Music as Wallpaper


Reading response to “Music Alone” chapter of “The Fine Art of Repetition”, by Peter Kivy.

I had never read about the philosophy of music before, so it was very interesting for me to think about the different models that have been considered to describe it –the literary, ‘organism’ and wallpaper models–. Surprisingly (one can’t tell which one he will defend until he finally does, after presenting each of the models objectively), the author argues in favor of the wallpaper model.

I especially enjoyed his conclusion: “So music, I am arguing, is “merely” sonic wallpaper, but it is wallpaper with some pretty impressive features. It is multidimensional wallpaper. It is quasi-syntactical wallpaper. It is deeply expressive wallpaper. And it is deeply moving wallpaper.” It did seem to me, however, that he might be underestimating the potential of visual decorative arts –can’t wallpapers be all these things too? As happened several times as I read, Kivy promptly answered my question (in this case, he agreed, giving the Alhambra as an example)

I also questioned the counterexamples he used to discard the “literary” and “organism” models. I thought they were not true for all music: many soundtracks do have a narrative intention, and we could probably find some pieces of music that are meant to represent the development of life. But the author appears to have thought of this argument as well. At the very end of his essay, he clarifies that his reasoning applies only to instrumental music from the Romantic period, leaving no loose ends in an essay that has such logic rigor that one could almost see its symbolic representation jumping out of the page.

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