What is the definition of musical ontology?

Musical works are a strange kind of thing. We consider them to be works of art, yet they do not possess the physicality of ‘traditional’ art objects such as paintings on museums’ walls, or sculptures on gallery plinths. ‘That’s because musical works are performed’, one may reply. In this regard, we should stress that the performative aspect of it does not constitute the musical work in itself. Indeed, it is merely a performance of it. Hence, unlike paintings and sculptures, trying to define the very entity of musical works may result a more ambiguous process. What is clearer, is that most of the candidates are not suitable to identify it.

One’s favorite piece of music obviously does not exist as a physical object; nor does it exist as a private idea inhabiting their mind or that of the composer. Nor, on the other hand, it is identical to any performance of it – though you might have attended several performances of the same piece, none of them is the piece. The question then arises: what is this piece? More specifically, what is it as a musical work? The discipline of Musical Ontology attempts to answer this philosophical question.

In the tradition of classical music, works have been considered as multiple repeatable entities, to the extent that they allow for numerous instances, all dealing specifically with a written text, the score. Each precisely identifiable performance is an instance of the work: an event in which the work itself is presented and made accessible to the public. One of the biggest challenges in the studies of the ontology of music is to explain what this repeatability is on a metaphysical level, which results in the duality of musical works: the fact that they have a ‘singular (ideal) essence’ and ‘multiple concrete forms of existence’. In addressing this issue, the relationship between different ontological positions and broader scenarios in fundamental metaphysics must be taken into account.

What does your book Musical Ontology: a Guide for the Perplexed bring to the philosophical debate on the art of sound?

Although in the last fifty years, musical ontology has dominated the field of analytic philosophy of music, a widespread feeling of defeatism has recently started to take hold on the whole debate. Currently, there are many who reply negatively to the question of whether or not ontology can tell us anything relevant about music. Many others even claim that there is something ‘wrong’ with ontological discussions per se, with the result that the discipline of musical ontology needs to be defended even before it can be put into practice.

Thus, on the one hand, this book aims to help the readers to grasp the scope of the current second-order discussion in the field. On the other hand, my hope is that it will be able to sustain part of the – sometimes opportune – criticism without, however, getting rid with the whole debate. How is it possible then to establish an ontology of musical works that is complex enough to provide a  faithful account of the variety of musical phenomena? Following Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology (2004) – the volume ‘Musical Ontology: A Guide for The Perplexed’ offers a solution which is consistent with what I call a perspective that does not reject ontology, but rather connects it to the dialectic between historical research and aesthetic evaluation. Embracing historical ontology entails softening the distinction between art concepts and art objects whilst emphasizing the relevance of the processes through which ‘real’ objects are transformed into objects of philosophical and aesthetic attention. In the first place, this concept implies that we must find an alternative to the realism/anti-realism dispute, since it is in no way complex enough to achieve the desired objective. Secondly, it requires us to rethink the relationship between epistemology and ontology, to recognize the co-dependence of the two levels. Finally, it means dismissing the idea that there are ‘absolute’ empirical facts that can be used as the source of our ontological knowledge on works of art or other social objects.

What is the current debate on musical ontology and why did you feel the need to address the topic in the form of a guide?

The number of papers, books and essays that have recently been dedicated to the topic of musical ontology – whether to defend it or not – is so massive that uninitiated readers may feel lost when trying to deal with the issues around it. Thus, I think that writing a book in the form of a guide could be a very useful tool for all those who wish to approach these themes.

While trying to bring some order within the huge amount of theories proposed in the field, I had one essential question in mind: how can we assess the specific merits or demerits of a theory? This explains why the book is structured on three different levels: a presentation of the debate on musical ontology; a meta-ontological inquiry; a sort of meta-meta-ontological overview, in which both the ontological and the meta-ontological arguments are examined. None of these levels, however, contains an acknowledgment for musical ontology, nor an attempt to definitively get it off the hook. My approach is deliberately aporetic, in the spirit of an open investigation that raises crucial questions on these issues – just as suggested by the title A Guide For The Perplexed, which also recalls the namesake work by medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides.

However, the book does not want leave the door open to dismissive attitudes.  Indeed, I think that identifying the presuppositions lying in our pre-theoretical way of thinking about music may help to gain a reflective understanding on them, improving our relationship with music. More broadly speaking, I believe that an in-depth exploration of the fundamental structures behind the thought is what the field of philosophy is meant to do, to envision a new path ahead.


Lisa Giombini is a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Roma Tre and at the University of Lorraine (France). She has obtained the French National Qualification as Maître de Conférences [Associate Professor] in Philosophy and Aesthetics. In 2016 she was awarded a short-term post-doc scholarship at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart (Germany). She is currently post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy of the Freie Universität Berlin as a DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow. She is the Italian co-editor and translator of Lydia Goehr’s The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.