Phenomenological Reviews

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Giovanni Piana on musical meaning

Matteo Ravasio(Peking University)


According to Giovanni Piana, the extra-musical meaning of a work of music is determined by an imaginative uptake that is both constrained by the work’s features and historically variable. In this article, I reconstruct Piana’s account and compare it to other proposals. I conclude by pointing to an aspect of Piana’s view that I believe is worth investigating further, that is, the relation between imaginative uptakes occurring in the acts of composition, performance, and listening.

Giovanni Piana on musical meaning Matteo Ravasio Master XML, sdvig press Patrick Flack February 27, 2020, 3:46 pm ( )

1In this article, I discuss Giovanni Piana’s view of musical meaning and expressiveness. Against conventionalist approaches that construe musical meaning as the result of arbitrary associations established over time, and in contrast with naturalistic explanations that seek to isolate universal responses to a given musical element, Piana holds that musical meaning is constituted in and through the interplay between the invariant structure of music as a perceptual object and historically contingent decisions concerning its imaginative uptake.


2A recurring thread in Piana’s philosophy of music is the rejection of two opposite methodologies.

3On the one hand, Piana rejects the conventionalist approach.1 According to this view, both the syntactic rules that govern the structure of musical works and the semantic rules that determine its meaning are the result of conventions that have established themselves throughout the history of music. Thus, “[a] work of music is eminently a ‘cultural object’. Music is first of all a social praxis that must be considered in its integration with the culture it belongs to”2 (Piana 2005b, 17).

4On the other hand, Piana is equally dissatisfied with the naturalistic view, according to which the organization and meaning of musical materials must be regarded as dependent upon psychophysiological regularities. This rejection is mainly motivated by Piana’s phenomenological approach, and by the consequent rejection of psychologistic explanations: any objectivity must be grounded in internal relations between objects as they manifest themselves to the experiencing subject, rather than in contingent facts regarding our cognitive processes. However, in Piana’s remarks on the limits of naturalistic explanation, a different concern also emerges, namely that such a view would erase the culturally embedded nature of music making and appreciation.

5As a way to sum up Piana’s dissatisfaction with regard to the dichotomy between conventionalist and naturalistic explanations, it is instructive to consider his reaction to a piece of evidence presented by Nelson Goodman (1968, 15) in support of his claim that depiction is largely conventional: people from cultures that are entirely unfamiliar with photography often cannot recognize objects in photographs.3 Piana comments Goodman’s interpretation of such evidence as follows:

In considerations of this kind it is assumed that, if there are directions of sense belonging to the thing itself, these must be immediately recognized at any time and in any place. The individual’s reaction when faced with a given configuration thus assumes the character of a veritable experimental proof; and it may then seem obvious that any decision concerning this domain must be left to empirical proofs4 (Piana 2005b, 49).

6This passage nicely captures the false dichotomy that Piana intends to reject: if it is impossible to find empirical evidence for a universally valid way of interpreting a given perceptual object (a picture, a sound, a piece of music), then its meaning must derive from conventional associations imposed on that object, which could have otherwise sustained countless different, and even quite contrasting associations.

7Piana’s rejection of both the conventional and the naturalistic approaches is evident throughout his extensive writings on music. For instance, he considers any attempt to ground Western tonality in naturalistic explanations as misguided (Piana 2005a, 136-146), but he is equally suspicious of views that construe tonality and atonality as compositional conventions that we could simply get used to (Piana 2005b, 31-34).

8Yet another example is found in Piana’s reflections on the possibility of defining music: while he rejects conventionalist answers that deny the existence of any fixed essence of music (Piana 2007, 9), he also holds that any purely naturalistic definition would be equally misguided: “what is certain is that I shouldn’t look for a definition of music in the same way I would look for a definition of ‘whale’”5 (Piana 2007, 10).

