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Music and Personal Association

by Gordon Giles

If I were to announce at the outset that what we call popular music is not art, I could expect two reactions. Some people might say that the idea is absurd – of course pop music is art, how could it be anything else? However, some people might be rather pleased at the notion that pop music is not art. Thus we might be divided into two camps. It is probable that those who object to the possibility that pop music is not art tend to listen to, and enjoy such music. Those people who tend to a preference for non-popular music (let us call it classical music, in deference to the managers of record shops – even though such a classification is technically inaccurate), believe that what they listen to certainly is art, and it would therefore be rather convenient if we could somehow set pop music apart in some way – even better if we could show that it isn’t even music.

The issue is one which involves anyone in the Western world who likes music. Whatever we conclude; we will probably be seen to attempt to undermine someone’s aesthetic pleasure. This I do not intend to do, I ask these questions rather in an attempt to throw some light on the various conceptions of art and music which we have. We should test our concepts in the field, so to speak – the best way to elucidate our concepts is to apply them.


Both pop and classical music are assumed to be kinds of music. In order to probe such an assumption, we need a concept of what music is. Opinions vary as to how we might establish an understanding of our concept; we might, for instance, offer a definition – that is, set out criteria which must be fulfilled. Or we might consider the function of any particular thing which we wish to admit to membership of the class of things which we call music. Both approaches yield results, so I shall take them both in the course of this discussion.

Music, let me suggest, is an aural phenomenon. This is not to say that it must be heard or listened to, or even that it must be hearable. Sometimes music is audible, but at other times it is not. Music has a bivalence in that it can be heard, but also has some identity in respect of its existence on paper, in the form of a notated score. We can listen to a piece; or read it on a score. A great deal of time and energy could be (and has been) spent on the issue of the status of the score in musical aesthetics – it is not necessary to address the issue here, since whatever the relationship between the score and the music itself, we can say that both are aural phenomena. The score is meaningless to someone who cannot interpret it as the means to an aural experience. The score is created with the intention that it be such a means, and it is only pedantic philosophers with a penchant for ontology who treat it as anything else.

We may also say that music involves three intentional or deliberate acts. These may be crudely described as composition, performance and hearing. The first deliberate activity is that of the composer, who either sets his ideas down on paper, or else performs them directly. A score is not a necessary feature of music, and so I am not proposing that the three intentional acts relate to three distinct objects, or people. We could think of music as something written down, then performed, then heard – and we would have our three intentional acts fulfilled; or we could think of the intentional acts as practised by three individual people. Both ways of thinking may be helpful, but both are misleading, since the composer, performer and listener may all be the same person; or the writing and performance of the music may be merged in the activity of someone who improvises. The music may be composed and performed at the same time. Where this happens though, we can still think of distinct intentional activities, if only because we do not need to do them at the same time. The activity of the composer can be thought of as manifest in a written score, because even though there may not be one, any music which is performed can, in principle, be written down. Thus we have the first intentional act of composition, which is usually something carried out independently of any other of the required intentional acts; and by the person we call the composer. The usual product of this activity is something which indicates to the person carrying out the next intentional act how he should go about such a business. This product, by convention, manifests itself as – is known as – the score of a piece of music.

The second intentional act then, is that of the performer. There may of course, be one or more, and they may be guided by a conductor who does not strictly perform. However, there is more to performing music than the conversion of black and white blobs to noises. Scores also contain instructions (often verbal) as to what should be done with the noises once they are produced. The conductor can be said to perform in that he or she is as concerned with the blend of noises and their qualities in respect of what the score implies as the orchestral or vocal performers themselves. On a purely practical level, he or she also acts as a referee of balance and taste.

The third intentional or deliberate act is that of the listener. We can introduce a distinction between hearing and listening at this point, since it seems to me that the latter is an intentional act, whereas the former is not. When I say that music should be listened to, I mean that it must have attention paid towards it. Listening, it has been said, is “…taking stock of something which is moving and changing and in so far as it is accompanied in him who listens by a sense of high and complex activity”; whereas hearers “tend to daydream and allow attention to wander away from the music”. (Vernon Lee – 1932). This need not imply that hearers never listen. When attention ‘wanders’ we do not say that someone is listening, but attention may fluctuate, such that we often find ourselves not paying attention in a concert hall. Sometimes we hear and sometimes we listen. What tends to happen is that if we fail to keep up with our listening, we lapse into hearing. Listening is thus an active process, which requires deliberate effort. Incidentally, music can be contrasted with literature and painting in respect of the requirement for three intentional acts – these other art forms only require two such acts – that of author or painter and that of observer or reader. Just as the observer of a painting must do more than see it, the listener must do more than hear the music.

We shall have cause to return to these remarks a little later on. While it seems reasonable to say that music must not merely be heard; we might wonder if to make such a stipulation is to indicate a criterion for music; or for music as art. For the time being though, we may say that music requires or involves three intentional acts. These are composition, performance and listening. If we establish these as necessary conditions for music, then we must say that any putatively musical event that somehow lacks one of these conditions, is not music. What it may be instead need not concern us here, although we may think of non-conformist works as works of sound organisation (I am thinking of certain pieces of John Cage’s); or merely as forms of noise.


