Sound stands on the skin

Matter, timbre and corporeality in Giovanni Piana's phenomenology of music

Filippo Marani Tassinari, Matteo Meda

The paper tackles the notions of timbre and sonorous matter and their connection with the dimension of corporeality in Piana's phenomenological researches on music. The first section highlights the centrality of timbre as the properly material element in musical perception and the most elementary musical fact. The second section tackles the primitive role of timbre in constituting the material base of any elementary musical unit, with a proper expressive power. Timbre reveals itself as the crucial factor for the manifestation of the auditory object’s corporeality, that Piana calls the "body-of-sound", which musical expressiveness grounds into. The third section shows the fundamental contribution of sonorous materiality in shaping different sides of the relation between music and body, from both the listener and the performer's perspectives. The last section focuses on Piana's view of composing as a dialogue between the composer’s performative intentions and the expressive possibilities of resonant objects. Timbre and sonorous materiality are finally claimed as the fundamental guiding elements of this dialogue, in both instrumental and vocal production.

Publication details

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.15

Full citation:

Marani Tassinari, F. , Meda, M. (2020). Sound stands on the skin: Matter, timbre and corporeality in Giovanni Piana's phenomenology of music. Phenomenological Reviews 1.

Sound stands on the skin. Matter, timbre and corporeality in Giovanni Piana’s phenomenology of music Filippo Marani Tassinari Matteo Meda Master XML, sdvig press Patrick Flack February 27, 2020, 3:46 pm ( )

The notion of timbre does not seem to tolerate excessively insistent attention...”
(Piana 1991, p. 125)

1 | An elusive notion

1In the context of Giovanni Piana’s vast reflection on the philosophy of music, timbre occupies an absolutely particular place. It is widely known that timbre is somehow a great absent in the philosophical reflection on music before the 20th century. Downgraded to ‘colour’, or pure sensitive attraction, it is usually reduced to a generic material substrate of the musical work; a material element which essentially acts as a basis for the development of harmonic and melodic relationships.

2Therefore, a certain European ‘musical mentality’ tends to separate the musical element from its strictly material, sonorous nature. This separation implies a sort of fetishization of the score and the connected belief that the true core of a composition was primarily conceptual, formal (the aspect, in fact, that is reported in the score); the actual execution, which allows the composition to manifest itself in a sonorous sense, is linked to this conceptual nucleus by a relationship not different to that which exists between the Platonic idea and its copy. This process of abstraction is partly due to the connection between evolution of European music and the refinement of increasingly sophisticated coding and transcription techniques.

3If the ‘core’ of a composition is identified with the conceptual complex of harmonic-rhythmic structures, timbre qualifies instead as Farbe, ‘colour’: unlike the form, which addresses the spirit and the intellect, timbre is reduced to a sensible attraction. Accordingly, taking up Kant’s differentiation, timber can be evaluated as ‘pleasant’, but not as ‘beautiful’. Kant, a philosopher known for his lack of consideration for musical art, explicitly states that, if music has any aesthetic value, it resides in its architectural side, certainly not in that ‘beautiful play of sensations’; sounds that in themselves, like colours, are nothing else ‘mere attraction’ (Kant 1997, 327). Even those philosophers who did not agree with the extremism of Kant’s position, did not properly try to re-evaluate the timbral element, which seemed to be confined to its characterization of sensitive seduction. In this regard, Piana, citing La Matina, stresses how the very modality of reading on sheet music, that is graphic, visual before being sonorous, facilitates this process of abstraction.

[...] this emphasis determines a conception of music as a closed form, almost as if the musician had in mind the score rather than the sounds, the atmospheres, or an intention of communication. The semiological study of music ... is a relationship between a semiologist and a score: sound is also treated after a form has, so to speak, disturbed it. Everything happens as if the musical object is listened to with the eyes rather than with the rest of the body (La Matina 2004, 56).1

4The consequence of the dizzying development of the science of harmony (and inevitable strengthening of the ‘formal’ paradigm) was the emergence of a complex system of rules based on mathematical proportion, which came to describe tonal harmony with almost Pythagorean shades: its rules were considered to be metaphysical, pre-existing any human music, and clearly, any sonorous manifestation. Piana is keen to highlight the paradox of de-sounded music, which creates diehard prejudices.