9In this article, I will restrict my focus to one aspect of Piana’s reflections on music, namely his somewhat elusive remarks on musical meaning and expressiveness. Unlike the refined phenomenological analyses and precise distinctions he draws when dealing with problems related to musical understanding, Piana’s account of musical meaning and expressiveness may strike the reader as vague and sketchy, especially when compared with available alternatives found in the analytic debate.6 I will attempt to show that this vagueness is partly due to the very nature of the account itself: while Piana stresses that musical meaning is always grounded in the features of musical sounds as perceived entities, he also construes musical meaning as the essentiallyopen and undetermined field of extra-musical associations that a given musical object may prompt and sustain.


10As I have argued above, the rejection of both the conventionalist and naturalistic approaches is a central feature of Piana’s philosophy of music, and as such it also inevitably colors his view of musical meaning and expressiveness.

11The conventionalist considers musical materials as mere sounds. The rules that govern their combination, as well as those determining their meaning (if there are any), entirely depend on historically contingent conventions. It follows from this that the only appropriate way of listening to a piece of music is the one that is able to follow the listening habits and conventions associated with that repertoire.

It is currently fashionable to consider a musical construction as built entirely on a layer of pure sounds, on which a layer of musical sense has been superimposed, which in turn tends to erode, absorb, and dissolve the sound layer it lies on. This line of discourse assumes that this musical sense is due in its entirety to a socio-cultural dimension, and it is an obvious consequence of this that listening ought to be a ‘historical’ listening7 (Piana 2000b, 12-13).

12Against conventionalist views, Piana points out that there are constraints on extra-musical meaning that may be associated with a given musical element. While, as we shall see, there is a role for a composer’s decisions on how to actualize the expressive potential of musical materials, it is also true that “the materials have already taken their own decisions8 (Piana 2000b, 11).

13This might suggest that Piana believes musical elements to have an intrinsic semantic valence, which could be determined by analyzing such elements in isolation. The following passage goes exactly in this direction:

[…] we may venture to say that a diminished seventh chord is first of all a qualitatively determined sonic fact, that may be exhibited here and now as a sonic fact without history and without a name, and that we may as such find it musically interesting9 (Piana 2000b, 13).

14Experimental research has investigated the emotional valence of isolated musical elements in a manner that may appear in line with this passage. Musical elements are presented in isolation, or as part of brief, decontextualized excerpts, and the subject is asked to pair them with words or pictures.10

15It will come as no surprise that Piana rejects this approach as being unable to shed much light on the phenomenon of musical meaning. In a series of notes, Piana discusses an experiment in which subjects were asked to listen to short pieces by Debussy and then to think of an adjective that they found suitable to describe their character (Piana 2007, 142). Piana observes how the experiment’s subjects were unable to locate the piece in music history, and sometimes dramatically so, attributing it to authors as diverse as Vivaldi and Wagner. Moreover, the excerpts were short and decontextualized, the piece’s title removed.

16Among Piana’s various observations on the methodology of the experiment, this strikes one as a succinct protestation: “The work of music is a cultural object! Can you forget that?”11 (Piana 2007, 143). We saw earlier that Piana characterizes the conventionalist approach as being focused on the work of music as a ‘cultural object’. There, the idea that the work of music is first and foremost a cultural object was a prejudice to be dispelled. It is worth noting that here, however, a musical piece’s status as a cultural object is presented by Piana as something that ought to be vindicated and accounted for. Here, the critical target is the idea that we could determine once and for all the extra-musical meaning associated with a given musical element, independently of its use in a specific cultural context.

