University of Illinois at Chicago
CURRY-DISSERTATION-2021.pdf (763.92 kB)

The Philosophy of Musical Instruments

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posted on 2021-08-01, 00:00 authored by Nicholas Curry
Simple reflection suggests that musical instruments are central to both musical practice and experiences of music. Nevertheless, there is neither a robust philosophical literature about musical instruments themselves nor much work in the philosophy of music that considers instruments when accounting for the nature of music. The overarching claim of this dissertation is that conceptual approaches to music that overlook or minimize musical instruments are thereby impoverished. This case is made in three parts. First, I argue that one source of the neglect of the contribution of instruments to music is the set of assumptions that I call, in a variation on a theme by Arthur Danto, the philosophical disenfranchisement of instruments. Several of these assumptions, which are common in both aesthetics and the philosophy of art, have their roots in Kantian aesthetics, notably anti-instrumentalism, spectator-centered aesthetics, and the genius-model of creativity. Second, I consider applications of the disenfranchisement of instruments in the philosophy of music, including widely accepted views such as the acousmatic account of musical listening and the “pure” music paradigm. I also discuss ways in which philosophical uses of musical concepts, particularly ‘timbre,’ diverge from their uses within musical practice. This reveals a second source of the neglect of musical instruments: the work-centered approach to music, which privileges the concept ‘musical work’ over other musical concepts (e.g. ‘performance,’ ‘composition,’ ‘tone’). Finally, I make a positive case for a conceptual approach to music that acknowledges the centrality of musical instruments in musical practices and experiences. This instrument-centered approach to music, as I conceive of it, is rooted in the notion of a musical culture. Instruments are both shaped by, but also shaping of, musical cultures. They thereby contribute to both experiencing and making music.



Eaton, A. W.


Eaton, A. W.



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Laden, Anthony S. Sutherland, Daniel Hilbert, David Gibson, John

Submitted date

August 2021

Thesis type



  • en

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