One of the common places of conservative teaching is that the musician is a pure sound thinker. Consequently, the score, for him, is already speaking music. The composer writes the music, does not play it! And while writing it, or better still, it resounds in the ear of the mind (Piana 2007a, 200).

5Under the lens of this accentuated dualism between matter and form, the composer’s activity is defined in terms of the organization of a material that is static, amorphous, impersonal in itself. The word ‘material’ undoubtedly evokes an inert objectivity—which has no intrinsic order, which awaits some form (Piana 1995, 4). Piana observes that, conversely what is pre-eminent is how the composer’s decides to organize this material. “According to this image, the subjectivity of the composer stands before the material as a creative subjectivity, capable of inflating into the inert material (therefore without a soul and without life) that form it would need and on the basis of which it would live as an artwork.” (Piana 1995, 3)

6Piana’s phenomenological research, by contrast, investigates the roots of the intrinsically sonorous nature of the musical event. His investigation aims to highlight the intrinsic expressive latency of timbre, which must be conceived as “material rich of life and animated by autonomous internal tensions” (Piana 1991, 61). Timbre is first of all described in its materiality, in its physical-perceptual determinations. It has spatial properties, and its dynamics involves direction, weight, consistency. Sound is bodily, sensitive, tactile. The peculiar sound dynamics, and its resonant nature determines its fundamental and foundational relationship with the dimension of temporality.2 Sound may then become entangled in historicity: musical sounds, subsisting within traditions and imbuing themselves with certain uses and habits, suggest certain processes, certain dynamics and resolutions.

7Piana (1991, 60) speaks of projections: a single note, played continuously in the void, is not perceived just as a note: “it automatically enters into an unconscious probabilistic system, so that its possible relationship with other notes is only relatively free [...]” (Piana 1991, 36). Among the many powers of sound, there is also that of orienting our expectation, charging itself with suggestions and imaginative projections that have their basis in our auditory memory. No sound is virgin, and even the innovative ‘breaking’ sound is perceived as unsettling when compared to usual sounds.

8In this respect the question concerning the relation between musical experience and the body emerges: the psycho-physical effects that music of every age seem to have been able to generate. Chills down the spine, spasms and tremors while listening to music are familiar to everyone; as is the invitation to dance, the ability to stimulate bodily activity. The very activity of making music, of playing, requires bodily interaction with an instrument: music is also gesture, bodily expression. Far from being an impersonal material, sound is endowed with a perceptive richness that, even if it includes it, is independent of its historicity, and has its roots in human tension towards the sound phenomenon: the sounds of the world that surround human beings from the beginning of their history and have always guided their imagination, from birdsong to flowing water. Far from being passive, the sound material appears loaded with imaginative and perceptual properties that guide and direct musical possibilities: the activity of composition, paradoxically, emerges as receptivity, as dialogue, and especially as listening.

9Hence, the topic of timbre appears as one of the most promising interpretative keys to review Piana’s work in the philosophy of music. The author's re-evaluation of such notion as ‘sound material’ puts into play the human nature of music as something originally rooted in our perceptual and bodily experience. This perspective reveals a richness of implications that highlights the absolute novelty of Piana’s hermeneutic project.

2 | Timbre and the corporeality of sound

10The notions of sound matter, timbre and corporeality stand at the very core of Piana’s phenomenological reflections on music, and they are mutually interconnected: none of them is conceivable without making reference to the others (Piana 1991, 109-111). What the notion of timbre aims to capture is the properly material consistence of a sound unit (Piana 1991, 109), while the height of the same unit can be intended as its shaping factor. In fact, as the perceptual counterpart of a frequency, the height of a sound unit always grounded in a material base, that is the object whose vibrations produce the sound. Thus, a sound unit is the result of an object vibrating at a certain frequency, and both those elements has perceptive counterparts on the timbre and the height respectively.