17Thus, when Piana imagines a scenario in which a musical stimulus (a diminished seventh chord, as in the above passage) is considered in isolation from anything else, he is simply proposing a limit case intended to reject the arbitrariness posited by the conventionalist model. He is not espousing a model of musical meaning that reduces it to the unchanging meaning of its elementary components.12

18At this point, one could think that an appropriate mediation between the two approaches may be found in a model of musical meaning that accounts for both its cross-culturally invariable elements and its conventional ones. A possible solution along these lines is the cue-redundancy model, proposed by psychologists Laura-Lee Balkwill and William F. Thompson (Balkwill and Thompson 1999; Thompson and Balkwill 2010). According to this model, the emotional meaning of music depends partly on psychophysical cues that are common to all cultures, such as melodic contour, tempo, dynamics, etc., and partly on conventional associations that are culture-specific, such as the standard use of a certain scale or instrument in music that expresses a given emotion. Insofar as part of music’s expressiveness is due to cues that are shared by all musical traditions, the cue-redundancy model is capable of explaining why we have some understanding of the emotions expressed by music we are not familiar with.13 Because it leaves room for culture-specific associations, it also explains why familiarity with a given musical tradition is required to understand the expressive subtleties of a piece. As I have presented it here, the cue redundancy model would seem to fall prey to the same false dichotomy discussed above. On the one hand, there are empirically testable universal reactions to a given bit of music, and on the other hand, we find conventional associations that do not depend on the nature of the musical material, such as the association of a country with its national anthem. However, it is important to note that the cue-redundancy model can allow for some middle ground. Some connections between music and emotional states may not be innate, and yet they may be identical in independent cultures. Thus, for example, “music that communicates high-arousal emotions may be characterized by attributes that reflect the increased oxygen requirements associated with high-arousal states” (Thompson and Balkwill 2010, 765). In this case, the connection between certain musical properties and their expressive character is neither due to innate factors, nor to purely conventional ones. Rather, it is grounded in a similarity between these musical properties and psychophysical features shared by all human beings.

19Despite the obvious interest and subtlety of this model, I suspect that Piana would regard such a proposal as being unable to account for a central feature of musical meaning and expressiveness.14 The middle ground offered by the cue-redundancy model still poses a purely factual connection between musical properties and their expressive character. Musical cues connected with high oxygen requirements are not always associated with high-arousal states. Whenever the association occurs, however, there is nothing more we can do to explain it than to point to our shared psychophysiological make-up.

20Against this, Piana holds that musical meaning is constituted by connections between music and extra-musical reality prompted and sustained by the music itself, and thus potentially found across different cultures, but largely unspecified before the musical material is imaginatively valued. In turn, imaginative valuation occurs against the background of a shared cultural world.15


21At this point, it is interesting and useful to consider some similarities between Piana’s view of musical meaning and the scattered observations that Wittgenstein devoted to this topic—here I shall follow the interpretation offered by Garry L. Hagberg (2017).

22As mentioned earlier, Piana’s reflections on music are primarily carried out from a phenomenological standpoint. Wittgenstein is rarely mentioned, although he was for him an undoubtedly important philosophical reference.16

23In the writings of the late Wittgenstein, we find an explicit aversion for naturalistic explanations of aesthetic phenomena. To understand why this is the case is in itself an important and difficult issue. Wittgenstein’s skepticism regarding the prospects of an empirical test that could determine the meaning or value of given works of art seems to be grounded in the idea that such works acquire their meaning in a network of connection that extends far beyond the work itself, and that in fact includes the whole culture in which it was created (Hagberg 2017, 75). Thus, our ability to understand a piece of music and its meaning is dependent on our capacity to draw connections between the work of music and other works of music (Hagberg 2017, 74), but also language (Hagberg 2017, 78; Wittgenstein 1966, 19), facial expressions, or gestures17 (Wittgenstein 1966, 4).

24As a tentative but suggestive illustration of Wittgenstein’s view, Hagberg discusses the repeated trumpet statement in Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’. Although the musical phrase is always the same, its pressing character is more pronounced at each repetition. The perception of this growing urgency presupposes our ability to hear the phrase as a question, and to understand that no other musical element functions as a satisfactory answer. Here, the mastery of language, and in fact of communication dynamics between individuals, is crucial in the understanding of the music’s expressive properties (Hagberg 2017, 79).

25The connection between the contextual character of aesthetic understanding and the shortcomings of empirical research on the topic emerges clearly in the following couple of passages from Wittgenstein’s notes on aesthetics:

The sort of explanation one is looking for when one is puzzled by an aesthetic impression is not a causal explanation, not one corroborated by experience or by statistics as to how people react (Wittgenstein 1966, 21).

