Davies—Works of Music

Works of Music: Approaches to the Ontology of Music from Analytic Philosophy
Stephen Davies

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Abstract: In this article, I interrogate the issues and philosophical theories about the ontological character of musical works presented by analytic philosophers over the past forty years. The focus is on Western art music, but jazz and popular music are also discussed. I recognize the historical plasticity of the notion of works of music. I distinguish playings that are not of works (such as improvisations) from work performances, works for playback from works for live performance, and works recorded from live performances. I question the current fashion of applying theories of personhood (personal identity) to the musical case, arguing that these face more problems than they solve. And, as well as reviewing the many theories on show and their metaphysical presumptions, I defend the enterprise of ontological analysis against skepticism about its worth, arguing for its relevance to assessments of musical value and to performance practices. Ultimately, I defend a descriptivist ontology (one that attempts to track ordinary discourse about musical works), a contextualist analysis (one that acknowledges how relations between the work and its musico-historical context can affect its constitutive properties), and an approach that treats musical works as concrete and present in the world, rather than as abstract items or as non-existent.

How to cite this article: Davies, Stephen. 2020. “Works of Music: Approaches to the Ontology of Music from Analytic Philosophy.” Music Research Annual 1: 1–29. https://doi.org/10.48336/a3yh-cw62.

About the author: Stephen Davies teaches philosophy at the University of Auckland. His books include Definitions of Art (1991), Musical Meaning and Expression (1994), Musical Works and Performances (2001), The Artful Species (2012), The Philosophy of Art (second edition, 2016), and Adornment: What Self-decoration Tells Us about Who We Are (2020), as well as three volumes of papers published by Oxford University Press (2003, 2007, 2011). He is co-editor of Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to Aesthetics (2009) and of the aesthetics entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Davies is a former President of the American Society for Aesthetics, President of the Australasian Association of Philosophy (New Zealand Division), inaugural Fellow of the New Zealand Academy of the Humanities, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

ISSN 2563-7290