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Making an Anthropological Case: Cognitive Dualism and the Acousmatic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 February 2015


This paper examines Roger Scruton's acousmatic account of music, situating it in relation to the anthropology that accompanies it. It suggests that in order to adequately maintain the anthropology Scruton desires (a cognitive rather than an ontological dualism), and to take full account of the parallel he draws between musical and inter-personal understanding (through gesture), the materiality of music needs to be more fully into his account of musical understanding.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2015 

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1 Scruton, Roger, The Soul of the World (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014), 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Scruton, Roger, ‘Sounds as Secondary Objects and Pure Events’, in Nudds, Matthew and O'Callaghan, Casey (eds), Sounds & Perception: New Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5068 (50)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. ‘Sounds, they [physicalists] argue, are identical with neither the waves that transmit them nor the auditory experiences through which we perceive them. They are identical with the events that generate the sound waves – physical disturbances in physical things, such as those that occur when the string of a violin vibrates in air’. Ibid., 51.

3 Scruton, , Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (London: Continuum, 2009), 5Google Scholar.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid. ‘A car crash is something that happens to a car. You can identify a car crash only by identifying the car that crashed. Sounds, by contrast, can be identified without referring to any object which participates in them’. Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 28. ‘Musical understanding is not a form of theoretical understanding, and the kind of necessity that we hear in a musical phrase or sequence, when we hear that it must be so, is not the kind of necessity that we know from rule-following or mathematical proof’. Ibid., 37.

8 Ibid., 5.

9 Ibid. Scruton maintains that within the musical experience a ‘double intentionality’ is at play such that ‘[y]ou hear a succession of sounds, ordered in time, and this is something you believe to be occurring – something you ‘literally hear’. And you hear in those sounds a melody that moves through the imaginary space of music. This is not something you believe to be occurring, but something you imagine: just as you imagine the face in the picture, while seeing that it is not literally there'. Ibid., 43.

10 Ibid., 48.

11 Scruton, The Soul of the World, 74.

12 Scruton, , ‘Music and the Transcendental’, in Stone-Davis, Férdia J. (ed.), Music and Transcendence (Aldershot: Ashgate, forthcoming in 2015)Google Scholar.

13 Scruton, The Soul of the World, 147–8.

14 Ibid., 97–8. ‘[T]he human face has a kind of inherent ambiguity. It can be seen in two ways – as the vehicle for the subjectivity that shines in it, and as a part of the human anatomy’. Ibid., 98.

15 Scruton, Understanding Music, 34.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 35.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 40.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., 42.

24 Ibid., 41.

25 Scruton, The Soul of the World, 96.

26 Ibid., 162.

27 Ibid. ‘If you can attribute an object to the aboutness of music, this is, as it were, an external fact – something that you bring to the music but which is not straightforwardly contained in it’. Ibid.

28 Ibid., 163–4. ‘Unless there are words or a dramatic context to tell us whose voice this is, the music seems to come to us from nowhere, and from no one in particular’. (Ibid., 164). It is on this basis that music, importantly for Scruton's larger project, ‘offers an icon of the religious experience’. (Ibid., 166). It does so because of the ‘nameless intentionality’ that is attributed to it. The space of music is a ‘sacred space’ (ibid., 140), mediating between that which is ‘not of the world’ (ibid., 15) but appears on its edge, ‘looking … into our world, so as to meet us face-to-face’. (Ibid.)

29 Scruton, ‘Music and the Transcendental’.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Scruton, Understanding Music, 21.

34 Scruton, ‘Music and the Transcendental’.

35 Bohlman, Philip V., ‘Epilogue: Musics and Canons’, in Bergeron, Katherine and Bohlman, Philip V. (eds), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 197210Google Scholar (198).

36 Scruton, Understanding Music, 7.

37 Ibid., 8.

38 The notion of ‘work’ is used in musical, musicological and philosophical circles to refer to music in the Western-European repertoire. Scruton considers works within this tradition to be paradigmatic of ‘good’ music; such works underpin his discussion of both music as acousmatic and concert-hall listening.

39 This approach makes materiality integral to the musical work. More integral than, for example, Rob Van Gerwen, who notes that ‘[t]he score determines the work's acousmatic space, but musicians produce the tones that sound in that space and their expressiveness’. Hearing Musicians Making Music: A Critique of Roger Scruton on Acousmatic Experience’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70(2) (2012): 223–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar (227).

40 The strength of this is also demonstrated within contemporary music composition and performance practice. Lauren Hayes explains the impetus behind her development of a ‘haptically augmented hybrid piano’: ‘It became clear over time that while I was receiving the usual physical vibrations from the acoustic part of the instrument, through the acoustic resonance naturally felt in my hands, along with the more subconscious vibrations felt through my feet in connection with the pedals or floor, for the digital audio there was no analogous tactile feedback mechanism. I had to rely purely on my ears (and eyes via the laptop screen) to receive information about the sonic digital counterpart. The electronic sound would emerge from loudspeakers placed proximally to the piano … Even with stage monitors, however, I felt a strong sense of disconnect; a feeling of being literally out of touch with which I was playing, despite being able to hear it, to some extent’. Haptic Augmentation of the Hybrid Piano’, Contemporary Music Review 32(5) (2013): 499509CrossRefGoogle Scholar (505).

41 Clearly, the violin's structure is not presumed to be a singular, unchanging thing, but develops over time. Indeed there is a close connection between the development of instruments and that of musical works, styles and genres. Likewise, compositional and performance practice (there is no absolute separation between the two) lead to the formation and re-formation of instruments. More than this, each instrument differs, leading to particular affordances and resistances that themselves vary according to the musician who plays the instrument. For an overview of this complex interconnection, see Alperson, Philip, ‘The Instrumentality of Music’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 66(1) (2008): 3751CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 The importance of the physical structure of instruments to music and its gestures is discussed by Simon Waters, who observes that the move from middle C to the C above appears as ‘almost resistance-free switch selection’ when played on the piano. However, ‘the same pitch change on a bassoon, for example, speaks of immense difficulty – of a physical system at the upper limits of availability – and the same change on a cello generates the pull of the real distance travelled up the fingerboard in an equivalent response somewhere in our autonomic nervous system’. Waters, Simon, ‘Touching at a Distance: Resistance, Tactility, Proxemics and the Development of a Hybrid Virtual/Physical Performance System’, Contemporary Music Review, 32(2–3) (2013): 119–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar (123–4).

43 Scruton, Understanding Music, 51.

44 Ibid.

45 Scruton, ‘Music and the Transcendental’.

46 See Stone-Davis, Férdia J., Musical Beauty: Negotiating the Boundary between Subject and Object (Eugene: Cascade, Wipf and Stock, 2011)Google Scholar, chapter seven. The sense of the fluidity between musician, instrument and sound is summarised by Alperson: ‘The truth is that it is difficult to say where the instrument ends and the rest of the body begins. In this sense, musical instruments are embodied entities’. ‘The Instrumentality of Music’, 40.

47 Scruton, ‘Music and the Transcendental’.