MA Philosophy – Heythrop College, University of London
The ontological and aesthetic nature of harmony
Dr David Liggins
Dr James Garratt
Dr Emily Caddick Bourne
The purpose of my doctoral thesis is to provide a comprehensive philosophical account of our experience of harmony. Although the philosophy of music has recently seen a surge in publications, much of what has been written on musical ontology and aesthetics focuses on works of music, performances and musical traditions. Conversely, little has been said of the ontology and aesthetics of harmony – the vertically represented structure of music. My ambition in pursuing this topic at research degree level stems from the contribution that it will make to the study of both philosophy and music, in that it couples contemporary metaphysics with musicology in an attempt to construct a philosophical theory of harmony that is also imbued with a detailed understanding of both music theory and acoustics. The current project is thus not solely original in its philosophical subject matter but also distinctive in its musicological approach; its main aim is to investigate the ontological and aesthetic nature of harmony by seeking to: (1) give a detailed account of the ontology of chords qua sounds; (2) illuminate the debate around the perceptual nature of chords; (3) offer an explanation of the putative metaphysical ties between the acoustics of sound and the aesthetics of harmony; and (4) provide a comprehensive survey of different traditions in tonal harmony and incorporate issues around different tuning and temperament methods into my assessment of the aesthetic nature of harmony.
In keeping with my project title, my thesis will be divided into two main sections. In the first half, I will focus on the ontology of harmony. This will involve an in-depth examination of the philosophical debate on the ontology of sound, from which several competing theories have emerged. In addition, I will investigate the persistence conditions of sound over time and the problem of its spatial location. The first part of my thesis will also include an assessment of the psychoacoustics and phenomenology of sound, in order to account for our perception of chords as complex sounds that can be individuated as single entities and thus possess qualities that give them a distinctive identity. In addition to an account of the mereology of tones and chords, I intend to offer a comparison of the individuation conditions of chords in both traditional and modern tonal harmony. This section will also include an examination of chord properties such as intervals, inversions, tension and resolution, as well as the roles ascribed to the root, dominant, subdominant and the seventh.
The second half of my thesis will consist in a comprehensive theory of the aesthetics of harmony. I aim to offer an account of the perceptual nature of harmony that reconciles both the psychoacoustics and the phenomenology of chords. In order to achieve this, I aim to assess the implications from recent research findings in music psychology, whilst delving into the phenomenology of music. I also intend to contrast a classical theory of natural harmony with contemporary musicological views in light of developments from qualia theory, in order to establish how far objectivity can be observed in the study of chords. In addition, I will consider the suitability of different theories of metaphysical dependence to account for the relation between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties of chords, with focus on grounding, response-dependence and aesthetic supervenience, whilst evaluating how far these may contribute to our understanding of the aesthetics of harmony. The second part of my thesis will also comprise an analysis of issues involving divergent tuning systems as well as modal harmonies; this is a particularly important section of my research in that it not only incorporates both historical traditions and cultural variances in the use of harmony, but also the largely neglected issue of temperament. My thesis will thus navigate through this long-standing conundrum in the history of music.
Philosophy of Music / Metaphysics / Aesthetics / Philosophy of Perception
‘The Metaphysics of Sound: Persistence and Location’, PGR seminar, Department of Philosophy, University of Manchester, December 2019.
‘Temperament and Aesthetic Supervenience’, MPSG/Royal Musical Association Biennial Conference, King’s College London, July 2019.