Music Philosophy


There are different kinds of music in the world, but I am primarily interested in art music: music that calls us away from ordinary life to think about beauty.

Beauty is both intellectual and emotional. Different aspects of beauty appeal to different parts of our minds; good music finds a balance, calling us to both think about and feel musical meaning simultaneously.

Music, like other forms of design, exhibits unity, diversity, and order. Without unity, a piece feels disorganized and disturbing; without diversity, the listener grows bored; the diverse parts must fit into a hierarchy, or else a piece will not make sense. Various experimental styles in the last century tried to do away with one or more of these elements, with unfortunate results.

This concept of unity, diversity, and order corresponds to the architect Christopher Alexander’s notion of “organic order”: “the kind of order that is achieved when there is a perfect balance between the needs of the parts and the needs of the whole,” in other words, a whole that guides but also emerges naturally from many parts. Richard Gabriel discusses how this applies to software architecture in Patterns of Software. The overlap across design disciplines is intriguing.

In our pursuit of beauty, it is important to avoid distractions, or “musical idols”. Sometimes people are distracted by an obsession with novelty (but there is nothing new under the Sun), shock (which wears off quickly), tradition (which stifles creativity), or the judgments of other people (causing stage fright). Interestingly, good music will often feel novel, be surprising, seem familiar, and receive praise from others; but when we focus on any of those things, the music will suffer and lose quality.