Musical Expression and Symbolic Forms


Musical Expression and Symbolic Forms



Jacob Biesecker-Mast


Presentation: 3:00-3:20 p.m., Kennedy Union 331



Frequently the idea of expression comes up when people talk about music’s value in human culture. However, expression is often ill-defined and can be found to be used many ways. Some argue music is not expressive at all, but instead is beautiful by virtue of its well-formed nature. This particular perspective, musical formalism, often looks at what is called “absolute music”, or music without any other kind of media like lyrics, and argues that the form of the music, with its interesting play between various melodies, counter melodies, and chord structure, is that which gives it value rather than any kind of expressive capabilities. Susanne Langer is a scholar who has written much on the philosophy of art and makes compelling arguments for the expressive nature of art, and thus departs from formalism distinctly. Many of her theories treat art as a sort of language that expresses through meaning-making symbols. However, there seem to be some weaknesses in her theory that can be fixed with some ideas from another philosopher of art, Nelson Goodman. Langer postulates that symbols in music, as distinct from discursive language, do not necessarily refer to an object to make meaning, but instead present concepts as they are through constructing analogous logical relationships. However, it seems that if the symbol does not refer to an object, then the symbol is all that is needed to comprehend the concept, thus it is not clear how the two are distinct. Goodman offers up the concept of exemplification, in which the symbol exemplifies the concept in question, in addition to presenting it. In this way, the value of music lies, at least in great part, in its capability to both express the emotional inner-life of human beings, and do important work in conceptualizing the world we live in.

Publication Date


Project Designation

Honors Thesis

Primary Advisor

Neil Florek

Primary Advisor's Department



Stander Symposium, College of Arts and Sciences

Institutional Learning Goals


Musical Expression and Symbolic Forms