Saturday, April 4, 2015

Music and Causality

We all know what causality is; it's when one thing causes another, right? So how does that work? Let's look at what Wikipedia says:
Causality (also referred to as causation[1]) is the relation between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect), where the first event is understood to be responsible for the second.
 Heh! You see what they did there? They used a metaphor. Only agents, that is to say, people, can be responsible for anything. Events in the natural world, such as snow falling or flowers blooming are the result of natural processes that can be measured statistically. When a certain temperature and humidity is present, then snow will fall. When a certain kind of plant is present, again with a certain temperature and humidity, then a flower will bloom. The temperature and humidity are not responsible in any ordinary sense of the word, but they need to be present to a certain measurable degree for the event to occur. Causality in science is a question of statistical probability, nothing more. But in the human world, we do indeed have agents responsible for certain events. Beethoven did indeed compose his Symphony No. 5, he is responsible for its composition.

So do works of art, such as pieces of music, have actual historical, psychological or sociological causes? In principle, this is likely to be the case, but sorting them out would be immensely difficult, especially since a lot of necessary information is probably unavailable. But if this were not the case it would be hard to see how we can identify the era, even the decade often enough, of pieces of music, even if we have never heard them previously. (This sort of thing is a standard part of the comprehensive exams for a doctorate in musicology.) It also explains why pieces of music can sound dated as a result of being a less-than-creative product of their times.

One of the most interesting theories of causation was proposed by Aristotle in the 4th century BC. He identified four causes of things. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes them neatly:
In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:
  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.
Aristotle thought that at least three of these causes could also be applied to things in nature, but not everyone agreed. The idea that there could be final causes in nature was particularly disputed. Modern science does not struggle with these issues, but as I said, focuses on statistical and probabilistic explanations.

We could parse out the Aristotelian causes of a symphony as:
  • the musical materials: notes, harmonies and rhythms
  • the form or structure created from these materials: sonata form, minuet and trio, rondo
  • the efficient cause is the composer and, at the premiere, the orchestra
  • final cause: ah, here is where it gets interesting because what you choose as your final cause of a symphony is a direct consequence of your aesthetic stance: aesthetic pleasure? confounding the audience? getting the commission check? emotional expression? just something to fill in that awkward space between 8:00 pm and 10:00 pm?
For Aristotle the final cause has to be the best cause, something that is good. So the final cause of a symphony might be expressed as the best reason for composing it. Some very good reasons have historically included:

  • experimentation with unifying the structure through a motif: Beethoven, Symphony No. 5
  • creating a whole universe of feeling and expression: Mahler, Symphony No. 9
  • pleasure and diversion through intriguing form and texture: Haydn, many symphonies
  • distillation of pain and suffering with the goal of transcending it: Pettersson, several symphonies
  • simultaneously giving voice to the oppression of the ordinary people while appearing to follow the strictures of socialist realism: Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5
And of course, these symphonies, as complex aesthetic objects, usually pursue a number of different ends at once. All of these are designed to give pleasure to the listener (even Pettersson in his "lyrical islands") with stirring rhythms and resonant orchestrations because that is something inherent in the nature of the symphony. It is essentially a celebratory form: originally crafted to celebrate the splendor of the aristocracy, then the sentiments of the middle-class and now, well, there are a few different paths it can take.

Despite the very ancient source of the four causes of Aristotle, they still offer an interesting perspective on a lot of things.

Let's listen to a musical example. Here is Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms conducted by Riccardo Muti:

What do you think the final cause of that symphony was?


Ken Fasano said...

The cause of Beethoven's 5th, for example, is not the notes; they can be considered an effect. The cause - the seeds - of the 5th are Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven's personal life, the French Revolution... the effect of Beethoven's 5th - the received "text" - is not just the notes. It's the reaction and interpretation of the notes that listeners have made over two centuries. (to start with)

Bryan Townsend said...

I know that using Aristotle's theory of causation to look at music is a bit unusual, but I kind of like unusual juxtapositions.

You are referring to the influences on the composition of the Symphony No. 5, which is more of a historical approach. And, of course, since its premiere, we also have a rich reception history.