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an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 17, Spring 2020, ISSN 1552-5112



Vibrations: Music and Ontology*



Helmut Maassen






“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Götzendämmerung)


I.             A Biographical Note


Did you start reading Alfred North Whitehead at the beginning of your studies? Did you read the relevant statistics at the beginning of the studies?

I did not, for several reasons. I liked music right from the beginning: singing, playing the flute, playing the accordion, playing the piano, enjoying concerts every other week in my home city. When I started studying philosophy and theology, the focus was on political, social and metaphysical topics, excluding, simply overlooking, or neglecting aesthetics.

Meeting my wife Lalitha in New York at Columbia University, where she was reading English Literature, being a poet herself and a music lover as well, strengthened my interest in the arts. It was only much later, after I had been studying Whitehead for quite some time, that the importance of his aesthetics became clear to me. I realized this while I was teaching a seminar on Prosses and Reality at Heinrich Heine University together with Aljoscha Berve, while he was finishing his Ph.D. thesis. It suddenly struck us, what a central role aesthetics plays in Whitehead's oeuvre. And of course meeting Martin Kaplicky (Charles University, Prague) with his expertise in aesthetics[1] and his project on it, in which I am gladly participating, led to a further deepening of my studies in aesthetics and, among other things, to the Summer School on aesthetics in České Budějovice .

One of the revealing passages in Whitehead states:

In this Supreme Adventure, the Reality which the Adventure transmutes into its Unity of Appearance requires the real occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention. This Appearance, thus enjoyed, is the final Beauty with which the Universe achieves its justification. (AI 381)

There is a striking similarity to the above quote in a passage in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy:


Already in the preface addressed to Richard Wagner, art, and not morality, is presented as the truly metaphysical activity of man. In the book itself the suggestive sentence is repeated several times, that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Here it becomes necessary to take a bold running start and leap into a metaphysics of art, by repeating the sentence written above [Section 5], that existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. In this sense, it is precisely the tragic myth that has to convince us that even the ugly and disharmonic are part of an artistic game that the will in the eternal amplitude of its pleasure plays with itself. But this primordial phenomenon of Dionysian art is difficult to grasp, and there is only one direct way to make it intelligible and grasp it immediately: through the wonderful significance of musical dissonance. Quite generally, only music, placed beside the world, can give us an idea of what is meant by the justification of the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. [2]




II.            Research on Whitehead’s Aesthetics


The Whiteheadian discourse on aesthetics is reflected in the marginal role it has played in research. So far there have been only three monographs in English on Whitehead’s aesthetics:1961: (Sherburne 1961) A Whiteheadian Aesthetic, 2009: (Shaviro 2009) Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, 2016: (Odin 2016) Tragic beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics. The first monograph on Whitehead’s aesthetics was Sherburne’s doctoral dissertation from 1959 (Yale). The next one was published in 2009, fifty years later, and, most recently, there was the book by Steve Odin.

Reiner Wiehl from Heidelberg (1926-2010) was among the first who pointed out the central role of aesthetics in Whitehead’s metaphysics.[3] Later, in 1990, L.Wessell,  an American philosopher, wrote a Phd thesis in German under Wiehl’s guidance: Zur Funktion des Ästhetischen in der Kosmologie Alfred North Whitehead (Wessell 1990). The title indicates that aesthetics is regarded as a basic concept in Whitehead’s cosmology.

The subtitle of Sherburne’s book, Whiteheadian Aesthetic, Some Implications of Whitehead's Metaphysical Speculation, is revealing: aesthetics is seen as a concept of fine arts, implied in Whitehead’s metaphysical system. Unlike the others he has not assumed a central role of aesthetics in Whitehead’s metaphysics. A similar objection can be made, when he speaks of an aesthetic object.[4]  The Aesthetic Object for Sherburne is always, implicitly or explicitly, an art object:

In this chapter it will be argued that art objects have the Ontological status of Whiteheadian propositions. Crucial to this argument is the distinction between works of art and their performances, which will be shown to be the distinction between propositions and their objectifications. This essay presents a general aesthetic theory, not a theory of this or that particular art. Therefore, it will apply its doctrines to all the major arts: music, the dance, literature (including poetry and the theatre), architecture, painting, and sculpture.[5]

The restriction of aesthetics to art objects, as he calls them, is the main shortcoming of Sherburne’s otherwise thoughtful and detailed monograph.