We are concentrating, not on the words ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, which are entirely uncharacteristic, generally just subject and predicate (‘This is beautiful’), but on the occasions on which they are said-on the enormously complicated situation in which the aesthetic expression has a place, in which the expression itself has almost a negligible place (Wittgenstein 1966, 2).

26Thus, the problem with standard psychological experiments is that they simply register an agreement in terminology but cannot shed any light on the way in which such terms are used. In order to do this, one must avoid statistical generalizations and describe instead the ‘enormously complicated situation’ in which a word is applied a work of art. These methodological considerations seem to match those behind Piana’s remarks on the limits of psychological experiments, and his insistence on the importance of familiarity with the musical tradition in question (Piana 2007, 143).

27But one should not stretch the parallel between Piana’s view and Wittgenstein’s beyond this point—at least, I shall not. It seems to me that Piana is more explicit than Wittgenstein in holding that musical meaning, however dependent it may be on contextual associations, is irreducible to them, as it is always grounded in features possessed by the music as a perceptual object. To see how this may be the case, we must look at Piana’s view of imagination.


28Piana’s reflection on the role of imagination in music presupposes a distinction between two types of imagination.18 There is first what he terms “fantastic imagination” (immaginazione fantastica), that is, the faculty that is involved in the imagination of states of affairs, fictional objects, etc.—he sometimes simply refers to this as “fantasy” (fantasia) (Piana 2004, 12). Piana makes clear from the outset that musical imagination is not related to fantasy (Piana 2005b, 331-32). In this sense, his view is broadly in line with the formalist idea that it is inappropriate to indulge in the flights of fancy that music may prompt in the listener (Piana 2000a, 5).19

29A different kind of imagination is what Piana calls “imaginative imagination” (immaginazione immaginosa)—he also describes it as “metaphorizing” (metaforizzante) (Piana 2000a, 7). Imagination in this sense does not involve the imagination of certain entities or situations, but rather the “imaginative syntheses” (sintesi immaginative) prompted by a given object (Piana 2004, 16). In what follows I attempt to reconstruct Piana’s view of imaginative imagination. In the next section, I clarify its relation to musical meaning.

30First, what are imaginative syntheses? It is clear that Piana thinks of them as a sort of association between different contents (Piana 1998, 185). Examples he gives are the associations between fire and passion (Piana 1998, 182), the Sun and an all-seeing eye (Piana 1998, 190), and the owl’s hoot and the “values of the night” (Piana 2000a, 7).

31Imaginative syntheses are a special kind of association. First, they are prompted and sustained by the features of a given object in a way that is in principle intersubjectively accessible (Piana 1998, 187, 190). Second, they change the way we perceive that object (Piana 2004, 17; Piana 1998, 190).

32Regarding this second aspect, Piana claims that, whenever imaginative syntheses occur, an object takes on a peculiar imaginative direction (Piana 1998, 210; Piana 2005b, 330, 342). This means that the object in question is perceived in the light of features of the associated content.

33Now, according to Piana, while all imaginative syntheses are grounded in intersubjectively accessible features of an object, exactly which syntheses will be activated in a given context is not something that can be settled once and for all, as it does not depend on matters of fact regarding the associated contents, but rather on decisions on the part of the experiencing subjects.20 Because of this, a given historical community is typically prone to focus only on some of the many imaginative syntheses that a given object may prompt and sustain. This introduces an element of choice in Piana’s account of imaginative imagination.

34The notion of imaginative valuation (valorizzazione immaginativa) is related to this (Piana 1998, 193). Imaginative valuation is a process, the product of which is the object’s imaginative value (Piana 2005b, 330, 334). Piana writes that imaginative value “consists essentially in a dynamic inclination, in a tendency to movement, in the manifestation of a direction” (Piana 2005b, 330).21 Thus, an object’s imaginative value is the overall imaginative direction it takes once certain imaginative syntheses have been taken up.

