Why can’t I change Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony?


Musical works change. Bruckner revised his Eighth Symphony. Ella Fitzgerald and many other artists have made it acceptable to sing the jazz standard “All the Things You Are” without its original verse. If we accept that musical works genuinely change in these ways, a puzzle arises: why can’t I change Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony? More generally, why are some individuals in a privileged position when it comes to changing musical works and other artifacts, such as novels, films, and games? I give a view of musical works that helps to answer these questions. Musical works, on this view, are created abstract objects with no parts. The paradigmatic changes that musical works undergo are socially determined normative changes in how they should be performed. Due to contingent social practices, Bruckner, but not I, can change how his symphony should be performed. Were social practices radically different, I would be able to change his symphony. This view extends to abstract artifacts beyond music, including novels, films, words, games, and corporations.

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  1. 1.

    When I speak of musical works in this paper I confine myself to works that are intended to be performed—i.e. works for performance. I will not discuss works for playback. This second category plausibly includes works in electronica, rock, R+B, and hip-hop that, instead of being designed for performance, are intended to be recorded and later played back. See, for instance, Gracyk (1996), Davies (2001), and Kania (2006) for discussion of works for playback. Ferguson (1983) denies there are such works.

  2. 2.

    More precisely, they have no proper parts. When I talk about parts I confine myself to only proper parts.

  3. 3.

    Many theorists agree that musical works are abstract—for instance, Dodd (2007), Evnine (2009: 209, 2016: 137–138), Kivy (1987), and Levinson (1980, 2011). But this is controversial. Caplan and Matheson (2006), Tillman and Spencer (2012), and Morruzi (2018) offer materialist views of music. Cox (1986), as well as Cray and Matheson (2017), propose that musical works are ideas. Davies (2003) claims that musical works are actions. See Goehr (1992) and Kania (2013), for instance, for discussion of anti-realist alternatives.

  4. 4.

    See Levinson (1980) for critical discussion of the view that musical works are sound structures.

  5. 5.

    Dodd (2007: 48–53) relatedly claims that works are “unstructured.”

  6. 6.

    It is hard to say exactly what makes a performance be of a particular work. Following Davies (2001: 166–175), I think a necessary condition for a performance to be of a particular work is that the performance be causally connected in the appropriate way to the creation of the work. On this line, a performance in a distant galaxy may coincidentally sound exactly like Seeger’s String Quartet but fail to be a performance of that quartet. The performance is not causally connected in the appropriate way to Seeger’s creation of her quartet.

  7. 7.

    Some theorists, such as Abell (2012), Danto (1981), and Dickie (1974), claim that social practices affect whether something is an artwork. Goehr (1992) argues that what counts as a musical work is socially constructed. I take no stand on what makes some musical works be artworks. (Note that some of my examples—namely, “Happy Birthday to You” and “L’chah Dodi”—are arguably not artworks.) Nor will I discuss whether being a musical work is socially constructed. Rather, I appeal to social practices in order to explain what makes musical works have the performance rules they have.

  8. 8.

    Seeger specified these rules by producing a score. Scores, although common, are merely one way of specifying performance rules.

  9. 9.

    I am omitting some controversies surrounding jazz. For instance, Kania (2011) denies there are jazz works, whereas Davies (2001: 16–19) claims that jazz-standard performances are themselves works rather than performances of works.

  10. 10.

    Wolterstorff (1975: 135–136) makes a similar point about Cage’s 4’33. However, that work arguably has a sound structure: a single, sustained rest.

  11. 11.

    Currie (1989), Dodd (2007), Levinson (1980), and Wolterstorff (1975), for instance, claim that musical works are types. Caplan and Matheson (2004: 129) consider a view on which musical works are sets. Letts (2018) claims that works are properties.

  12. 12.

    Note that this is different from asking what are the essential properties of musical works. I briefly discuss essential properties in Sect. 3.

  13. 13.