Steve Shaviro, in his book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics from 2009, shares Wessell’s general assumption concerning aesthetics in Whitehead’s metaphysics, but widens the general spectrum of aesthetics. His interpretation of Whitehead’s aesthetics allows him to prevent dogmatism in Whitehead studies, to keep the system open, to allow creativity. He does this by a subtle interpretation Kant’s Critique of Judgement:

Kant’s theory of the beautiful is really a theory of affect and of singularity; and it implies an entirely new form of judgment. In the “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique, Kant steps back from the legitimizing and universalizing projects of the first two Critiques, in order to problematize universalization and legitimation themselves. Beauty cannot be judged according to concepts; it is a matter neither of empirical fact, nor of moral obligation. This is why there is no science of the beautiful. For Kant, aesthetics has no foundation, and it offers us no guarantees. Rather, it throws all norms and values into question, or into crisis. [6]

Shaviro does not follow the most common discussion on Kant’s Critique of Judgement, namely the sublime, but concentrates on the concept of the beautiful. This might seem old-fashioned, but, according to Shaviro, it allows an unprecedented way of interpreting Whitehead (and Deleuze too). The art critic and philosopher, Arthur C. Danto (1924-2013), gives a similar interpretation of Kant in his last book (2013): What Art Is, which would allow this Kantian concept of aesthetics to incorporate modern forms of art as well.[7]

According to Shaviro, Whitehead stresses the function of art, because of its psychopathic effect, free from pressure and restrictions:

Art in particular is important, Whitehead says, because of the way that it offers us an “intensity” that (AI 84) is ”divorced  from” the “dire necessity” or “compulsion which was its origin” (AI 272). In view of this displacement, “Art can be described as a psychopathic response of the race to the stresses of its existence” (AI 272). And this “psychopathic function of Art” is a necessary one, for it shakes us out of the “feeling of slow relapse into general anaesthesia, or into tameness which is its prelude”.[8]

And through Kant:

There is no criterion that can serve as the stable and objective basis for a system of judgments. This is why the only form of valuation, or “graded envisagement” (Whitehead 1929/1978, 189, citing 1925/1967, 176), that Whitehead accepts is an aesthetic one. For aesthetic judgments are singular, unrepeatable, and ungeneralizable. They may be exemplary, as Kant suggests; but they cannot provide an actual rule to be followed (Kant 1987, 175, 186-187). Or as Whitehead puts it, “there is not just one ideal ‘order’ which all actual entities should attain and fail to attain. In each case there is an ideal peculiar to each particular actual entity. . . [9]

The most recent publication on Whitehead’s aesthetics, Steve Odin’s Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics was published in 2016. Its first part is entitled Primacy of Aesthetics. In its opening section, he states:

Whitehead’s process metaphysics endeavors to overturn the tradition of Western rationalism and moralism by establishing the primacy of aesthetic values. The basic task of Whitehead’s process metaphysics is to counter the problem of “vacuous actuality” or valuelessness by recovering the aesthetic value of beauty in art, nature, and everyday life. In his philosophy of culture he further argues that the aesthetic experience of beauty in art is a defining quality of civilization.[10]


In a detailed analysis, Odin shows the continuous importance of aesthetics in all of Whitehead’s writings, from PNK to MT.

His thoughts on The “Penumbral Beauty” of Darkness and Shadows in Whitehead’s Process Aesthetics[11] are an important further qualification on Whiteheadian aesthetics. He says:

In an important passage from Science and Philosophy (1948), Whitehead describes philosophy as an effort to penetrate beyond the clear focus of immediate experience to the dim consciousness of a “penumbral background”: Thus the task of philosophy is to penetrate beyond the more obvious accidents to those principles of existence which are presupposed in dim consciousness, as involved in the total meaning of seeming clarity. . . . In the focus of experience there is a comparative clarity. But the discrimination of this clarity leads into the penumbral background. . . . The problem is to discriminate exactly what we know vaguely. (SP 131; italics added)[12]

There are two more publications, which should be mentioned, although they cannot really be regarded as interpretations of Whitehead's aesthetics, first Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1948), which is dedicated to her teacher Alfred North Whitehead. Second there is a widely overlooked publication by F. David Martin, called Art and the Religious Experience: The “Language” of the Sacred from 1972. The text focuses on Whitehead, Tillich and Langer. I will refer to these two publications later. Is there still something missing in all the works, which stress the central role of aesthetics in Whitehead?  Although all of them analyse, describe and evaluate Whitehead’s considerations on aesthetics, they leave out one of the fine arts all through: music.[13]

III.       Music in Aesthetics


The composer, conductor and music critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) once remarked that the best way to talk about music is silence, or as Adorno says, “Interpreting language means: understanding language; interpreting music means: making music.” Nevertheless I will write about the function of music in aesthetics with the focus on Whitehead’s process metaphysics, which, as I said before, has been widely neglected. This is a particularly crucial desideratum, because of the close affinity of music to numbers and logic for a well-known mathematician as Whitehead. He valued music to be as creative as Pure Mathematics: “The Science of Pure Mathematics, in its modern developments, may claim to be the most original creation of the human spirit. Another claimant for this position is music.”[14]


a.   The Origin of Music


Ovid’s tale of Syrinx’s flight from lustful Pan affords a glimpse into the mythic origins of music’s sublimating power:

A nymph of late there was

Whose heav’nly form her fellows did surpass.

