Essays on Art, Aesthetics, and Culture
3. Susanne Langer on Representation and Emotion in Music
Susanne K. Langer’s theory of music is treated with respect by recent philosophers of music, even though nobody seems to accept her theory. Her theory remains, in spite of fundamental weaknesses, a significant contribution to the philosophy of music. I shall first present Langer’s main theses as I understand them and then assess them critically. In the second part I shall try to relate her theory of music to more recent theories of the role of emotion in music.
Peter Kivy notes in The Corded Shell (1980) that his own theory of expressiveness in music resembles Langer’s theory in certain respects. “Both Langer and I”, he says, “claim that music bears some resemblance to the ‘emotive life,’ and that, one way or another, therein lies the explanation of its expressiveness”.1 There are, to be sure, important differences between Langer’s and Kivy’s views regarding the nature of the emotive and expressive qualities of music. Langer and Kivy also differ as to what would constitute a proper account of the expressive properties of music. I will return to these matters when trying to sketch out some of the options regarding the expressive qualities of music.
II. Music as a symbol of emotive life
Langer’s theory of music is contained in the chapter entitled “On Significance in Music” in her Philosophy in a New Key (1942).2 Although her discussion is fairly short, her theory has been interpreted in...
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