque?”

One way to think of these distinctions is to consider them as paradigm shifts in basic philosophizing.  Working from the bottom up, so to speak, one might ask ‘What is the right thing to do in this situation?’ Or, ‘What is good/bad about this object/experience?’  The inquiring mind then asks, ‘Why is it the right thing to do; because of virtue, duty, religious reasons?’ Or ‘Why is this object beautiful or undesirable; due to issues of form, reference, experiential pleasure, instrumental usefulness, etc?’ Or, ‘Why is it a meaningless question; because (as some views claim) moral/aesthetic language represents only an emotive utterance or behavioral response, and nothing more?’  Finally, the astute inquirer will then ask, does this view really explain moral/aesthetic language while corresponding to reality?  From the top down, we might begin by asking what is necessary to ground morality/beauty, and we may disregard those views unable to do so. Then, we move to the normative stage by seeking to understand the norms cohering to the view we’ve  chosen (e.g. virtue ethics or aesthetic referentialism)  Finally, in light of that understanding, we apply that view to a particular piece of art, ethical dilemma, etc.

More specifically as it relates to music, applied music aesthetic philosophy will evaluate a given piece of music,e.g. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, mvmt 1, and seek to ask what makes it good according to a particular model.  For example, if the aesthetician believes–or if Beethoven himself believed–beauty to lay specifically within the formal aspects of the art object, then it would seem necessary to study the form before grasping a definition of beauty applied.  If one is studying Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, however, from a formalist perspective, then one will surely miss the depth of reference concerning Mahler’s  experiences with funerals (including that of his brother as a child), his fascination with questions of nihilism, his conviction that life’s futility only gains meaningfulness in eternity, through God, and his  contemplations of the Day of Wrath in which such victory is realized, at the vanquishing of evil and the resurrection of the saints.  Normative music philosophy examines a given style/context, genre, movement, or aesthetic philosophy in order to understand it better.  This is why we tend to teach students how to listen to sonata form when studying the Classical era context, whereas we tend to emphasize programmatic works when studying orchestral developments in the Romantic era.  We then apply such knowledge to select works like, Symphony no. 40 by Mozart, or Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.

Meta-aesthetic musical inquiry–that which the author has chosen to call metamusic–goes beyond all of this in order to question deeper questions of musical meaningfulness.  Plato was not concerned with this object which we call good–for it is merely a copy of a copy; a reflection of beauty or goodness.  He was most concerned with getting as close as possible to The Good and The Beautiful. Similarly, metamusical inquiry goes beyond a musical piece in itself, and particular normative theories for composing or experiencing beautiful, good, or even purposefully questionable, thought-provoking music, in order to study Music’s deep relation to The Good, The True, The Beautiful, to worldview and theology, and its rich interdisciplinary meaningfulness and order. This is very close to what the Greek’s had in mind by approaching music as insight into cosmology, ethics, mathematics, and philosophical studies.

Concerning ethics, there is the question of ethos–musical’s emotional effect on the listener and whether such an effect influences ethical contemplation and action–and the metaphor question of form and freedom–to what extent is it good or right to emphasize rules and tradition, and to what extent is it good to encourage freedom of expression and individualism?  Now we see that we are asking a question that can be applied not only to music, but also to ethics, politics, and religion.  Similar parallels can be drawn from music to worldview studies.  Is the world all empirical “fact” or are there such things as universal objective values and absolute objective truths?  The answer will preclude particular theories of value.

This issue is indeed one of great depth–that is the whole point; to reach into the depths of musical meaningfulness, in order to find rich interdisciplinary dialogue concerning music, value, and education.  The author has by no means explored all that might be swept beneath the rug of the term.  Still, a working definition of “meta-musical inquiry” has been explored, and the author’s use of the phrase has been presented.



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