The pride and joy of fair Arcadia’s plains,

Belov’d by deities, ador’d by swains:

Syrinx her name, by Sylvans oft pursu’d,

As oft she did the lustful Gods elude

The rural, and the woodland Pow’rs disdain’d;….

Now while the lustful God [Pan], with speedy pace,

Just thought to strain her in a strict embrace,

He fill’d his arms with reeds, new rising on the place.

And while he sighs, his ill success to find,

The tender canes were shaken by the wind;

And breath’d a mournful air, unheard before;

That much surprizing Pan, yet pleas’d him more.[15]

Ovid vividly describes the seductive power of music.

Admiring this new musick, Thou, he said,

Who canst not be the partner of my bed,

At least shall be the confort of my mind:

And often, often to my lips be joyn’d.

He form’d the reeds, proportion’d as they are,

Unequal in their length, and wax’d with care,

They still retain the name of his ungrateful fair.[16]


Jankelevitch remarks that ‘Music acts upon human beings, on their nervous systems and their vital processes’ and ‘In 1849 Liszt composed a song, "Die Macht der Musik", to a text by the Duchess Helene d'Orleans: music paying tribute to its own capacities. This power - which poems and colours possess occasionally and indirectly - is in the case of music particularly immediate, drastic, and indiscrete.)[17] Also Plato: ‘it penetrates to the center of the soul…and gains possession of the soul in the most energetic fashion…’ (‘κατα δύεται εἰς τὸ ἐντὸς τῆς ψυχῆςτε ῥυθμὸς καὶ ἁρμονία, καὶ ἐρρωμενέστατα ἄπτεται αὐτῆς.’-- Platon, De republica III 401 d)

Many musicians refer to Plato and quote the above passage to demonstrate the power of music. But Plato himself saw this as double edged. On the one hand he recommends music as a useful tool for education, on the other he finds certain kinds of music dangerous:

And therefore… musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar. (ibid.)

If a person is not good already, even the ‘good’ kind of music would not help him. Plato differentiates two kinds of music: the one which encourages moral growth and the other which would have the opposite effect. After excluding hard harmonies from his considerations, because nobody would appreciate those he turns to soft harmonies which he abandons from the Republic. The music Plato is advocating seems to be a rather dull affair, only meant to help warlike men, keeping emotions to a minimum, nothing which most people nowadays would think of as beautiful, leaving twelve-tone music aside. Music has to strengthen the character of people, not to seduce them, according to Plato.


b.    Pythagorean versus Aristoxenian approach to Music


The correlation of sounds and the length of the string was detected by Pythagoras on the Monochord. Harmony can be created by whole integral numbers (1 to 2 for the octave, 1 to 3, 1 to 4 etc.)  The close similarity of octaves e.g. seems almost universally accepted in the Western-European musical system and the Arabic, Indian and Gamelan music of Indonesia. But as Andrew Baker remarks:

From the beginning, Pythagoreans were not typically interested in the study of music for its own sake. Their researches in harmonics arose out of a

conviction that the universe is orderly, that the perfection of a human soul depends on its grasping, and assimilating itself to that order, and that the key

to an understanding of its nature lies in number.[18]

The contrast could not be stronger than in the approach which Aristoxenus (c. 375, fl. 335 BCE) advocated: music has to follow its own principles, not any from the outside, neither mathematics, physics or anything else; music has to be independent of those other domains of inquiry. As a student of Aristotle, he wants to define music as a science in the Aristotelian sense.

It is to be understood, speaking generally, as the science, which deals with all melody, and inquiries how the voice naturally places intervals, as it is tensed and relaxed. For we assert that the voice has a natural way of moving and does not place intervals haphazardly.[19]


»Καϑόλου μὲν οὖν νοητέον οὖσαν ἡμι̑ν τὴν ϑεωρίαν περι μέλους παντός, πω̑ς ποτε πέφυκενφωνη ἐπιτεινομένη καὶ ἀνιεμένη τιϑέναι τα διαστήματα. φυσικὴν γὰρ δή τινά φαμεν ἡμει̑ς τὴν φωνὴν κίνησιν κινει̑σϑαι καὶ οὐχ ὡς ἔτυχε διάστημα τιϑέναι«


Therefore, he asserts it to be necessary that music theory be independent of predecessors:

We try to give these matters demonstrations which conform to the appearances, not in the manner of our predecessors, some of whom used arguments quite extraneous to the subject, dismissing perception as inaccurate and inventing theoretical explanations, and saying that it is in ratios of numbers and relative speeds that the high and the low come about. [20]