35We can summarize all of this as follows. The set of possible imaginative syntheses is determined by features of the object. Once an imaginative synthesis is taken up, it results in the object taking on a certain imaginative direction. The particular subset of imaginative syntheses that are taken up in a given context determines the object’s overall imaginative direction, and thus its imaginative value. Thus, an object’s imaginative value (1) is rooted in intersubjectively available features of that object; (2) modifies the way we perceive the object; (3) may change depending on the different decisions that are taken in different contexts. As an example of imaginative valuation, Piana offers the following:

The hooting of the owl ceases to be a mere fact of the night, the call of an animal perched somewhere in the garden, and starts to belong to the field of the values of the night, thus becoming tinged with emotional overtones and dark disquietude22 (Piana 2000a, 7).

36What are the inherent features of this sound that sustain this specific imaginative valuation? As a tentative answer, I suggest the following. We cannot accurately locate the hoot’s spatial origin, and we often cannot anticipate when exactly we will hear it—it is mysterious. The hoot has a wavering, unstable quality, and it is relatively low in pitch—it is dim. The italicized adjectives in the previous two sentences are features of the owl’s hoot that become salient whenever its imaginative connection with the night is emphasized.23 However, they are also grounded in features of that sound as a perceptual object in principle accessible to any experiencing subject. Contrast this with a different story regarding the owl’s hoot and its emotional overtones: people most commonly die at night, and owls hoot at night. The owl’s hoot thus became associated with death, and consequently assumed a negative emotional valence. In this case, the sound’s intrinsic features do not play a role in the determination of its emotional meaning.24


37The application of all this to musical meaning and expressiveness should be rather straightforward.

38The set of possible imaginative syntheses is limited by the perceptual material that prompts them, and only some of them will be taken up at any given time. Thus, the exact determination of piece’s meaning is only possible given contextual factors that are not disclosed by the structural analysis of the piece as an object of perception.

39Within this framework, Piana is able to vindicate the role of artistic decisions, against historicist accounts that reduce them to irrelevant psychological processes necessitated by the historical development of a given musical language. According to Piana, at any given moment of historical development many decisions have already been taken with regard to the music’s imaginative valuation. These decisions have been made “on the basis of motivations, points of view, on the basis of the thoughts that direct musical imagination when it is activated in direction of a given expressive project” (Piana 2000b, 15). Right after this, however, Piana also adds that new decisions, on different bases, may be taken with respect to the same musical material.

40While Piana isn’t explicit in tracing this distinction—or at least he isn’t thorough in exploring it—I think it’s important to stress that decisions operate at two levels. In the course of the composition of a piece, a composer already assumes given imaginative syntheses, but may also attempt to explore new ones. In the listening of a piece, a listener may privilege some syntheses over other available ones. I shall get back to this issue in the final section of this article.

41It is worth noting how this allows Piana to reintroduce the idea of a historicity of listening in a way that evades the problems faced by this notion when employed within a conventionalist framework. It is meaningful and appropriate to attune our listening practices to the particular imaginative valuation that is characteristic of a given context—it is possible to listen historically. In fact, listening is always accompanied by some kind of imaginative valuation—it is inevitable to listen historically. The difference between this and the conventionalist approach is that, rather than being imposed on amorphous matter, imaginative valuations are grounded in features of the musical material that are accessible to all experiencing subjects. This foundation in perception is what allows us to understand and adopt imaginative valuations different from ours, and meaningfully compare them to those we are used to.

In fact, the very process of listening fluctuates between historical tradition and its borders, it oscillates ambiguously between the traditional, acquired element, and the perceptual element as such. To remove this oscillation would actually be equivalent to suppressing the internal vitality and musical charm of the piece (Piana 2000b, 14).25

42Unfortunately, Piana does not provide many examples to illustrate his view of musical meaning. An exception is represented by his discussion of the erotic connotation attributed to the semitone interval in East Asian court music (Piana 2005b, 308, 339).

