Expression and Self-Expression in Music: Philosophical Universals, Historical Particulars?

The Symposium Expression and Self-Expression in Music: Philosophical Universals, Historical Particulars? will take place at the Institute of Musical Aesthetics, University of Music Graz, 29-31 October 2015

Driven by one of the most fascinating and challenging questions in the aesthetics of music, the symposium aims at an intricate and musically concrete dialogue between thinkers and scholars in music philosophy and musicology. It includes lecture performances and is open to the public. Admission is free.


Philip Alperson (Temple University) – Expression at the Margins
Aaron Ben Ze’ev (University of Haifa) and Angelika Krebs (Universität Basel) – Emotions and Moods as Paradigm Objects of Musical Expression
Sara Gross Ceballos (Lawrence University) – Gender, Performance and the Sociable Self in the Accompanied Sonatas of Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy
John Deathridge (King’s College London) – Trouble in C Major
Andreas Dorschel (University of Music Graz) – Self and Mask: Expression in Robert Schumann’s ‘Chiarina’ op. 9/11
Denise Elif Gill (Washington University) – Expressing Paradox: Turkish Classical Musics between the Celestial and Terrestrial
Anthony Gritten (Royal Academy of Music) – Delivering Expression from Stravinsky
Felicity Laurence (Newcastle  University) – tba
Laura Leante (University of Durham) – Expressing Identity and Emotion in North Indian Classical Music
Jerrold Levinson (University of Maryland) – Musically Specific Emotion: An Elusive Quarry
Deniz Peters (University of Music Graz) – Whose Bliss, Whose Anguish? Musical Expression, Hermeneutic Models, and Emotional Individuation
Roger Scruton (Brinkworth) – tba
Bettina Varwig (King’s College London) – Musical Expression: Lessons from the Eighteenth Century
Richard Wistreich (Royal College of Music) – “Ab aeterno ordinate sum”: Embodying the Voices of Ancient Others in Monteverdi’s Late Works


To express is to express something. The objects of expression, it seems, can be manifold: ideas, thoughts, attitudes, desires, moods – there is little reason to trust, as commonly done, that emotions form the exclusive or paradigmatic domain of what is expressed. We also speak of self-expression. Are expression and self-expression two distinct types? But then, in the way I express something that is impersonal, say an idea, do I not also betray something about myself? Is self-expression a concomitant of all expression or a special case of expressing something? What role do expression and self-expression play in music? Was there, in the instance of European music, an epoch of self-expression, starting with Monteverdi in the 17th century or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in the 18th century or the composers of 19th century Romanticism and ending, possibly, with 20th century musical Expressionism? Or is self-expression plainly a cultural universal of music?

These questions imply interrelated philosophical and historical problems. Research will have to move towards a philosophically informed history of musical expression in its varieties. Over the past decades, philosophers of music, often relying on techniques of conceptual analysis, have attempted to elucidate with much sophistication how music expresses – structurally, or gesturally, by means of character, or symbolically. These accounts of expression and/or self-expression in music have been constructed with minute concern for the musicological literature. And they, in turn, have had minute resonance in historical musicology, although the philosophers mean to speak precisely about the objects which historical musicologists explore. Are the latter, preoccupied with historical particularities, perhaps put off by philosophers’ supposed universals? At any rate, historical musicology widely shrinks from the topic of expression, although expressivity has been, throughout history, one major motive why people have been so gripped by music.

The lack of integration in research may well be understandable, though. It is not at all clear how and on what levels musical expression is constituted. Are compositions the right entities to inquire into musical expression? Is, rather, performance more pertinent? Or should expression be seen as a mode of listening? Is it caused, communicated, or shared? If the levels of composition, performance and listening are relevant, how can their interplay be understood? To deal with these, and related, questions, scholars from a number of fields as well as artists need to engage far more intensely with each other than has happened so far; i.a., the topic of expression, with its anthropological dimension, requires that musics of diverse cultures are considered. The symposium at the Institute for Music Aesthetics Graz has been set up in this spirit.

The symposium is organized by Deniz Peters and Andreas Dorschel and is co-funded by the Austrian Science Fund as part of the research project on musical expression (P25061-G15).

More information about the symposium can be found at