11From a properly musical point of view, we can assume height as a common factor of every auditory manifestation. Thus, we can lead completely different objects to vibrate at a certain frequency that will produce sound units with the same height. That is what happens when different musical instruments play the same note, and it sometimes generates the impression that these instruments are producing the same sound. With the notion of musical note, we are actually conceiving a non-variant formal sound unit with a conventional fixed height. But here a material base is nevertheless required to give perceptive consistency to the note, that is to have it played. We cannot think about a ‘C’, while we need to think about ‘a C played’, for example, by a piano, a clarinet or a saxophone. For any listener, those three sound units share some perceptive qualities, while some others qualities mark the difference between them. That’s why the common impression we’ve mentioned before reveals itself to be false: three ‘C’ played by three different instruments are everything but the same sound. Besides, they are different sounds that share the same non-variant form. Definitively, what the notion of timbre aims to capture is what makes the three units different one from each other: “the timbre is what variates around the height’s identity” (Piana 1991, 110).

12As Piana highlights, the notion of timbre triggers “the matter the instrument is made of, the concrete way the sound is produced and the forms of action of the producers” (Piana 1991, 110). Moreover, the notions of timbre and matter at least imply a double reference to the topic of corporeality. At a basic physical level, a sound object is a body producing sound via its vibrations. This means that the corporeality of a sound object always takes part to the sound unit the object is producing as its proper material cause. And again, this corporeality should be reflected someway into the perceptive manifestation of the sound unit. Thus, a sound unit presents qualities that are attributable to the material constitution of its generator (the sound object) with their purely perceptual correlates, that are properly timbrical elements.

13If we move our focus to the point of view of the subjectivity that has a musical experience, the topic of corporeality presents us again with a crucial issue. If we look very close to what happens when we experience music or any other kind of sound, we would get to describe this experience as leading to a hand-to-hand contact between the subject and the sound. While explaining this peculiar contact, Piana insists on the fact we describe our experience of sounds and their consistency always using practical-tactile expressions: for example, we describe a sound or a set of sounds as hard or soft, sharp or heavy, etc. (Piana 1991, 111). It definitively seems that our perception of sound takes the shape of a physical contact or, more precisely, a contact between the sound’s corporeality and our own corporeality as bodily-aware and spatially-located listeners.

14To sum up: we have been showing the structural connection between auditory matter as an intentional object and corporeality as the material dimension of the auditory object and the intentional sphere involved in listening. Both those dimensions converge into the notion of timbre that tells, at the same time, the manifestation of the auditory object’s corporeality and the properly material consistency of the same. In Piana’s words: “We want to call body-of-sound the auditory mass of a sound unit. Thus, the timbre is nothing but this body-of-sound” (Piana 1991, 112).

15Starting from these considerations on the notion of timbre, Piana’s research goes beyond the gnoseology of musical experience and gets to one of the most debated topics in contemporary analytic philosophy of music: the matter of musical expressiveness. His contribution is methodologically far from those found in the contemporary analytic debate, as it tackles musical expressiveness as a primarily perceptual phenomenon that emerges before any properly-musical organization of sound. On the contrary, musical expressiveness raised much attention from analytic philosophers as a “collateral effect of inquires on language” (Lentini 2014, 15) mainly following Suzanne Katherine Langer’s claim that “music presents itself with a meaning” (Langer 1972, 281). In particular, the originality of Piana’s position is grounded in the idea that some expressive properties already emerge from first-order purely perceptual qualities—which are, indeed, timbric qualities. We can understand this position if we remember that we mentioned the nature of a sound as one of the crucial qualties related to timbre. Hence we can quote Piana: “A musical instrument can be personalized by making considerations around its nature—thus its sound is like a voice whose timbre reveals a proper nature, that is able to express the presence of an emotive tension with very minimum variations” (Piana 1991, 111).

16On this first-order base, a peculiar configuration of specific sound units in time (rhythm and agogic), space (diffusion) and internal differences (intervals, on which melodies, harmonies, chords, etc. are based) reveal themselves as crucial elements of a proper musical structure. Piana suggests that these second-order properties emerge from and ground on some primary and purely auditory powers, that are instantiated into what we called body-of-sound—thus, they manifest themselves as timbric qualities. This way, timbre reveals itself as the most original source of expressiveness. In fact, musical expressiveness grounds first on auditory expressiveness, which is not a matter of form and sound organization, but rather a matter of substance into the frame of a corporeal relationship.