I have not stipulated that all pieces of music be artworks. I am not going to do so, though I should still offer some notion of what I mean by ‘artwork’. An artwork, let us suppose, is an artifact, offered with the intention that it reward its having attention paid to the qualities for which its creator is responsible. This is to require of an artwork, be it a painting, poem or symphony, that it be humanly created. Pebbles are not artworks (though under certain conditions they may become so). Neither are most chairs or computer keyboards, so we should also add that the person who makes what we call artworks does not primarily intend them to be used for any purpose other than to be treated as artworks. Paintings are not intended to cover damp patches on the wall, nor are novels meant to be used as doorstops. Symphonies are not intended to be used as musical wallpaper (this is to reiterate my point about music requiring the deliberate action of listening). Rather, artworks are intended to be appreciated for the kinds of qualities they have which other artifacts tend to lack. Artworks are generally considered to have a particular kind of aesthetic function, rather than a practical function, and in this respect, artworks are generally distinguished from craftworks and other artifacts.

I stipulated that artworks have qualities for which the artist is responsible. This is not so much to imply that there are qualities which artworks have for which the artist is not responsible (although we may say there can be such qualities), rather that it is possible to value or appreciate works in virtue of qualities which we invent ourselves. I shall come on to the subject of personal associations in a moment, but I shall only say now that we can value a work of art because it reminds us of some event, and we do not hold the work’s creator responsible for this. Works of art are not generally offered with the intention that they remind us of such events, so we can hardly blame the creator if they do. Since the object’s status as a work of art does not affect what value it has for us when we are thinking of personal associations, then something which funds such associations need not be a work of art. The associations aroused are not features of the work, rather they are features of those people in whom the associations are aroused.


This sketchy set of criteria for art raises some interesting points for the topic under discussion. I implied that artworks, and works of music, are offered with the intention that they have attention paid to them. There is a form of music (or organised sound) – commonly known as muzak – which is not so offered, neither is attention usually paid to it. Muzak is played in factories and other places of work, and is intended to aid productive work. By providing a soothing, consistent ‘background’ of sound, other distractions are eliminated, and – so the theory goes – workers are more able to concentrate on what they are doing. Muzak is certainly not intended to be listened to, since anyone who paid attention to it would probably not get very much work done at all. The same qualities which make muzak suitable to being heard also tend to render it incapable of rewarding attentive listening.

While muzak is specially written to be ignored, we can also ignore music. As I have already suggested, we tend to lose our concentration even when we try to pay attention to music; and when we do, the music becomes no more than muzak – noise in the background which we only hear. Sometimes we put a record on, and then proceed to do something else, in which case we may well cease to notice the music. On other occasions we play music specifically to counter any potential distractions, or we put on a record and then think about something else. When we do this kind of thing we are turning music into muzak – we are using music as muzak. Sometimes we use pieces of music as the means to the recreation or memory of events in our pasts in virtue of personal associations we have formed for such pieces. When we do so we do not pay attention to the features of the music for which the composer is responsible, rather we pay attention to the thoughts we have which are aroused by a hearing of the music. When we do this, we may say that we are not appreciating the music in virtue of the qualities which it has. To use music as the means to the arousal of personal associations is not to use it as art – in that art is offered with the intention that it be appreciated for qualities for which the creator is responsible. We do not hold Fauré responsible for the fact that his Requiem reminds us of a day on the beach at Bognor Regis, since we may be quite willing to admit that there is nothing special about the music which made us form such an association other than the fact that we heard it on the radio on the way home.

Thus we can say that to use a piece of music as the means to the arousal of personal associations is not to treat it as art. We might wonder whether to do so counts as treating it as music. I have suggested that muzak is not art, because it is not offered with the intention that it have attention paid to its features, but for the same reason it would follow that it is not music. It may be necessary to modify what I said earlier about the third intentional act required for music. If we say that the third act must amount to the music’s being listened to, then muzak is neither art nor music. If we maintain this view we have a problem concerning as what to classify muzak – it being distinct from music; and we find ourselves in the position of implying that all music is art, since music which is not art also turns out not to be music, and for the same reason that it is not art. If we say instead that the third intentional act need not be listening, but hearing – that is that music must only be heard, we begin to see a new picture of the relationship between music and art.

Muzak remains a musical form in the light of this revision, yet it is still not considered to be art. Music which is normally considered to be art (such as Fauré’s Requiem) can be used as muzak (as we have seen), even though it was never intended to be so used. To use Fauré’s Requiem as muzak is not to fail to treat it as music, though it is to fail to treat it as art.


What of pop music, which this paper is ostensibly about, yet which I have hardly mentioned? In David Lodge’s novel Nice Work we read that Vic Wilcox frequently listens to (or hears?) The Power of Love by Jennifer Rush, as the idea of having an affair with Robyn Penrose begins to appeal to him. When the affair comes to fruition later in the novel, we are shown how he has formed a personal association for the song:

‘Oh I want to’ he says. ‘I love you.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ she says, handing him the bottle. ‘That song of yours has gone to your head. The one about the power of love.’
‘It’s my favourite song,’ he says. ‘From now on it will be our song.’
Robyn can hardly believe her ears.