43As should by now be obvious, Piana’s view is that, while there is no necessary connection between semitones and the erotic, the perceptual features of the former are such that they prompt and sustain this association more successfully than larger intervals. Analogously to my brief analysis of the owl’s hoot, one could ask which perceptual features of the semitone interval, in its typical contexts of use, make it more suitable than larger intervals as a symbol of the erotic. I leave this exercise to the reader.


44While it is not my intent here to engage in a thorough comparison of Piana’s view with contemporary theories of musical expressiveness, I shall point to what seems to me a crucial difference between Piana’s account and the one defended by Peter Kivy, the so-called contour theory of musical expressiveness.26

45Kivy’s theory is not about musical meaning in general; rather, it is an account of how music may be expressive of certain emotions. According to the contour theory, this is due to the resemblance between music and human expressive behavior, either vocal or bodily.27

46Of course, music resembles many things other than human expressive behavior. Kivy speculated that we may be hardwired to more promptly and automatically perceive resemblances to animate objects over inanimate ones, thus explaining why we immediately perceive the similarity between music and human expressive behavior.

47According to this view, when it comes to the expressive character of a piece of music there is little if any room for decision. Surely, to appreciate the music’s expressive quality we must first be able to hear it as music and follow its development (Kivy 1989, 86-91). However, once that happens, expressiveness “comes with the territory” (Kivy 1990, 183). The expressive properties associated with a given piece of music are determined once and for all by an innate disposition to animate the musical material and perceive its resemblance to human expressive behavior. If musical expressiveness has a history, it is merely a natural history, one could say. To be more precise, what evolves are the musical structures that are used in order to create music that is expressive of a given expressive property, while the expressive properties connected to a given musical structure remain unaltered. The role of the composer’s choice is limited to the selection of musical material that is suitable to manifest the intended expressive property; the role of the listener is that of following the music in its formal development.

48Against this, Piana would say that the same work of music may change in its expressive character depending on the imaginative syntheses that are taken up by different communities of listeners. From this follows that Piana’s framework is only able to determine in broad strokes the expressive properties that belong to a given work, perhaps along the lines of its overall emotional valence (positive or negative). However, once a given musical element is put to the service of a given expressive project, and thus valued imaginatively in a specific way, it might be able to express highly specific emotional states.


49It is useful to compare Piana’s view with a position defended by Hermann Lotze in his Geschichte der Ästhetik in Deutschland (1898). Lotze takes issue with Eduard Hanslicks’s On the Musically Beautiful (1854), which arguably still counts as the most paradigmatic example of formalism in music.28 According to Lotze, Hanslick has incorrectly contrasted music’s capacity to suggest the dynamic form of objects and events with its alleged inability to express emotions in any determinate sense. Lotze argues that, just like a given piece may give rise to an open but limited range of associations with objects in the external world, it is also able to suggest a range of emotional states that, while perhaps broad, is by no means unconstrained by the piece’s purely musical content. Thus, both musical representation and expressiveness are only broadly determined by the musical material, but nonetheless constrained by it. According to Lotze, this lack of determinacy and precision conforms however with the goal of music as an art: not to describe or depict (schildern) feelings, but merely to suggest or arouse (erwecken) them. Interestingly, Lotze holds that, when music does produce a more determinate impression, this is not to be intended as part of the music’s content, but rather as “[…] an interpretation, that is added by our imagination”.29

50Piana’s view can be seen as expanding on the role of imagination adumbrated in this passage.