17Piana’s perspective also allows us to tackle another crucial topic, the genetic status of expressive properties. In view of such an investigation, which is beyond the scope of this paper, it is possible to rely on a good quantity of ethnographic and anthropological sources, taken beyond their descriptive contingency. Therefore, we would focus on those operations of discovery and primordial manipulation of sound expressiveness that mark the passage from a merely receptive relation (listening) to an intentional and participatory relation (production). Here, we maintain an obvious and fundamental fact: what we are used to qualify as ‘music’ always requires a relation of the second type between the listener and the auditory material. Refreshing Rousseau’s famous words: “nature alone generates few sounds, and unless the harmony of the celestial spheres is admitted, it takes living beings to produce it” (Rousseau 1989, 93). By the word ‘music’ we always mean, among other things, a product originating from specific operations and not the simple spontaneous configuration of sounds in-sight-of a listening subjectivity. An investigation on the sources and the development of these operation was conducted, for example, by Steven Feld, through meticulous ethnographic and ethnomusicological analyses.

18According to Feld, the auditory dimension of a specific environment is nothing less than a crucial empirical horizon for living beings that are born and formed into that environment (Feld 2009, 48-51). If we can legitimately claim that the timbre is the place of ‘revelation’ of auditory expressiveness, we can consider an almost infinite set of different primordial contexts in which such a ‘discovery’ may have taken place. Since our perceptive horizon is constantly crossed by auditory percepts, we can indeed say that such a process must have taken place for almost any living being that can have auditory experiences. Yet, how did we get from the recognition of expressive qualities in the sound percepts to their intentional manipulation and targeted production? It is just here that we can start talking about music. Feld would offer us his answer, but here we prefer to go on following Piana’s theoretical offer. To get over this question, we need to switch from the plane of the corporeality of sound to the plane of the sonority-of-the-body.

3 | The sonority-of-the-body

19The topic of body/music relationship is one of the oldest in philosophy of music, dating back to the classical era. The ancient thinkers observed that music was able to cause very powerful physiological effects: fainting, outbursts of anger, states of trance and delirium, wild dances. They speculated that this power derived from a peculiar sensitivity of the nervous system to sounds, so that certain sounds necessarily correspond to certain effects on the listener’s mood. Therefore, they guessed that certain modes were able to cause moods like anger, relaxation, ardour, enthusiasm only by acting exclusively on the physical sphere. Further, the ‘moral’ changes they caused on listeners were considered irrational, dangerous, comparable to something like demonic possessions. An ancient tradition, still enjoying some popularity, believed that the power of music on the nervous system made it an excellent therapeutic tool, capable of balancing physical and mental alterations. This evident link between music and the physical sphere was one of the reasons why music has been considered by many philosophers as a poorly esteemed art and a mere delight of senses by so many philosophers for so many centuries.

20Today, the sacred contempt of authors like Hanslick towards a ‘passionate’, corporeal, fruition finds few supports: composers like Steve Reich explicitly use psycho-acoustic effects, and contemporary producers know well how certain types of frequencies and vibrations have an immediate physical effect on listeners. From a theoretical perspective, many authors, including Schäfer (et al., 2013), Theorell (2014) and Rouget (1986) have explored the physiological effects of music from different perspectives: phenomenological, neurological, biological. And such a physicality of musical fruition is central to Piana’s investigation: “There is a deeply physical-bodily aspect in the sound experience. Sound is felt skin-deep” (Piana 2007a, 13). A particular relationship with corporeality belongs to the essence of music, which is manifested in dance, but also in many other ways (Piana 2007a, 11). And, indeed, it is true: sounds can create a plenty of different effects. We often hear them localized in the body: we perceive the sound of a very intense tenor sax as planted in our backbone, almost painfully; thus, the powerful vibrations of the bass can be felt in the chest or stomach. In this regard, Piana (2007a, 13) mentions a revelatory quote from Rouget:

On the tribune of an organ in full function, music invades the whole body; the world trembles and the whole atmosphere resonates. ‘Being immersed in music’ is not a simple metaphor; it really happens that it can be received physically [...]. But it is not only the external sensory apparatus that comes into play […] the internal one too, acting as a transmission channel is solicited by music [...] physical impact, moreover deliberately sought after by pop music with the use of amplifiers, obtains effects of exceptional sonic violence [...]. This power directly involves the body, creating a participation that many do not reach even during the sexual act [...]. The sounds of the electric bass cause in the abdomen vibrations localizable in internal erogenous zones [...] the repetition of the melodies and the hums instantly cause a slight hypnotic state [...] (Rouget 1986, p. 166).

21The tactility of sounds is not just a verifiable quality—it is experienced, lived, internalized. Here the fundamental notion of volume appears relevant again: Piana recalls Varèse’s call for a music that shakes the bowels, that grabs the stomach. A prophetic anticipation, in some way, of the “sound of our discos” (Piana 2007a, 247). A blast of trumpets, above a certain power, can frighten, disorient, startle. “It is as if the emphasis on timbre should also be supported by the volume, by the ‘fullness’ of the sound given by the intensity” (Piana 2007a, 247). In the exuberance of our bodily reactions, it emerges again that music, far from constituting a separated, almost independent section of the universe of sounds, is strongly linked to our spontaneous, daily, ‘natural’ hearing.

22Sound can submerge the listener and make him/her ‘resonant’: in this regard, Piana gives a formidable analysis of Tibetan choral singing.

A vocal technique that produces similar sounds must be the result of a very refined technique. In listening, especially live, one feels involved in a singular bodily modality that not only engages our ears, but also the bodies of listeners as sounding boards. We are struck by the volume of the sound, which is not the same thing as the intensity, in the sense of the difference between the piano and the forte, but rather has to do with largeness and thickness (Piana 2007a, 43).

23As she found herself immersed in sound, the listener can be wrapped, transformed. The spatial nature of timbre has a very powerful environmental effect, capable of creating spaces and redefining our bodily relationship with them. This further quote from Rouget is very relevant:

Even under its most immaterial aspect, as in the case of sound totally isolated from its source, music is felt as a movement that takes place in space. Obviously it is much more so when it is performed during dance or for dance [...]. The consciousness of the body is therefore completely transformed. As an incitement to dance, music therefore reveals itself capable of profoundly changing the relationship of the self with itself, in other words, the structure of consciousness (Rouget 1986, 166).

24Music induces movement: from simply tapping time with the foot, to involuntary spasm, to the most elaborate ballet, the intrinsic dynamism of musical forms interpenetrates with that of our body. Dance allows Piana to draw the fundamental notion of gesture, that is namely “the tendency to expressively emphasize a musical dynamic with a bodily movement” (Piana 1991, 171).

25The dancing gesture, which “arises from music and at the same time regulates it” (Piana 2007a, 337) refers to the “bursting vitality in body movement” (Piana 1991, 171) to an instinctive instinct. It is an “open door to the substrate of the corporeality” (Piana 2007a, 280) and pre-psychic experience. Although the phenomenon of dance appears more tied to rhythm than to timber, it nonetheless allows us to extend the discussion of gesture in the sphere of making music, of playing; in both activities, enjoying and directing music is strictly linked with bodily movement. Piana considers therefore sound/body binomial under three different perspectives: sound as a bodily sensation, sound as an invitation to movement, and finally sound as produced through the body.

26Sounds that constitute music are generated through a bodily interaction with the material: the hand that slams on the drum’s skin, the finger that plucks the guitar’s strings causing its vibration, the mouth blowing in the cane and in the flute. While interacting with an instrument, a musician explores its sonic possibilities and experiences new tactile interaction methods. Previously, we identified the same tactility as a fundamental quality of timbre; now it emerges here as a result of the material exploration of an object’s sonic possibilities. As many African percussionists have tought us, the same drum can emit an extraordinary variety of different sounds. This variety depends on the strength of the blow, the inclination, the surface on which it is going to impact, the part of the hand used (palm, back, or eventually a stick). The determinations of musical sounds are strictly innate with the gesture that generates them: “The instrumentally produced sound is all in my hands” (Piana 1991, 92). Once again, the fact that expressions such as ‘caressing’ and ‘pounding’ refer to sounds shows how the phenomenological perception of sound is inextricably entangled with its modalities of production.

27Piana insists that the relationship between gestures and the sound they produce is “observable” (Piana 1991, 89): there is an indisputable causal relation between the movement of the guitarist’s hand and the sound that is produced. Causality, however, does not mean here direct continuity: the plucked string vibrates due to the action of the hand, which nevertheless remains distinct from the material from which the sound is drawn. The musician’s gestures rather cause an intrinsic vitality of matter to emerge, that of vibration: the instrument, as a thing, has not moved. It is crossed by movement, which shakes it in all its fibres: the dynamism of gestures is not resolved spatially, trough movement, but through vibration, which produces sound. “Vibration, understood in this way, introduces a principle of dynamism within the material itself” (Piana 1991, 89). And this notion should lead us to reflect on the idea, all too simply accepted, that musical sounds are worldless.3

4 | Music making: a bodily exploration

28Music making is fundamentally dialogue, exploration of the possibilities of matter, based on listening: it can be defined as having experience of sound. “If we place ourselves on the instrumentalist’s side, production is inextricably connected with the experience of producing—and this means: the sound is already in the gesture that creates it” (Piana 1991, 92). The player does not impose his/her energy on inert matter, but rather expresses the vitality that is characteristic of to the resonant object and directs it. In the same way, musical exercise is not only conceptual, but requires manual practice, a sensitivity that is fully empirical, bodily. Musical activity engages the whole body, and it is no coincidence that ‘body self-education’ practices such as the Feldenkrais method and the Alexander technique have been fruitfully applied in the training of musicians. These practices involve posture, breathing, centres of gravity; reinforcing the evidence that the activity of playing involves all our physicality.

29If we talk about ‘sound produced with the body’, the most obvious example is singing, producing sound with the voice. A widespread and convincing thesis claims that music originated from singing, intended as “direct expression of the living body” (Piana 1991, 78). The lament, the scream, the laughter are direct vocal expressions of both our psychic experience and our body state. Therefore, it is believed that the expressive priority of the voice, in its immediacy, corresponds to a “historical priority” (Piana 1991, 78). Piana criticizes this assumption: the use of voice as a tool actually presupposes that it has already been de-subjectivised. As a spontaneous, unmediated bodily expression, the conscious use of voice in singing presupposes a sort of instrumental consciousness. Singing, in Piana’s (1991, 79) hypothesis, would have manifested itself thanks to the phenomenon of echo. When the first caveman shouted in a cave, he heard his scream amplified by echo, perceiving it for the first time as an autonomous phenomenon. Causality is not questioned: the sound that returns to the caveman’s ear is unmistakably his voice, yet transformed, amplified by the cavity. Only through this modality voice becomes something that can be experienced, studied, meditated, trained. The same gap we see between the musician’s hand, the guitar string and the sound becomes explicit also in vocal practice: for singing to arise, one's voice had to become listenable.

In fact, we talked about the need to establish a distance, to operate a de-subjectivation that is capable of freeing its sound from the voice in order to make the listening dimension possible. And it is this above all that realizes the voice in echo: the fact that I can regain it, that I can somehow take it on as ‘mine’ has now become irrelevant. Neither myself nor another expresses itself in it: the voice in echo is instead a voice without a subject, an impersonal voice, and indeed, no longer a voice, but a sound that I now finally listen to (Piana 1991, 79).

30Here the paradoxical, ambiguous and double nature of our relationship with sound comes to the fore. Piana’s research shows how much our relation with sound, and especially with musical sound, is rooted in our bodily and sensorial experience, and how much its production involves a concrete iteration with matter; however, “sounds cannot be assimilated to things” (Piana 1991, 81). Sound is on the skin-deep felt, bodily, sensitive, yet “phantomatic” (Piana 1991, 83) elusive, vibration of matter, and therefore always other than the subject that produces it and the object with which it is produced. Movement is therefore twofold: on the one hand, bodily sensitivity appropriates matter, learning to use its intrinsic energy for expressive purposes; on the other hand, the sound phenomenon must be perceived as autonomous, independent, de-subjectivised. Between the bodily sphere and that of sound there is no identity, but superposition; the passive phenomenon of listening to sound precedes and guides the practice of playing.

