Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” (1967) plays Peter Aidu, źródło:


Music as a Process and Self Development in Phenomenological Accounts of Music: Berleant, Dufrenne, Ingarden and Merleau-Ponty

The work of art is both a process and an instant[1]. Theodor Adorno

The works he has created will then appear to him only as halting places on the way to the work which remains to be created and which he has not created because he has not come to know it. His only chance of getting to know it is to discover it by creating it. His only resource is the act of making, for which seeing is one reward[2]. Mikel Dufrenne


The question of essence is never a simple questions. What is the essence of music and what is its nature? In addressing this issue I would like to turn to various processes and suggest explaining musical phenomena through the processes they are and the ones they help develop.

In the text from 1918 “Varieties of Musical Experience” Vernon Lee writes: …the nature of music would be most profitably studied not so much by analyzing and comparing various works of art, (…) as by examining the effects of music in general on its hearers[3].He further elaborates:

Since, from the psychologist’s point of view, an art is not the material agglomeration of objectively existing pictures, statues, poems or musical compositions, but the summing up of a set of spiritual processes taking place in the mind of the artist and in the mind of him who receives his gifts; or rather the work of art is the junction between the activities of the artist and those of the beholder or hearer[4].

The essence doesn’t necessarily present itself through pointing towards ontological wholes or entities. In fact it makes more sense to see the essence as a process or experience as such. In this respect I would like to return to Aristotelian concept of energeia as explaining the world dynamics and creative processes. The very notion of energeia seems to define creation through the process of creating and its effects. Just like the enetelechia sums up the wonderful ability to explain every living thing as realization if its inner process of evolving and reaching its destination. In the similar way musical works are processes through which the audience is able to learn. 

The processual – if not theological – character of music (and the experience of music) seems to me to be most pronounced. Music both as perception and creation is processual in nature. Its nature is development, succession, dialogical processes of reaching out and harmonizing. Not one process, in fact, but many. Among these processes that make music what it is, I would like to focus on a very specific process of human self development which occurs during listening (in any music experience).

In what follows I intend to focus on music seen as a process and to underline its nature as a development in connection to philosophical tradition of phenomenology. The phenomenological approach to music proceeds in the direction of understanding the musical and other artistic phenomena through attempting to point to the way, by which they present themselves to the listener, in sense experience and through the processes they inherently are. The entanglement of different ways, in which musical processes appear in the world suggests usefulness of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of chiasm in the phenomenological tradition. Things which are seemingly opposing in nature or radically different in operating, nevertheless, form a coexisting world. Perhaps a possibility of resolving seemingly chaotic image of music lies in proceeding gradually along the way of musical processes while at the same time acknowledging the chiasmatic character of multiple happenings.

In following this way of understanding of the nature of music I would like to turn to Roman Ingarden and his explanation of the aesthetic experience in its developmental nature as well as the notion of meeting (spotkanie) as the key words for his phenomenological aesthetics and particularly of the aesthetics of music.


I would like to start with the excerpt of the Steve Reich piano piece entitled Piano Phase (1967). It is a piece – in the tradition developed by Reich in the 60-ties of looping and phasing with machine recorders and players – based on playing two short music phrases which are the same in content but are differently timed. One runs evenly while the other slowly accelerates the tempo. The relationship between the two phrases is what makes the piece. In his writings Reich tells the story of a machine invented phasing process, which was transferred to musicians.

Late in 1966, I recorded a short repeating melodic pattern played on the piano, made a tape loop of that pattern, and then tried to play against the loop myself, exactly as if I were a second tape recorder[5].

When, he found out that it was possible to play that piece on the piano, Reich decided to score the piece as a piano piece[6]. Easy enough material that doesn’t require studying the score allows the musician to listen to the other musician or the musical phrase changing through the reference to the other musical part. The simple and short melodies make it easy to learn the material of the piece quickly and therefore to be able to follow the development of the piece[7]. In Reich’s own words Piano Phase is a work, which allows for listening while playing. Reich explains:

What you have to do to play the piece is to listen carefully in order to hear if you’ve moved one beat ahead, or if you’ve moved two by mistake, or if you’ve tried to move ahead but have instead drifted back to where you started. Both players listen closely and try to perform the musical process over and over again until they can do it well. Everything is worked out, there is no improvisation whatever, but the psychology of performance, what really happens when you play, is total involvement with the sound: total sensuous-intellectual involvement[8].

In 2012 Polish pianist Leżek Możdżer undertook a task of playing of Reich’s piece all by himself and performed this piece during a concert devoted to Steve Reich in a Festival Sacrum Profanum in Cracow. This difficult task has been undertook by two other pianists so far but it seems both difficult and tricky as controlling two processes at the same time seems almost impossible without assimilating them in some way and thus loosing the dialoging and dialectical aspects of the performance. Możdżer’s performance was quite a success with composer himself congratulating him upon finishing the piece and yet perhaps there was a lesson to be learnt. The goal of playing two parts by one person upon achieving proved less than satisfying. The pianist finally realized that the work was a process and the one that could only be realized in allowing for it to happen (and changing it). What was important in the playing of the piece was not the virtuosic, performing aspect of it but being part of the process.

In one of the interviews Leszek Możdżer admitted: I finally realized that Piano Phase it is not about the perfect performance, but the process itself. It was a very enlightening experience…[9]

Can a pianist learn from a bad performance? From a failed attempt to realize something that is far from possible to be realized. Any music teach would admit to that. A process of self development is therefore a part of every performance but it is also a part of every experience, both creative and purely receptive.


