Institute for Music Aesthetics

Expression and Self-Expression in Music: Philosophical Universals, Historical Particulars?

Thursday 29 to Saturday 31 October 2015
Palais Meran, Florentinersaal, Leonhardstraße 15, A-8010 Graz

To express is to express something. The objects of expression, it seems, can be manifold: ideas, thoughts, attitudes, desires, moods – there is little reason to trust, as commonly done, that emotions form the exclusive or paradigmatic domain of what is expressed. We also speak of self-expression. Are expression and self-expression two distinct types? But then, in the way I express something that is impersonal, say an idea, do I not also betray something about myself? Is self-expression a concomitant of all expression or a special case of expressing something? What role do expression and self-expression play in music? Was there, in the instance of European music, an epoch of self-expression, starting with Monteverdi in the 17th century or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in the 18th century or the composers of 19th century Romanticism and ending, possibly, with 20th century musical Expressionism? Or is self-expression plainly a cultural universal of music?

These questions imply interrelated philosophical and historical problems. Research will have to move towards a philosophically informed history of musical expression in its varieties. Over the past decades, philosophers of music, often relying on techniques of conceptual analysis, have attempted to elucidate with much sophistication how music expresses – structurally, or gesturally, by means of character, or symbolically. These accounts of expression and/or self-expression in music have been constructed with minute concern for the musicological literature. And they, in turn, have had minute resonance in historical musicology, although the philosophers mean to speak precisely about the objects which historical musicologists explore. Are the latter, preoccupied with historical particularities, perhaps put off by philosophers’ supposed universals? At any rate, historical musicology widely shrinks from the topic of expression, although expressivity has been, throughout history, one major motive why people have been so gripped by music.

The lack of integration in research may well be understandable, though. It is not at all clear how and on what levels musical expression is constituted. Are compositions the right entities to inquire into musical expression? Is, rather, performance more pertinent? Or should expression be seen as a mode of listening? Is it caused, communicated, or shared? If the levels of composition, performance and listening are relevant, how can their interplay be understood? To deal with these, and related, questions, scholars from a number of fields as well as artists need to engage far more intensely with each other than has happened so far; i.a., the topic of expression, with its anthropological dimension, requires that musics of diverse cultures are considered. The symposium at the Institute for Music Aesthetics Graz, organized by Deniz Peters and Andreas Dorschel and co-financed as part of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF)-Project P 25061-G15 “What, and How, Does Music Express?”, has been set up in this spirit.


Philip Alperson, Temple University • Aaron Ben Ze’ev, University of Haifa • Sara Gross Ceballos, Lawrence University • John Deathridge, King's College • Andreas Dorschel, University of Music Graz • Denise Elif Gill, Washington University • Anthony Gritten, Royal Academy of Music • Angelika Krebs, Universität Basel • Felicity Laurence Newcastle University • Laura Leante, University of Durham • Jerrold Levinson, University of Maryland • Deniz Peters, University of Music Graz • Roger Scruton, Brinkworth • Bettina Varwig, King's College • Richard Wistreich, Royal College of Music

Programme (draft)