Monday, February 18, 2019

Musical beauty and virtual music

We have beautiful music at home on a hard drive. But wait: the arrangement of magnetic dipoles on a disc is not musically beautiful! So it seems inaccurate to say that there is music on the hard drive. Rather, the computer, hard drive, speakers and the orientations of magnetic dipoles jointly form a device that can produce the sound of beautiful music on demand.

One day, however, I expect many people will have direct brain-computer interfaces. When they “listen to music”, no sounds will be emitted (other than the quiet hum of computer cooling fans, say). Yet I do not think this will significantly change anything of aesthetic significance. Thus, the production of musical sounds seems accidental to the enjoyment of music. Indeed, we can imagine a world where neither composers nor performers nor audiences produce or consume any relevant sounds.

Perhaps, then, we should say that what is of aesthetic significance about my computer, with its arrangements of magnetic dipoles, is that it is a device that can produce musical experiences.

But where does the musical beauty lie? Is it that the computer (or the arrangement of magnetic dipoles on its drive) is musically beautiful? That seems wrong: it seems to be the wrong kind of thing to be musically beautiful. Is it the musical experiences that are musically beautiful? But that seems wrong, too. After all, a musical performance—of the ordinary, audible sort—can be musically beautiful, and yet it too gives rise to a musical experience, and surely we don’t want to say that there are two things that are musically beautiful there.

Perhaps a Platonic answer works well here: Maybe it is some Platonic entities that are trulymusically musically beautiful, and sometimes their beauty is experienced in and through an audible performance and sometimes directly in the brain?

Another possibility I am drawn to is that there is a property that isn’t exactly beauty, call it beauty*, which is had by the musical experiences in the mind. And it is this property that is the aesthetically valuable one.

And of course what goes for musical beauty goes for visual beauty, etc.

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