I want to assume that we can and do form personal associations for pieces of music. We can form associations for either pop music, or classical music, and I do not see any reason to suppose that the associations which we form for pop music are different in kind or origin to those we form for classical music. What we do may be the same, but that in respect of which we do it need not be.

I do not wish to dispute that pop music is music – if we have have a view of music that admits of muzak, then I think we should not exclude pop music. The crucial factor in determining whether or not muzak is art, was the spirit in which it was offered. In the light of what we have so far said about muzak, we can fruitfully enquire of the difference between muzak and pop music. I have outlined the function of muzak, and this is to elucidate the spirit in which muzak is offered to the consumer. If we are comparing muzak and pop music, then we should consider the spirit in which pop music is offered to its consumers.

If pop music is to remain popular (which is presumably one of the main intentions of its creators), then it must appeal to a large number of people such that they will continue to pay for it. This means that its producers must continue to supply what we may call a musical demand. The relative unpopularity of Beethoven, Bruckner and Berg suggests that these composers do not satisfy such a demand; and the financial and popular success of many pop musicians suggests that they can and do satisfy it.

When we speak in terms of satisfying a demand, we introduce a notion of utility . We can ask why something is in demand, or to what use it is put. This is to ask what need pop music satisfies. It may be that a large number of people enjoy all kinds of music because of the opportunity it provides for forming and recalling personal associations. Vic Wilcox enjoys The Power of Love for this reason. Although it is not explicit in the novel, there is the sensible implication that it is the words of the song which prompt him to form his association. This is not to say that the music plays no part, only that the words help considerably. The words are about love, and so tend to appeal to anyone who is in love when they hear the song. The words invite the formation of personal associations, because they can easily be taken to refer to anyone. Who is singing to whom? It hardly matters, since the song can be taken by one person as his or her song to someone with whom he or she is in love.

Not only can this happen, it does happen, and it is meant to happen. We have developed a tendency to relate pieces of music to events in our lives, thereby forming personal associations, and the composers of pop music, being ordinary people, also form such associations when they listen. We can of course, form associations for a Beethoven symphony – people do so, often prompted by television advertisements; but when we are not helped concerning what associations to form, it becomes harder to form associations which seem to us to be both valuable and appropriate. If the music we hear includes words in English about a topic to which we can all relate, then it is easy to form associations which are in the spirit of the words. If, as I claim,we have developed a tendency to listen to music with a view to the formation or indulgence of personal associations, then the music which we prefer will likely be the music which serves such a function best. The demand then is for music to which we can relate – i.e. that for which we can form associations. Modern popular music is intended to satisfy this demand. Consequently, pop music is generally offered with the intention that it fund personal association.


I suggested earlier that Muzak is not art because it is not intended to have attention paid to it. I also implied that to use music for the formation of personal associations is not to listen to it, in that when we think of memories, events or people with which we associate the music, our attention has wandered from the music. We still hear it, but we are not listening. If this is true; and what I have said about pop music being offered as a means to satisfy our desires for music with which to personally associate is also true, then it would follow that pop music is not offered with the same intention as artworks. There is nothing to prevent us from listening to popular songs – that is, from treating them as art – but when we do so we are often disappointed, because most pop songs do not stand up to the kind of scrutiny to which we subject Beethoven symphonies. Nor are pop songs intended to be so scrutinised, and so it is inappropriate to treat them in such a way.

It may be thought that I have said that pop music has no artistic merit, and that it is not intended to have any. I do not deny that there are some popular songs which are reasonably good works of art; and which are offered as works of art – that is, to be appreciated for their qualities and so on. Nor do I deny that I have made the issue sound rather simplistic, in suggesting that it is possible to determine the intention with which a popular song is offered for sale. I think that the notion of conduciveness to personal association is important; but there are other factors, including, for instance, the intention to make money, and, of course, the intention to create something of musical or artistic value. I suspect that all three factors come to bear, and whether we want to call a given popular song a work of art may depend on the importance attached to each of them. We might want to deny the status of art to something which is mainly offered with the intention of making money; or as I have suggested, for something which is mainly offered for the sake of personal associations. Ultimately, we may not be able to decide whether a given popular song (or symphony even) is a work of art or not, because even if we can get the composer to tell us about his or her motivations, we may not be able to disentangle the web of intentions with which a popular song is offered to us. If we cannot untangle the web, then we can hardly expect to be able to decide categorically whether a piece, let alone pop music in general, is art or not. At best, we may say that there are conditions under which a pop song would not be art, and that a certain song satisfies some of them. Thus we may say that a pop song may not be a work of art.


Vernon Lee, Music and its Lovers, Unwin,
London, 1932.
David Lodge, Nice Work, Penguin,
Harmondsworth, 1989 (p.290 quoted).

© Gordon Giles 1991

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