Deep Thoughts on Music and Film
Deep Thoughts on Music and Film
Andrew Kania, associate professor of philosophy, reflects on fundamental questions about the nature of the arts and in particular, about music and movies.
By Russell Guerrero '83
July 2011 - In his second year as an undergraduate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Andrew Kania, an Auckland native, took a class that would set the course for his future academic career. The class was The Philosophy of Art and was taught by Stephen Davies, one of the world's top philosophers on the subject. One section of the course was on the philosophy of music, which appealed to Kania since he had been a musician for most of his life, playing the violin and piano and singing in musicals and choirs.
"What happened in that Philosophy of Art course was that these two things I was really passionate about - a philosophical approach to thinking about important things and music - came together. It showed me that you could approach music philosophically and ask all sorts of interesting questions about it," said Kania.
Kania pursued his two passions and is now an associate professor at Trinity and an award winning philosopher.
Although he teaches general courses in philosophy, Kania specializes in the philosophy of art and in particular, the philosophy of music and of film. In his course about music, he discusses the art form in very fundamental and abstract terms.
"Philosophers of music tend to ask questions like ‘What is music?' ‘What is the difference between music and just sound?'" said Kania. "Those are questions philosophers tend to be better equipped to answer, I think, because they are used to working with questions of definition, with the nature of concepts. They have the general skills and tools that are needed to answer those questions."
He has written extensively on the ontology of music and received the inaugural British Society for Aesthetics Essay Prize for a paper on the subject.
Kania explains that musical ontology is the study of the kinds of musical things there are - such as compositions, performances, and recordings - and their relationships to one another.
"All these things (compositions, performances, and recordings) exist in all these different musical traditions, such as classical music or rock music. But the way they are related to each other seems different," said Kania.
In other words, what we think of as music differs depending on what style of music we are talking about.
"For example, in classical music, the central musical work is the composition that is performed. You can hear any performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; there is not one particular performance that you have to hear to know the work," said Kania.
However when you talk about rock music, the central musical work is the actual recording.
"Take ‘A Day in the Life' by the Beatles. If someone asks you if you've heard ‘A Day in the Life,' they will assume you know they mean the last song on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and not someone else's version of the song," said Kania.
When teaching about film, Kania has the class explore the subject of interpretation. He uses the film Memento, a thriller with an ambiguous storyline by director Christopher Nolan and which features murder, money, and a hero who suffers from short term memory loss. The film's plot is further complicated by the fact that the story is told in reverse chronological order, starting with a scene that would be the end of a more conventional film and moving back to the beginning of the action.
"If you ask students about interpretation, for example how to interpret a poem, they will often say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and it means whatever you want it to mean," said Kania. "But if you show them Memento, they will fight to the death about what really happened in the film."
What Kania wants the students to see is that there really is meaning in the work that has to be unearthed and that to gain understanding - you have to use a scientific approach and look at evidence to find out what happened.
"Those are questions about interpretation and the right way to interpret a film," said Kania.
Kania hopes that the students who take his classes on the philosophy of music and film leave with a better appreciation of why these media are such important parts of their lives.
As for teaching philosophy in general, Kania hopes students develop critical thinking skills that can be applied to other areas in their lives. "I hope they learn how to step back and be critical and not sit so comfortably in their views about anything."
- Introduction to Philosophy
- Philosophy of Music
- Philosophy of Film
- Philosophy of Gender
The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music, co-edited with Theodore Gracyk, Routledge, 2011.
Memento, part of the Routledge "Philosophers on Film" series, 2009.
"Silent Music," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 2010.
"Works, Recordings, Performances: Classical, Rock, Jazz." Recorded Music: Philosophical and Critical Reflections. Middlesex University Press, 2008.