The puzzle of musical repetition
Jenny Judge (New York University, University of Melbourne)

April 12, 2024, 2:00pm - 3:30pm
Department of Philosophy and Monash Bioethics Centre, Monash University

Menzies E561
Monash Clayton Campus
Melbourne 3800

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Take any piece of music, from any genre you like: pop, classical, jazz, bluegrass, shoegaze, grunge, death metal. Odds are, that piece will be saturated with repetition at every level, from the micro to the macro. Melodies are often stated only to be immediately repeated. Rhythmic motifs and chord progressions loop round and round. In pop, verses and choruses repeat; in classical music, the statement of a theme usually comes back multiple times, often pretty much verbatim. And then, when we’re finished listening to one of these hyper-repetitive things, we turn around and listen to the whole thing again, and again, and again. Musical repetition is the most familiar and ordinary thing in the world — but it’s also deeply puzzling. After all, this level of repetition would be intolerable in language. (Imagine a story in which every word, turn of phrase and constituent episode was apt to be repeated multiple times.) So, how is it that it seems so natural in music? If repetition would make for linguistic nonsense, how is it that it makes for musical sense? This is the puzzle of musical repetition.

In this talk, I’ll suggest an answer to the puzzle. I’ll begin by arguing that musical expression is a species of representation: music thus has meaning in the sense of representational content, and its meaning concerns the felt character of subjective experience. In particular, I'll suggest that a piece of expressive music is what the midcentury American philosopher Susanne Langer calls a ‘presentational symbol’ of feeling. After identifying a process that Langer calls ‘abstraction’ as a condition for musical expression, I’ll argue that repetition is a powerful catalyst for this process. The upshot will be that repetition 'makes for musical sense' in a literal way: it creates the conditions for musical expression to happen.

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