Eli Maor points out that Aristoxenus’s ‘ideas lay dormant for two thousand years, until they were revived in the sixteenth century by Vincenzo Galilei’.[21] His claim is valid, except for a minor exception - St. Augustine’s De Musica. This approach to music has a striking similarity to that of St. Augustine, which I showed at length in a different paper. Augustine’s small tractatus De Musica has long been widely neglected; work on it has been done only recently.  A critical edition of the Latin text was published as late as January 2017: De Musica (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Band 102) (Latin) Hardbound – 6. March 2017 by Martin Jacobsson (De Gruyter, Berlin). Augustine gives a short definition of music: ‘musica est scientia bene modulandi’ (music is the science of good modulation, De Musica I, II 2) This definition is probably taken from Varro’s lost book on music. Unlike other sciences, the science of music is related to two classical subjects: mathematics and grammar. Measuring relies on the proportion of reality, including sound, but Augustine gives it a special focus: he introduces dimensio, an additional factor. The easiest way to explain it may be to relate it to the Latin origin: di-mensio,  two ways of measuring: one in the traditional way of numbers, rhythmus (Latin),  and the other according to ῥυθμóς (Greek) i.e. rhythm expressed by motion or gesture [cf. mus. 3,2]:


WeIl, then, consider the nature and force of reason, to the extent that we can observe it from its activities. For reason, to focus especially on that which is relevant for the understanding of this work, first pondered over what a good modulation is and saw that it consists in some kind of movement that is free and turned to the goal of its own beauty…[22]


In a sense therefore Augustine tries to incorporate both traditions, the Pythagorean and the Aristoxenian in his approach to music. In the history of the equal-tempered scale, Aristoxenus seems to have been the first to have judged ‘intervals by the ear alone and not by arithmetical relation’.[23]


c.    The Function of Music


“Music consists of successions and forms of sound, and these alone constitute the subject. They again remind us of architecture and dancing which likewise aim at beauty in form and motion, and are also devoid of a definite subject. Now, whatever be the effect of a piece of music on the individual mind, and howsoever it be interpreted, it has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music does not only speak by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.[24]

Hanslick’s ferocious attack on the romantic notion of music, the assumption that it is all about feeling had a strong impact on musicology. This notion of music was called absolute music. Still, should Lied music, i.e. Opera, Oratory, etc, be excluded? Hanslick and his followers draw that conclusion, Richard Wagner was his main opponent, but not the only one, as a long list of composers followed.[25] Roger Scruton, among others, shows the shortcomings of Hanslick’s notion of absolute music while agreeing with him that music has to be understood in its own right and in this sense be understood as absolute:


To say that musical understanding is founded in a metaphor, is to cast doubt on the whole idea that we understand music, or that the way in which we understand it can be educated or improved. The experience of music comes to seem like the by-product of other perceptions—perceptions in which our concepts are formed and put to the test. This is one reason, I believe, why critics like Hanslick are so resistant to the idea of musical 'content'. For it would seem to imply that the organization of music is of no intrinsic significance. Musical organization is made to depend upon concepts that have no literal application to music, and which derive their sense from contexts in which this peculiar and remarkable experience—the experience of musical form—is wholly out of mind. On the other hand, even Hanslick described music as 'tönend-bewegte Formen' ('forms moved through sound'). He too used the metaphor of movement; and he too must say why it is this which captures what we hear, when we hear sounds as music.[26]



d.    The Ontological Status of Music, Time and Reality

“the fate of unhappy music … to fade away as soon as it is born”

Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato 1, 29


As Christopher Hasty says: “Music’s resistance to representation has long been its curse and its promise.”[27] This is not the place to discuss the whole discourse in musicology since Hanslick. The ontological status of music has being widely discussed.[28] I think it is basically related to the concept of time. As I mentioned earlier, the most elaborate and sophisticated notion of time in the past has been done by St. Augustine. Since then, according to Christopher Hasty, it is Alfred North Whitehead, who has taken time seriously.[29]

The first who interpreted Whitehead’s aesthetics was his student Susanne K. Langer. In her book Philosophy in a new Key, first published in 1948 and dedicated to ANW :To ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD my great Teacher and Friend, she develops a theory of symbolism, or, as the subtitle of the book indicates, A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. It should be noted that she is using a musical term ‘key’ to describe her innovative approach to symbolism and art. Mrs. Langer's definition of music is the following; "The creation of Virtual time, and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms.”[30] In exploring this statement, the following key phrases could be helpful;


The elements of music are moving forms of sound; but in their motion nothing is removed. The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of pure duration. ... Musical duration is an image of what might be termed "lived" or "experienced" time...The semblance of this vital, experiential time is the primary illusion of music. All music creates an order of Virtual time, in which its sonorous forms move in relation to each other - always and only to each other, for nothing else exists there.[31] Music makes time audible, and its form and continuity sensible.[32]


