Topic in Focus: Music and Philosophy

The relationship between music and philosophy is a close and interconnected one. Music can be used as a way of expressing and comprehending complex philosophical concepts, whilst the work of philosophers throughout history can further our understanding of music and sound – how it works, how we experience it. From the theories of Žižek to those of Deleuze, from silence to noise, from the Chinese philosophy of Qi to that of Pearl Jam – we’ve curated six chapters examining this fascinating dynamic between music and philosophy.

Explore this topic through the free-to-view chapters below. You can also explore a range of other topics, artists, and countries previously in focus on the Bloomsbury Music and Sound platform on our featured content archive page.

Pussy Riot (Roberto Ricciuti / Getty Images)

After Sound: Toward a Critical Music

After Sound considers contemporary art practices that reconceive music beyond the limitations of sound. Music and sound are, in G. Douglas Barrett’s account, different things. While musicology and sound art theory alike typically equate music with pure instrumental sound, Barrett sees music as an expanded field of artistic practice encompassing a range of different media and symbolic relationships. In light of this, the works discussed in the chapter “IDEAS MATTER”: Žižek Sings Pussy Riot use performance, text scores, musical automata, video, social practice, and installation in order to articulate a new and radical form of musical practice. Coining the term “critical music,” Barrett examines a diverse collection of art projects which intervene into specific political and philosophical conflicts by exploring music’s unique historical forms.

Read G. Douglas Barrett’s chapter “IDEAS MATTER”: Žižek Sings Pussy Riot, which interprets the radical conceptual music of Pussy Riot through the lens of Slavoj Žižek’s philosophical work on the materiality of the violent threat.

Gilles Deleuze (Mac GANTIER / Getty Images)

Deleuzian Music

How can the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze help us cultivate a greater understanding of music? Does his work, where rigorously applied, have the potential to cut through much of the intellectual sedimentation that has settled in the field of music studies? Deleuze is a vigorous critic of the Western intellectual tradition, calling for what he calls a ‘philosophy of difference’. For Deleuze, ‘difference’ is not just a distinguishing factor between two things that are not the same, but a condition or state of being in which a subject makes itself distinct from all else. He is convinced that Western philosophy fails to truly grasp (or think) through difference, and as a result longstanding methods of conceptualizing music are vulnerable to this radical Deleuzian critique. But, as Deleuze himself stresses, more important than merely critiquing established paradigms is developing ways to overcome them, and by using Deleuze's own concepts this collection aims to explore that possibility in the field of music.

Read Sean Higgins’ chapter ‘A Deleuzian Noise/Excavating the Body of Abstract Sound’ on the conceptualisation of noise.

Pearl Jam (Niels Van Iperen / Getty Images)

The Philosophy of Pearl Jam

Marking the first discussion of the band in a scholarly context, Pearl Jam and Philosophy examines both the songs (music and lyrics) and the activities (live performances, political commitments) of one of the most celebrated and charismatic rock bands of the last 30 years. The book investigates the philosophical aspects of their music at various levels: existential, spiritual, ethical, political, metaphysical and aesthetic. This philosophical interpretation is also dependent on the application of textual and poetic analysis, with this interdisciplinary volume of work putting philosophical aspects of the band’s lyrics in close dialogue with 19th- and 20th-century European and American poetry. Through this philosophical lens, the writers explore the band’s immense popularity and commercial success, their deeply loyal fan base and genuine sense of community surrounding their music, and the pivotal place the band holds within popular music and contemporary culture.

Read Jacqueline Moulton’s chapter ‘Pearl Jam’s Ghosts: The Ethical Claim Made From the Exile Space(s) of Homelessness and War – An Aesthetic Response-Ability’

Scholars from Northern Qi (Burstein Collection / Getty Images)

Chinese Sound Art and the Philosophy of Qi

From the late 1990s until today, China’s sound practice has been developing in an increasingly globalized socio-political-aesthetic milieu, receiving attention and investment from the art world, music industry and cultural institute. Nevertheless, its unique acoustic philosophy has remained silent. Half Sound, Half Philosophy: Aesthetics, Politics, and History of China’s Sound Art by Jing Wang traces the history of sound practice from the Chinese visual art of the 1980s to the widely-critiqued electronic music of the 1950s, to the fever of electronic instrument building in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as to the origins of both academic and non-academic electronic and experimental music activities.

This expansive tracing of sound in the arts resonates with another of the author’s goals: to understand sound and its artistic practice through notions informed by Chinese qi-cosmology and qi-philosophy. This involves notions of resonance, shanshui (mountains-waters), uanghu (elusiveness and evasiveness), as well as distributed monumentality and anti-monumentality. By turning back to deep history to learn about the meaning and function of sound and listening in ancient China, Jing Wang offers a refreshing understanding of the British sinologist Joseph Needham’s statement that “Chinese acoustics is acoustics of qi,” and expands upon the existing conceptualisation of sound art and contemporary music at large.

Read Jing Wang’s chapter ‘Sound, Resonance, the Philosophy of Qi which recontextualises sound studies in a worldview that emphasises correctionality, resonance, process, and transformation.

John Cage Performing in 1966 Rowland Scherman / Getty Images

Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art

Listening to Noise and Silence engages with the emerging practice of sound art and the concurrent development of a discourse and theory of sound. In this original and challenging work, Salomé Voegelin immerses the reader in concepts of listening to sound artwork and the everyday acoustic environment, establishing an aesthetics and philosophy of sound and promoting the notion of a ‘sonic sensibility’.

A multitude of sound works are discussed by lesser known contemporary artists and composers (for example Curgenven, Gasson and Federer), historical figures in the field (Artaud, Feldman and Cage), and that of contemporary canonical artists such as Janet Cardiff, Bill Fontana, Bernard Parmegiani, and Merzbow.

Informed by the ideas of Adorno, Merleau-Ponty and others, Salomé Voegelin aims to come to a critique of sound art from its soundings rather than in relation to abstracted themes and pre-existing categories. Listening to Noise and Silence broadens the discussion surrounding sound art and opens up the field for others to follow.

Read Voeglin’s chapter on listening to ‘Silence’

Cildo Meireles’ ‘Babel’ at the Tate Modern (DANIEL LEAL / Getty Images)

The Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Politics of Noise

Noise permeates our highly mediated and globalised cultures. Noise as art, music, cultural or digital practice is a way of intervening so that it can be harnessed for an aesthetic expression not caught within mainstream styles or distribution.

Reverberations: The philosophy, aesthetics and politics of noise examines the concept and practices of noise, treating noise not merely as a sonic phenomenon but as an essential component of all communication and information systems. This wide-ranging book opens with ideas of what noise is, works through ideas of how noise works in contemporary media, and then concludes by showing potentials within noise for a continuing cultural renovation through experimentation. Considered in this way, noise is seen as an essential yet often-excluded element of contemporary culture that demands a rigorous engagement. Reverberations brings together a range of perspectives, case studies, critiques and suggestions as to how noise can mobilize thought and cultural activity through a heightening of critical creativity. Written by a strong, international line-up of scholars and artists, Reverberations looks to energize this field of study and initiate debates for years to come.

Read Scott Wilson’s chapter ‘Amusia, noise, and the drive: towards a theory of the audio unconscious’