    See, for instance, Denby (2014: 95) for discussion of whether is-abstract is intrinsic. See, for instance, Sider (2000: 85) for discussion of whether temporal properties are intrinsic. It is controversial whether some of the properties I have mentioned are even genuine properties. For instance, Armstrong (1978) denies that there are negative properties. Zangwill (2011) argues that negative properties are less real than positive ones.

  14. 14.

    (Ostertag (2012: 366–367), Predelli (2011), and Kleinschmidt and Ross (2012, 135–137) also discuss this objection.

  15. 15.

    The extent to which musical works may change is open to debate. Some readers might find it intuitive, for instance, that Seeger’s String Quartet couldn’t have gone from having its initial sound structure to moments later having the structure associated with Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. I think that, perhaps, even this change is possible. I find it intuitive that at least some radical changes are possible. Mahler could have revised his Third Symphony so that it became only three minutes long. Folk songs acquire completely different melodies and lyrics. I find it intuitive that musical works may even cease to be musical works! Someone may create a song and then turn it into a poem, by discarding the melody and keeping only the lyrics. Eventually they may turn the poem into a speech by making the words less poetic and more literal. The song, the poem, and the speech—it seems to me—are all the same object. I will not defend such speculations here.

  16. 16.

    Levinson uses ‘indication’ as a technical term. Levinson (2013: 53–55) claims that indicating a sound structure involves (a) selecting notes, (b) taking an attitude of approval toward those notes, (c) appropriating those notes, and (d) establishing a rule about how those notes should be performed.

  17. 17.

    Many theorists have proposed that clay statues are constituted by but distinct from clay. See, for instance, Baker (2007), Koslicki (2004), and Thomson (1998).

  18. 18.

    See Irvin (2005) for related discussion. Irvin claims that artists often determine certain features of their artworks by enacting a “sanction” that is related to their intentions and artistic conventions.

  19. 19.

    An underlying issue is the accuracy and authenticity of performances of musical works. See, for instance, Bicknell (2018), Davies (2001), Dodd (2015), Goehr (1992), and Kivy (1995) for discussion of authenticity of performances.

  20. 20.

    The connection between essence and modality is more complicated than my comments might suggest. I think all essential properties are necessary properties. Following Fine (1994), however, I think not all necessary properties are essential. See, for instance, Brogaard and Salerno (2007) for an account of essence that is consistent with this observation.

  21. 21.

    See Moruzzi (2018: 345) for details on this privileged relation. The relation has a causal component, a component that takes into account the intentions of performers, and a component that includes sonic similarity.

  22. 22.

    See Tillman and Spencer (2012: 257) for related discussion. They propose that, even if musical works are fusions of performances, individual performances may still count as correct or incorrect in virtue of things that are not part of the fusion, including the intentions of composers.

  23. 23.

    Other theories are consistent with my general solution to the revision puzzle. For instance, the broad framework of Cray and Matheson’s musical idealism is consistent with my solution, even though they ultimately deny that works change (Cray and Matheson 2017: 709).

  24. 24.

    It might not be a big disadvantage, however. Dodd (2007: 92–100) argues that musical works are indirectly audible but no less so than material objects.

  25. 25.

    I discuss this example in Friedell (2017: 448).

  26. 26.

    Ritchie (2013) similarly argues against accounts that identify social groups with pluralities or fusions of their members.


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Special thanks to Katrina Elliott and Dominic Lopes for their help with this paper. Thanks also to Emily Anderson, Dan Blacksberg, Wesley Cray, Sam Cumming, Simon Evnine, Deborah Friedell, Ellen Friedell, Steven Friedell, Pamela Hieronymi, Marc Kaplan, Ned Markosian, Samantha Matherne, Gary Ostertag, Antonia Peacocke, Nick Riggle, Michael Rings, Guy Rohrbaugh, Kyle da Silva, Michel-Antoine Xhignesse, the members of the 2018 Beauty and Why It Matters Conference, and an anonymous referee.

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Correspondence to David Friedell.

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Friedell, D. Why can’t I change Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony?. Philos Stud 177, 805–824 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1207-3

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  • Music
  • Abstract objects
  • Ontology of art
  • Change
  • Rohrbaugh
  • Evnine