Early in Feeling and Form, she writes that the import of music is "the pattern of sentience - the pattern of life itself, as it is felt and directly known."[33] Throughout her text, she consistently uses the terms "felt time" and "experienced passage" tο denote this pattern of musical time. The "model for the Virtual time created in music," she asserts, is "the direct experience of passage, as it occurs in each individual life."[34] Α few pages earlier she states, "The realm in which tonal entities move is a realm of  pure duration."[35]


Illusion is "that which constitutes the work of art . . . it is what results from the arrangement [of given materials in an aesthetically pleasing pattern], and it is literally what the artist makes, not something he finds. It comes with his work and passes away in its destruction.”[36] Music, above all, must be heard to exist, for its vital import is a function of its existence in time. Langer calls music (and all other non-plastic arts) "occurrent" art, which means that it requires a definite time of perception.[37]  It is out of sound that music’s illusion is made, and without occurrent expression, the composer’s work remains an outline of rich possibilities, - a composition only, not yet music.

In his unpublished PhD thesis from 1974, THE FULFHIMENT OF TIME: Α LANGERIAN/WHITEHEADIAN AESTHETIC OF MUSIC PERFORMANCE Wayne Arthur Dalton, refers to Sartre to illustrate the special character of music:

“For the moment, it is the jazz that plays; not even a melody, simply the notes - a myriad of small tears. They know no rest; an inflexible order first gives them birth, then destroys them, never allowing them to truly exist. They run, they hurry, they strike me in passing with a dry blow and then disappear. I would like to hold them, but I know that, if I were to succeed, nothing more would remain between my fingers. ... I must accept their death; I must even wish it.”[38]

Dalton disagrees with Sherburne concerning the ontological status of music. Sherburne claims that all forms of art are propositions, including music.[39] Dalton, in a more Whiteheadian sense, concludes:


It is suggested…that the "art object" or "art symbol" is no proposition, but rather a society of objectively immortal occasions. It is fully actual, with nothing of the proposi­tion' s tentative status. That which does obtain as a proposition is the set of tendencies, tension and release, the form of which, in the case of music, the composer has approximated on paper.[40]


The real power of music lies in the fact that it can be "true" to the life of feeling in a way that language cannot; for its significant forms have that ambivalence of content which words cannot have. This is, I think, what Hans Mersmann meant, when he wrote: "The possibility of expressing opposites simultaneously gives the most intricate reaches of expressiveness to music as such, and carries it, in this respect, far beyond the limits of the other arts." [41] Music is revealing, where words are obscuring, because it can have not only a content, but a transient play of contents. It can articulate feelings without becoming wedded to them.[42]


Victor Zuckerkandl in his lately rediscovered monograph, SOUND AND SYMBOL: Music and the External World from 1956, is fighting the dualism of an inner and outer world, not only in a Whiteheadian fashion but in direct reference to his work.[43] The inner and outer world dichotomy is surmounted in music.[44] Only when it can be demonstrated that musical experiences are not experiences of “another" world, of an “unknown ideal life"; that the audible and the visible belong to the same reality; that motion of tones and motion of things take place on the same stage; that one space, one time embrace the world of visible event and the world of audible event - only then is a critique of our concept of reality from the point of view of music possible.[45] Zuckerkandl refers to Whitehead to deconstruct a common scientific notion of reality, which would not allow music and other forms of art to be called real. After all, he writes, a mathematical philosopher Whitehead, is calling a piece of iron a ‘melodic continuity.’[46] The inner-outer world dualism is overcome by music and that allows a new, non-dualistic view of reality: “Even iron is an event. This is no special peculiarity of life. It is equally true of a molecule of iron or of a musical phrase. Thus there is no such thing as life ‘at one instant'; life is too obstinately concrete to be located in an extensive element of an instantaneous space.” (PNK  196)[47]


F. David Martin's compression of Whitehead's thought is useful


Music more than any other art forces us to feel causal efficacy, the compulsion of process, the dominating control of the physically given over possibilities throughout the concrescence of an experience. The form of music binds the past and future and present so tightly that as we listen we are thrust out of the ordinary modes of experience, in which time rather than temporality dominates. Ecstatic temporality, the rhythmic unity of past-present-future, is the most essential manifestation of the Being of human beings.[48]


In an earlier essay F. David Martin pointed to the unrealized possibility in the aesthetic experience, an important character of any concrescence of an actual entity.[49]

I would like to refer you to John Cobb’s summary of Concrescence and Time:


