Philosophy and the Sound of Music
EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK ‘MUSICAL ONTOLOGY: A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED’ BY LISA GIOMBINI
What is musical ontology, and why should we as philosophers address it, if ever?
These two (different) questions constitute the Ariadne’s thread running throughout this whole book. They will take us down a path that will lead, issue after issue, from very specific questions on the nature and identity of musical works to the Minotaur of all major philosophical dilemmas: the subject-matter of metaphysics, the relation between ontology and history, the role of intuition as a source of knowledge…and then, as the thread gradually rewinds, back to art and music.
This process, I’m sure you agree, needs to be handled in stages. So, before tackling these two questions directly, I suggest we go about it in a roundabout way. Let’s start with a game. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated. You just need some concentration and the Internet. The rest will come to you through the music.
I assume that everybody in the Western world (and in the Eastern too, arguably) is familiar with the famous song My Favorite Things from the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, and Julie Andrews’ famous rendition of it in the 1965 cult movie. The lyrics make reference to the sort of things the main female character in the film, Maria, loves the most; kitschy stuff like ‘cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels’, ‘doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles’, ‘wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings’. The idea is that when things going badly, Maria can fill her mind with these selected things and feel better.
So all you are asked to do for the moment is think about this song.
(1) Just imagine it in your mind for a few instants. Done?
(2) Try to hum it. Begin silently, then sing it softly. You probably don’t remember all the words, so just hum the melody.
(3) Now, please look for the video of My Favorite Things on YouTube. Be careful to search for the original American soundtrack. Here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33o32C0ogVM
Listen to it.
As you probably know, My Favorite Things became a jazz classic in the early Sixties, thanks to John Coltrane’s famous saxophone interpretation of it. It almost became his signature piece. He varied and modified it and improvised on it, and the nearly 45 versions he executed are as different from each other as they are from the original piece by Rodgers and Hammerstein2.
(4) Choose a video of one of Coltrane’s versions online. You can find one from his 1961 album by the same name on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQsvMf8X0FY
(5) Now take a look at the original score of the song (the first page is here as an example, but the complete score is easily available online).
(6) Then cast a glance over Coltrane’s saxophone version: