Language Games and Musical Understanding

Alessandro Arbo


Wittgenstein has often explored language games that have to do with musical objects of different sizes (phrases, themes, formal sections or entire works). These games can refer to a technical language or to common parlance and correspond to different targets. One of these coincides with the intention to suggest a way of conceiving musical understanding. His model takes the form of the invitation to "hear (something) as (something)": typically, to hear a musical passage as an introduction or as a conclusion or in a certain tonality. However one may ask to what extent or in what terms (literal or metaphorical) these procedures, and usually the intervention of language games, is requested by our common ways of understanding music. This article shows through the use of some examples that aspectual perception inherent to musical understanding does not require language games as a necessary condition (although in many cases the link between them seems very strong), in contradiction with the thesis of an essential linguistic character of music. At a basic level, it seems more appropriate to insist on the notion of a game: to understand music means to enter into the orbit of "music games" which show an autonomous functioning. Language games have, however, an important function when we develop this comprehension in the light of the criteria of judgment that substantiate the manner in which music is incorporated in and operates within specific forms of life.


Wittgenstein; Aesthetics; Language games; Music; Understanding

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