Concrescence is simply the process of becoming “concrete.” Concrete means fully actual, and that means a completed actual occasion. The use of the term “concrescence” places emphasis on the idea that even these momentary flashes of actuality that Whitehead calls actual occasions are processes. There is the actual occasion in the process of becoming, and then there is the completed occasion. Whitehead calls the completion “satisfaction.” This term emphasizes that this process of becoming is characterized by subjectivity. There is a subjective aim, a subjective form, a decision, and a satisfaction. But as soon as the occasion attains satisfaction it becomes an objective datum for successor occasions. [50]



IV.           Coda


Think of a melody! Is this not an adequate description of concrescence? What is happening in a melody is the uninterrupted time, the indivisibility of it. You can divide both melody and time for analytical reasons but you will lose the impact; the full impact can only take place, if you allow the whole melody to happen. When rereading Deleuze’s Fold, something arrested my attention:


A concert is being performed tonight. It is the event. Vibrations of sound disperse, periodic movements go through space with their harmonics or submultiples. The sounds have inner qualities of height, intensity, and timbre. The sources of the sounds, instrumental or vocal, are not content only to send the sounds out: each one perceives its own, and perceives the others while perceiving its own. These are active prehensions that are expressed among each other, or else prehensions that are prehending each other [. . .]. The origins of the sounds are monads or prehensions that are filled with joy in themselves, with an intense satisfaction, as they fill up with their perceptions and move from one perception to another. And the notes of the scale are eternal objects, pure Virtualities that are actualized in the origins, but also pure Possibilities that are attained in vibrations or flux.[51] 


It is the event! Suddenly it becomes clear why there are so many similarities in describing a melody and the process of concrescence! The similarities are in fact caused by its identity! If that is the case, music becomes the basic ontological principle of reality.[52] An event was happening in Berlin in 2018, A L’ARME! Festival Vol. VI AVANT-GARDE JAZZ & VIBRATING EXPERIMENTAL in which a multilayer sound installation by MARK FELL (UK) with archive material of Zbigniew was taking place.[53]

The Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski (14 March 1958 – 12 December 2013) put it provocatively and clearly:


So it seems that all the forms existing in the universe: plants, trees, minerals, animals, even our bodies have their shape created by resonating to some specific frequencies in nature. In a very real sense then, at the core of our physical existence we are composed of sound and all manifestations of forms in the universe are nothing else but sounds that have taken on a visible form. The music must become aware of the subtleties of its effects. There is no doubt that the body metabolism functions primarily via a combination of electrical frequencies, pulse rates and biochemical hormones. The brain is dependent on input. There is nothing else but sound, all that exists is vibration. My goal is to expand music until there is nothing else but music.[54]


Defined thus, major conflicting notions in Music Aesthetics can be solved: absolute music versus relational music. The concept of actual entities allows for the special, unique entity while its ‘composition’ includes language, sounds, feelings etc. Kenneth LaFave in his recent publication The Sound of Ontology: Music as a Model for Metaphysics is on a similar track.[55] Feelings are included in the prehension, but not exclusively, as there is causal efficacy as well; the complex notion of time can be understood in an Austinian-Whiteheadian sense. When Bruno Walter defines music as ‘a parable of creation’[56] he comes close to what Karkowski has in mind and Zuckerkandl’s statement that ‘the audible and the visible belong to the same reality’[57] also supports this. Whitehead’s stress on rhythm, particularly in his early writings, adds to the claim that aesthetics, particularly music, is central to his metaphysics.[58] Jankelevitch’s treatise, Music and the Ineffable echoes the above mentioned description of concrescence as a process, which can never been fully described, but only experienced and is therefore ineffable.


You may be surprised to find a modern composer using process metaphysics to understand music.  His name is Richard Elfy Jones. The Welshman studied at the Bangor University, King’s College (1944) and now teaches at Cardiff University. He uses a fairly known piece of classical music to interpret it in a Whiteheadian manner: the Prelude I of Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. His interpretation:


Whitehead’s advice was to start from some section of our experience in the belief that the knower, the percipient event, provides the clue to nature in general. Thus, in art the potentiality for becoming is no mere abstract concept, for since all actual occasions are dipolar, the physical and the conceptual must work hand in hand with an outcome that is real, and that produces a real experience. In art, creative advance into novelty is underpinned by the individual choices of the artist and his jealous involvement with inclusion and exclusion. In relation to a dipolar reality we can regard the opening note of Bach’s Prelude 1 in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier as an individual essence, as middle C, 260 cycles per second. But as the root of the C major chord, this C has a determinate i.e. a relational, essence to other features of the tonality of C. Here C is the tonic and there is a fundamental axis of C (tonic) and G (dominant), both notes being eternal objects in mutual relation. A congruence exists between these predisposed tonal forces present in nature, and the creative manipulation of the creative artist (drawing in other notes and chords) so as to make a coherent pattern of 35 bars ending conclusively, as it began, on a C  major chord. As the piece develops, the relational essence is extended, at least with regard to the choice of notes and the tonal progress. Unusually for Bach the rhythmic progress is very regular and repetitive, and even minimalist until 3 measures from the end, the result of deciding to base the piece throughout on a simple broken chord formula. We can follow the relational aspect in great detail, from the  initial departure  in measure  2 from C to a D seventh chord in third inversion  whose relation to C is as a pseudo-dominant (it is not a major chord) to C’s own dominant, G major. The fundamental ploy of presenting chords 1, 5 and 2  (C major, G major and D minor) in  relation to each other is characterised and enhanced by Bach’s decision in measure 2 to hold the C root so that it becomes the seventh of the D chord, thus exerting a compulsive tension demanding resolution down to B in measure 3.[59]


