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English review - Philosophy of Music

What exactly happens if we listen to music? And more precisely, if music is best described in terms of a musical experience, how could we express this in words? Tomas Serrien, philosopher of music, posed these questions . In his recently published book ‘Klank’, Serrien examines the musical experience as opposed to the musical object. Music can be spoken about in words, but since it is primarily an experience, we must live through it.

A Musical Experience to Understand our Experience of Music

Although in the lecture Serrien talked about music through the medium of language, he claimed that music is primarily an experience. For this fact, he chose various fragments for the audience to listen to, starting with a fragment by the musician Frank Zappa. Zappa claimed that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” We are unable to express a musical experience through language. Music comes to us through an experience that seems hard to fathom, especially when not all music includes sung or spoken words. Even though we can acknowledge that there is a musical experience when one listens to music, we cannot explain in what way this happens. Zappa’s comment thus signifies that the effects of the musical experience  cannot be spoken about.

Measuring is Knowing

There have been attempts to understand the experience of music by musical neurology and sociology. Musical neurology is able to explain the effects of music on the brain from a neuro-scientific point of view by use of MRI scans. Additionally, musical sociology can describe how, for example, various genres have come into existence out of a social context. For Serrien, both miss out on the essence of the musical experience as experience. However, their attempts do show an interesting underlying assumption concerning the experience of music. They treat music as an object that can be abstractly and visually measured by using neurological and sociological methods and this leads to the problematic approach that Serrien characterizes by “measuring is knowing”.


Hereafter Serrien told the audience the common tripartite definition of music: music is something that happens at a precise moment, with a specific aim and it has certain definite (musical) characteristics. While playing musical fragments by Beethoven, The Beatles, and Miles Davis to the audience, Serrien explained that these all fit into this definition. Thereafter, Serrien played three more fragments by Yoko Ono, Merzbow and John Cage, which were either difficult or impossible to define by using this triparte definition even though still are considered as music by many people. Thus, approaching music as if it is a measurable object seems inadequate. Serrier was passionate about his view that music is not a measurable and definable object that is ‘out there’ in the world. Music is inherently linked to our experience of it and it does not exist without us.

Subjectivity in Musical Experience

Any musical experience is subjective. However, all these subjective experiences have a similar structure that is important for the musical experience. This, Serrien explained, is an emotional experience. But where does the emotional characteristic of music come from and how do we experience music as such? In answering this question, Serrien first explained that the experience of emotions through music is not due to the intentionality of the artist when he or she composed the song. Rather, composing begins with a chord or a sound. Neither do we experience emotions because of the music in and of itself, or specifically certain parameters such as sadness from minor chords. This, Serrien pointed out, neglects the context in which music is experienced. A minor chord, for example, is a modern concept, which in medieval times did not even exist. Also, people express their emotions differently depending on their culture, and this influences our dealing with certain experiences.

Musical Feeling

Objectively, music is sound that is heard by an organism through listening. However, the context of musical experience is always specific. This is because we have synesthetic experience of music. Synthetic experience, Serrien explained, means that all of our senses simultaneously register the music. When listening to a musical piece, our whole body automatically adopts a position with respect to the sound. As such, the meaning of a musical experience can be compared to a process of touch: music creates a feeling of intimacy, as if someone is hugging you. It is for this reason that we can get goose bumps from music.

Musical Taste

Serrien delved into the question whether there is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. He left this question open. According to Serrien’s view, musical experience is inherently subjective. In his opinion, it is difficult to judge whether music is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because in order to be able to do so, one should be able to grasp music in itself and isolated from the experience that we have of it. Contrary to this, Serrien explained that music enables us to look at emotions without judgement. Music that we like to listen to can be compared to neutralize resistance towards life. As such, it is a form of freedom of feeling and thinking, for there can be no ‘wrong’ emotions and thoughts in musical experience. Furthermore, music can offer us consolation, for it grants a comforting and non-judgemental space to experience our feelings.


In the discussion with philosopher Maïté Tjon-A-Hie, Serrien was asked if musical experience is solely a subjective one. In answering, Serrien repeated that an approach that is too theoretical misses out on the essential experience that is intrinsic to music. Subjectivity is necessary for the experience and any account of this experience must involve this subjectivity.

However, it is still possible to uncover the underlying structures of experience that all humans share even if they have different individual experiences.

This report was written by Britt van Duijvenvoorde, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.