6 Further WCM delusions

6.18 So music is…. What is it?


Finally in this chapter it may be helpful—now we’ve removed ‘the music itself’ and ‘the actual music’ on the grounds that there is nothing there behind the curtain, and now that we’ve dissolved the notion of a work— to consider for a moment what is ‘music’ in WCM.

For Nicholas Cook, it was a ‘fantastical idea that there might be such a thing as music, rather than simply acts of making and receiving it’.[1] For Christopher Small,

There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something people do. [It] is .. an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely. … It is very easy to come to think of the abstraction as more real than the reality it represents, … a kind of universal or ideal lying behind and suffusing the actions. This is the trap of reification, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato…’ (Small 1998, 2)

‘And yet,’ Ruth Levitas says, ‘because music exists only in performance, it is also in this sense peculiarly concrete.’[2] You can’t pin it down, and yet there it is, being made in front of your ears. It happens, though, as I’ve repeatedly emphasised; it doesn’t exist except in memories of performances and of how they felt. Is ‘listening’ a sufficiently committed and involved word for this? Doesn’t it sound too passive, too objective? Do we need a new word for listeners? Experiencers, perhaps, co-creators, participants, musical partners? Music, if we must have a definition, is the experience of a performance.

Jeff Warren (2014, 42) quotes Thomas Clifton, who wrote, ‘Music is what I am when I experience it.’[3] And ‘music is not a fact or a thing in the world, but a meaning constituted by human beings.’ (Warren 43, Clifton 5) 1983 was a while ago, and it seems a shame that we continue to speak of music as if Clifton had never put this so well. But that is rather the nature of talk about WCM. Whatever scholars say, everyday talk about and beliefs about music continue to be reproduced, repeated, indoctrinated, with the damaging results we’ll see in Part 2 of this book.


Continue to 6.19 ‘Conclusion: Why do we maintain these delusions?

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[1] Cook, Nicholas. 2012. Music as Performance. In Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (eds), The Cultural Study of Music (2nd ed. New York: Routledge), 188.

[2] Levitas, Ruth. 2010. The Concept of Utopia (2nd ed. Bern: Lang), 224.

[3] Clifton, Thomas. 1983. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology (New Haven: Yale University Press), 297.


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