Another example of a Whiteheadian interpretation of 20th Century music is undoubtedly Christopher Hasty’s analysis of Anton Webern’s 6th Bagatelle.[60] Without going into a detailed examination of Hasty’s ideas – this would request a much longer article - I would like to refer you to a recording of Anton Webern’s 6.th Bagatelle. And finally, let us share the experience of John Cage’ 4’33.






an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 17, Spring 2020, ISSN 1552-5112






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AI Adventures of Ideas. 1933. New York: Free Press, 1967.

CN The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1920.

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CE 1 The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead: 1924–1925. Ed. Paul Bogaard and Jason Bell. Edinburgh UP, 2017.

FR The Function of Reason.1929. Boston: Beacon, 1958.

IS Interpretation of Science. Ed. A. H. Johnson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.

MT Modes of Thought. 1938. New York: Free Press, 1968.

OT The Organization of Thought. London: Williams and Norgate, 1917.

PM Principia Mathematica. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1929.

PNK An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1919.

PR Process and Reality. 1929. Corrected Edition. Ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press, 1978.

R The Principle of Relativity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1922.

RM Religion in the Making. 1926. New York: Fordham UP, 1996.

S Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect. New York: Macmillan, 1927.

SMW Science and the Modern World. 1925. New York: Free Press, 1967.



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* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 5th European Summer School in Process Thought, August 6-10, 2018 in České Budějovice, hosted by The Faculty of Arts of the University of South Bohemia.


[1] E.G. Aesthetics in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, VOL  48  Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, 2011, 57-171

[2] Nietzsche, Birth of the trageday

[3] (Wiehl 1984)

[4] (Sherburne 1961, 98, 113)

[5] (Sherburne 1961, 98)

[6] (Shaviro 2009, 1)

[7] (Danto 2013): Kant had two conceptions of art, and his second theory of artworks cannot support his

reasons for taking up judgments of beauty in the first place, namely the parallels they suggest

with moral judgments, and their universality, which made beauty, he thought, the symbol of

morality. Late in Critique of Judgment he introduces a new concept—the concept of spirit—

which has little to do with taste, nor does it touch in any way the aesthetic of nature. Taste, he

now writes, “is merely a judging and not a productive faculty.” When we speak of spirit, on the

other hand, we are speaking of the creative power of the artist.p.117. See the whole Chapter Five: Kant and the Work of Art.

[8] (Shaviro 2009, 159)

[9] (Shaviro 2009, 81)

[10] (Odin 2016, 22)

[11] (Odin 2016, 215)

[12] (Odin 2016, 221/222)

[13] Sherburne is the only one who deals with music, but he does not grant aesthetics a central role. S.a.

[14] (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World 1925, 26)

[15] Ovid, Metamorphoses [689–695; 704–709], trans. Sir Samuel Garth et al.

(Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, [1826] 1998), 30–31.

[16] Ovid, Metamorphoses [710–716], 31.

[17] (Jankelevitch 2003, 1)

[18] (Baker 1989, 6)

[19] Elementa Harmonica 32.10–17, (Baker 1989, 149)

[20] (Baker 1989, 149, 19/20)

[21] (Maor 2018, 73)

[22] Interpretation of  ‹bona modulatio› mus. 6,25: «ipsa enim, ut id potissimum dicam quod ad huius operis susceptionem attinet, primo quid sit ipsa bona modulatio considerauit, et eam in quodam motu libero, et ad suae pulchritudinis finem conuerso esse perspexit» 

[23] (Maor 2018, 73)


Translated by GUSTAV COHEN,  p. 162/3; Die Musik besteht aus Tonreihen, Tonformen, diese haben keinen andern Inhalt als sich selbst. Sie erinnern abermals an die Baukunst und den Tanz, die uns gleichfalls schöne Verhältnisse ohne bestimmten Inhalt entgegenbringen. Mag nun die Wirkung eines Tonstücks jeder nach seiner Individualität anschlagen und benennen, der Inhalt desselben ist keiner, als eben die gehörten Tonformen; denn die Musik spricht nicht bloß durch Töne, sie spricht auch nur Töne. Vom Musikalisch-Schönen.  Ein Beitrag zur Revision der Ästhetik der Tonkunst,  Eduard Hanslick 13.–15. AUFLAGE LEIPZIG DRUCK UND VERLAG von BREITKOPF & HÄRTEL 1922 p. 89.