51It might seem that Piana’s view is inimical to the central formalist tenet, according to which music does not acquire its meaning in virtue of its relation to extra-musical elements, but rather possesses an intrinsically and uniquely musical significance. Insofar as musical meaning relies on imaginative syntheses, Piana’s view is decidedly anti-formalist: different extra-musical associations will result in different semantic and expressive properties. At the same time, however, these different possible associations are grounded in the semantic and expressive potential of the music itself, as opposed to being imposed on neutral material. Thus, any understanding of musical meaning requires first an understanding of music qua music, and of the aspects of it that support a given imaginative valuation. Conversely, an understanding of music qua music is already an understanding of its semantic and expressive potential.30


52Stephen Davies notes that “[t]o date, the analytic philosophy of music had displayed consistent biases toward the point of view of the listener rather than of the composer, performer, or analyst […]” (Davies 2011, 301). I shall conclude this article with a suggestion on how Piana’s view could shed light on an aspect of musical listening and performance that is unexplored in contemporary philosophy of music. As mentioned earlier, Piana’s view is that imaginative syntheses occur at both at the compositional and listening level. My intention here is to briefly explore the consequences that this might have for the performance and reception of music. I shall do so through an example.

53Baroque musical practice relied on various parallels between the structure of a musical work and that of orations or speeches. These parallels applied to both large-scale musical structure and to the delivery of individual phrases.31

54It is plausible to interpret these parallels between music and rhetorical structure as a set of imaginative valuations that were taken up by composers and listeners. A way to listen historically to such repertoire is to take up, in the listening process, the same syntheses that were active at the compositional and performance level. Likewise, a way to perform this repertoire historically involves paying attention to these syntheses when preparing one’s performance of the piece.

55When it comes to performance practice, one must note that a work’s score underdetermines its performance, as various performances from the same score may all qualify as accurate renditions of the work. Imaginative syntheses at the performance level exploit this gap between score and performance, thereby shaping the performance’s sonic profile. In other words, a performance guided by a given set of imaginative syntheses will tend to emphasize certain aspects of the musical structure. Thus, if imaginative syntheses are effective in guiding one’s performance, then they act upon the very musical structure that grounds syntheses at the listening level. In turn, this will presumably make it more natural for listeners to take up similar syntheses as they listen.

56While I realize that this is too brief a treatment for these complex issues, I hope to have at least suggested here that Piana’s framework could cast some light on the role of extra-musical references in our performance and listening practices.