At the centre of the sounding thing, from which the sound begins to radiate, there may be nothing, nothing but a cavity. And from here a projection of subjective senses certainly begins, in the course of which the instrument becomes more and more instrument-body, the more the sense of living corporeality overlaps with that of the sound thing. We can speak of the sound that comes from it as of his voice. But there is also a movement that proceeds in the opposite direction—the living body becomes more and more body-instrument: it must in fact be understood as a thing capable of emitting sounds, for the voice as well to have an experience of producing and mastering sounds (Piana 1991, 94).

5 | Conclusions

31Piana’s thought regarding timbre, matter and body stands out for its organic nature and conceptual compactness. The greatest originality of his reflection is represented by his philosophy being a philosophy of sound even before a philosophy of music. As emerged in the course of this research, Piana’s thought investigates the musical phenomenon highlighting precisely the very strong roots of the world of sounds in our sensitivity, as well as its amazing variety. In Piana’s conception, the expressiveness of music and the multiplicity of its aesthetic effects are not taken for granted: he analyses the phenomenological properties of sounds and their ability to orientate our perception with precision and rigor, showing a remarkable originality from a methodological point of view.

32A first consequence of this peculiar conception is its radical opposition to the typically-musicological approach, which interprets music essentially as an organization of materials and places the ‘formal’ dimension of harmony at the center of it. According to this approach, the composer is primarily defined as ‘organizer of time’ or ‘organizer of forms’. Besides, we have already showed Piana’s attention for ​​the dimension of listening. The composer’s most primitive skill is presented as a peculiar sensitivity towards sounds and as an ability to notice their developments and dynamics. Therefore, Piana’s conception values the musical inventiveness in terms of receptivity, and considers musical properties such as harmony and melody as grounded on timbre, and not vice versa. Both conclusions show a strong innovativeness, which undermine conceptions of music that have been considered unquestionable for centuries.

33The re-evaluation of the corporeality of sounds, that is the peculiar bond of the world of sounds with our physiological structure, is equally charged with deep consequences. Both the phenomenon of dancing and the most primitive methods for musical production attest the tendency of our active, bodily participation in sound. The practice of playing, often overlooked in the context of philosophical reflection on music4, is valued here as an irreplaceable process of discovering the material, capable of offering autonomous suggestions and musical ideas. While not despising electronic music, Piana highlights the phenomenological specificities of instrumentally produced music, whose fundamental aspect is “making experience of the sound” (Piana 1991, 135).

34In conclusion, Piana’s thought must be highlighted as one of the most original reflection in the philosophy of music. Through his inexhaustible and penetrating phenomenological research, he first showed the strongly human nature of the world of sounds. Thanks to their inexhaustible variety of imaginative and perceptive references, sounds constitute somewhat of a “memory of the world” (Piana 1991, 345), embodied in our experience of life. Thus in this intrinsic and human meaningfulness of sounds Piana finds the main explanation of the charm and richness of musical experience.


  • 1 The quote can be found in Piana, G. 2007a. Barlumi per una filosofia della musica (pp. 199-200). Raleigh: Lulu.
  • 2 According to Piana, the relation between sound and time is ambivalent: on the one hand, due to its physical nature, sound has a necessary temporal structure and development; on the other hand, sound has a very strong ability to direct our perception of time. Piana discusses in detail this complex in Tempo (Piana 1991, 157-206).
  • 3 Piana alludes to a tradition, originated from Schopenhauer, which praises the indipendence of musical forms from ordinary experiences, making therefore it ‘wordless’. For a more specific critic that Piana poses against this view, see (Piana 1991, 95).
  • 4 A notable exeption can be found in Alessandro Bertinetto’s reflection on the theme of improvisation, (Bertinetto 2016).


Il canto del merlo


Giovanni Piana

Milano, Università degli Studi di Milano

Barlumi per una filosofia della musica


Giovanni Piana

Milano, Università degli Studi di Milano

Music for body and soul: physiological effects of listening to music


Theorell Töres

in: Psychological health effects of musical experiences, Dordrecht : Springer

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