[25] Mattheson, Neidthardt, J.N. Forkel, J. Mosel, C.F. Michaelis, Marpurg, W. Heinse, J.J. Engel, J.Ph. Kirnberger, Pierer, G. Schilling, Koch, A. André, Sulzer, J.W. Boehm, Gottfried Weber, F. Hand, Amadeus Autodidaktus, Fermo Bellini, Friedrich Thiersch, A. v. Dommer, and Richard Wagner: (Hanslick 1891, 28-31)

[26] (Scruton 1997 (repr. 2009), 233/234)

[27] (Brian Hulse 2010, 1)

[28] E.g. (Giombini 2017), (LaFave 2018).

[29] (C. F. Hasty 1997, 69) For this understanding of temporal relations I am indebted, above all, to the work of Alfred North Whitehead. And in the following account of musical meter I will employ several of Whitehead’s distinctions.

[30] Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953) p. 125.

[31] Ibid., 109.

[32] Ibid. 110.

[33] Ibid. 31

[34] Ibid.113

[35] Ibid.109

[36] Ibid. 67

[37] Ibid.. 121

[38]Sartre, Jean-Paul. La Nausee. Paris: Gallimard, 1938, 36

[39] A musical composition is a proposition. It has been prehended by the composer. The 

notes he sets down on staff paper, however, are not the work of art; they are, rather, a set of rules, or instructions, he prepares for the use of a performer. They are rules for objectifying a proposition. The proposition which is a given musical work has its own existence as a proposition, but is "encountered" by audiences only as objectified. (Sherburne 1961, 117)

[40] Dalton, 80

[41] Versuch einer musikalischen Wertaesthetik," Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft,.

XVII (1935), 1: 33-47.

[42] (Langer 1954 (1948), 197/8)

[43] (Zuckerkandl 1956, 195, 212, 263-64)

[44] For one basic fact must not be shirked: music is not a phenomenon of the inner world, nor is it something projected from the inner to the outer world; it is a phenomenon of the outer world. It is not felt, it is not imagined, it is not willed — it is perceived. It does not arise from our psyche; it comes to us from the world around us. It is not in our consciousness—or, better, it is there in the same way as, and neither more nor less than, are all other perceived phenomena. (Zuckerkandl 1956, 144)

[45] (Zuckerkandl 1956, 364)

[46] (Zuckerkandl 1956, 264)

[47] See also Iron and a biological organism are on a level in requiring time for functioning. There is no such thing as iron at an instant ; to be iron is a character of an event. Every physical constant respecting iron which appears in scientific tables is the register of such a character. PNK 23

[48] (Martin, Art and the Religious Experience: The 'Language' of the Sacred 1972, 94/95)


[50] (Cobb 1998, 59-62)

[51] See the conditions of the choir in the Letter to Arnauld (April 1687). GPh. 11. 9.5 IMason, 1191

[52] I developed this idea in more detail in my paper The Aesthetic Turn (Maaßen 2020).

[53] 1. – 4. August 2018, Radialsystem V Mit Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell, Mark Fell, KLEIN, Maja Ratke, Joëlle Léandre, Radian, Large Unit Rio, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Ellen Arkbro, Jessika Kenney u.v.m.

Set 1 Halle: MAJA RATKJE MAJA SOLVEIG KJELSTRUP RATKJE (NO)– voice, electronics…
Studio A (5th Floor) open from Wednesday – Saturday Multi layer sound installationby MARK FELL (UK) with archive material of Zbigniew Karkowski


[54] THE METHOD IS SCIENCE, THE AIM IS RELIGION by Zbigniew Karkowski, Amsterdam, March 1992,

“I can forsee a music that is beyond good and evil” see: https://fyours.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/the-method-is-science-the-aim-is-religion/

[55] (LaFave 2018)

[56] (Walter 1961 (orig German ed. 1957), 16) If, for the moment, we disregard what is expressed by music, and turn our attention to its essential character, to the sublime order of its sounding, moving universe in which a creative spirit unmistakably reveals itself, we shall be inclined to consider music a parable of creation itself, ruled by the logos. I am of the belief that there is no more immediate access to an understanding of the logos granted to man than by way of music, which bears resounding witness to the latter's divinely creative and ruling character.

[57] (Zuckerkandl 1956, 364)

[58] The references are numerous, too many to be listed here.

[59] (Jones 2003)

[60] (C. Hasty 2012 )