  • 1 He calls this the semiological perspective (Piana 2005b, 17).
  • 2 “Un brano musicale è eminentemente un ‘oggetto culturale’. la musica è anzitutto una prassi sociale che va considerata nella sua integrazione con la cultura a cui essa appartiene.”
  • 3 Stephen Davies (2006, 174-75) discusses empirical evidence against Goodman’s claim.
  • 4 “In considerazioni di questo genere si assume che se esistono direzioni di senso appartenenti alla cosa stessa, esse debbono essere immediatamente riconosciute in ogni tempo e in ogni luogo. La reazione dei singoli di fronte ad una data configurazione assume cos ì il carattere di una vera e propria prova sperimentale; e può allora apparire ovvio che a prove sperimentali debba essere demandata ogni decisione in questo ambito di problemi”
  • 5 “Quel che è certo che non debbo cercare una definizione della musica nello stesso modo in cui cercherei la definizione di ‘balena’.”
  • 6 See for instance Kivy (1989), Davies (1994), and Levinson (2006).
  • 7 “È invece opinione corrente il considerare una costruzione musicale come se essa fosse costruita semplicemente su uno strato di pure sonorità a cui si sovrappone uno strato di sensi musicali, il quale peraltro tende a corrodere, a risucchiare ed a dissolvere lo strato su cui esso poggia. In questa linea di discorso si sottintende che questi sensi musicali siano in tutto e per tutto un portato della dimensione storico-culturale, ed è una ovvia conseguenza di ciò il fatto che l’ascolto debba essere per principio un ascolto storico’”
  • 8 “[…] i materiali hanno già preso le loro decisioni.”
  • 9 “[…] potremmo osare di affermare che un accordo di settima diminuita è anzitutto un fatto sonoro qualitativamente determinato che può essere esibito qui ed ora come un fatto sonoro senza storia e senza nome, e già così può essere trovato musicalmente interessante”
  • 10 See for instance Dalla Bella et al. (2001), and Lahdelma and Eerola (2016).
  • 11 “Il brano musicale è un oggetto culturale! Puoi dimenticarlo?”
  • 12 See also (Piana 2007, 161-62).
  • 13 Examples of empirical studies on the perception of musical expressiveness across different cultures are Balkwill and Thompson (1999), Fritz et al (2009), and Argstatter (2016).
  • 14 I am not aware of any discussion of Balkwill and Thompson’s work by Piana.
  • 15 I introduce Piana’s account of imaginative valuation in sections IV and V.
  • 16 When Wittgenstein is mentioned in Piana’s writings on music, he discusses aspects of his views on language, rather than on music or aesthetics—see for instance (Piana 2005b, 23, 122, 316, 318-19, 321).
  • 17 On the role of comparisons in Wittgenstein’s account of aesthetic understanding, see Budd (2008, 262-67).
  • 18 See (Piana 1998, 181 ff.; 2000a, 7; 2004; 2005b, 329).
  • 19 A classic contemporary defense of broadly formalist views is found in Kivy (1990). For a recent anti-formalist position see Young (2014). On Piana’s formalism, see the last section of this article.
  • 20 On imaginative syntheses depending on more than mere matters of fact: “Without a doubt, we cannot talk about whether there is a given connection between contents as if we were stating something about them” (Piana 1998, 188). (“Senza dubbio, non possiamo parlare del sussistere o non sussistere di un nesso tra contenuti come se si trattasse di compiere su di essi una constatazione.”) Elsewhere, Piana explicitly uses Hume’s terminology in saying that the connection between music and its extra-musical meaning does not concern matters of fact, bur rather relations of ideas (Piana 2005b, 340). On the role of decisions, see (Piana 2000b, 11, 15), as well as (Piana 2005b, 62).
  • 21 “[…] consiste essenzialmente in un’inclinazione dinamica, in una tendenza al movimento, nella manifestazione di una direzione.”
  • 22 “Il verso del gufo cessa di essere un puro fatto della notte, il verso di un animale appollaiato da qualche parte nel giardino, e comincia ad appartenere al campo dei valori della notte, tingendosi di coloriture emotive e di oscure inquietudini”
  • 23 This means that Piana’s view is not that descriptions such as ‘mysterious’ or ‘dim’ impart new qualities to the object. Rather, these descriptions point to expressive possibilities that are already contained in the object of perception, and that remain unmodified regardless of the terms we use to describe them. This is evident in Piana’s claim that, even if described musical materials using a purely technical, imaginatively neutral terminology, these materials would still allow the same imaginative valuations they allow when a more suggestive terminology is in use—on this, see (Piana 1998, 208-10), and Serra (2017).
  • 24 To be clear, Piana nowhere excludes that some sounds (musical or otherwise) acquire their meaning in just this way, that is, through sheer association. His point is simply that this is not the sort of association that accounts for the bulk of artistically interesting musical meaning.
  • 25Lo stesso processo dell’ascolto si muove infatti tra la tradizione storica e i suoi margini, oscilla ambiguamente tra l’elemento tradizionale ed acquisito e l’elemento percettivo come tale. Togliere questa oscillazione equivarrebbe in realtà a sopprimere la vitalità interna, il fascino musicale del brano.”
  • 26 Kivy (2002, 46-46) later expressed skepticism regarding his own view.
  • 27 Kivy (1989, 83) posited that some expressive properties may be due to conventional associations.
  • 28 For a recent translation of Hanslick’s work, see Rothfarb and Landerer (2018).
  • 29 “[…] eine Deutung, die unsere Einbildungskraft hinzufügt.” (Lotze 1869, 480)
  • 30 This is based on Piana’s remarks in (Piana 2005b, 319-26) and (Piana 2007, 154-57).
  • 31 See for instance Bartel (1997).


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Publication details

Published in:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020). Giovanni Piana. Phenomenological Reviews Special Issue 1.

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.13

Full citation:

Ravasio Matteo (2020). Giovanni Piana on musical meaning. Phenomenological Reviews 1.