In phenomenological accounts of artistic and compositional technique, philosophers such as Mikel Dufrenne or Arnold Berleant place most stress on the relationship between music as artistic development and on analysis of concrete musical experiences. The physical impulses, the social, communicative realm and the inner artistic impulses that themselves are coming from all the experiences physical or otherwise, form the matrix of influences in composer during his work. They overlap and annihilate one another but still the environment of those vibrant elements accesses composer’s projecting mind. It is the author, who is responsible for the work, which emerges from these dialectic trials. It grows as much from the composer as with him and along his side. Mikel Dufrenne explains artistic creation as a process of expressing oneself in which one is relying entirely on oneself. The inner logic of the composition is something that spans out of the composer, who prepares himself for it and thus puts himself in a state of grace; following a demand entirely inside the creator, nothing he can see or imitate[10].

Dufrenne explains this in a following comment:

More deeply than other men, he creates himself by creating and he creates because he creates himself. Let us pause here for a moment to ask ourselves whether this logic is really one of personal development. The objection will no doubt be raised that the artist as a man is often unequal, if not even markedly inferior, to his work, so much so that on meeting him we are surprised that he has created it[11].

The question at the end is one I would like to think about. Is a process of composing an artistic work a process of self development? I think so. It is a process of development in the sense of developing one’s skills of intellect and artistic métier but also and more importantly in a sense of getting to know oneself. The process of composing a musical work is a process of gradually developing trust in oneself. The process of learning to rely on ideas of one’s own and acting more and more without consulting others. To be independent means to be without need to ask and to be given consent. In making mistakes as much as in progressing into further unknown.

The physical process of composing, singing or listening to the music is itself a complex and fascinating process of development. Finding a possibility of resolving seemingly chaotic sensuous data of sounds lies in proceeding gradually along the way of one of the processes while acknowledging at the same time the chiasmatic character of multiple chappenings.


In phenomenological writings it is crucial to see a work of art in terms of a process. It is a conscious process of getting to know the work, of experiencing the work in time and in space, a process of performance and a process of inner development. In Roman Ingarden it is perhaps the most pronounced in his account of aesthetic experience. The process of aesthetically perceiving the work of art takes a form of a special experience. The goal of this experience is to see the work of art through an aesthetic object and then, provided perceiver likes the work as it is presented to him, to allow for realization of the aesthetic values.

Ingarden explains the aesthetic experience through enumerating individual phases, which may appear during its development. The basis schemata through which the experience may be presented is the three part division: the initial phase, the development phases and the final and closing phase. The initial phase is the phase, in which something pulls the attention of the perceiver. Something is calling, as it were and the attention of the perceiver gets switched in the direction of the artwork or performance. This in turn leads to changing the attitude form normal sense-perception to aesthetic attitude provided minimal conditions are fulfilled. This phase, after the switch, leads directly to the beginning of the developing process. The qualities that have interested the perceiver are also something that needs to be explained and developed in detail for the work to be fully appreciated. Most of the experience is devoted to completing the qualities of the aesthetics object and the object itself. The work becomes better understood through the constant work on the aesthetic object. Completing, imagining and realizing the aspects of the work that are left undefined or indetermined. The full process of the aesthetic experience reaches a climax when finally the work is seen through aesthetic object in the final phase of the experience. The finalizing of the aesthetic object brings with it the realization of the aesthetic values, to which percipient gives an emotional answer and if the answer is positive she may proceed with formulating an aesthetic judgment. The aesthetic experience is unfolding in time and this process is inherently dynamic in character, with emotional changes. Therefore the experience develops in a certain wave like way, in which the phases that are more aggressive and productive follow phases which are more reflective and imaginative, thus requiring different intellectual engagement of the mind in each case.

[…] the whole process of aesthetic experience includes, on the one hand, active phases and on the other hand, again, the fleeting phases of passive experiencing, the moments of turning motionless and contemplative[12].

Aesthetic experience, as it is presented by Ingarden, forms a process, in which emotionally and intellectually different phases change one into another smoothly allowing recipient to proceed with ease and sense of fulfillment. It must be clear, however, that as Ingarden stresses, even if the experience proceeds with considerable success, it will only be fulfilled if both the aesthetic object (the face of the artwork) appears as the result of the experience and the recipient’s [emotional] response to it in turn allows for culmination in constituting of aesthetic values. Then, and only then, the experience will be fulfilled. Following the process of constituting the aesthetic object and thus getting to know the musical work is at the same time a process of realizing aesthetic potential of the situation one is engaged in.


Music is a highly complex phenomenon. It is a physical, emotional as well as perceptual process. In order to be understood and appreciated music must be experienced. Just as the process of composing and performing a musical work, it is fair to say that listening to the music is a process of individual and social development. It is a process of changing through knowledge and growing through building an imaginary society; through reaching out to the other and explaining oneself in a process of self presentation but most importantly through listening-in to the world around. The phenomenological account of musical experience, such as the ones given by Mikel Dufrenne and Roman Ingarden, although concentrating mostly on the aesthetics experiences, are still explaining the musical process as a process of changing and developing. Getting to know the world as sensuous – as in Durfrenne – or realizing the need to compose the world in its entirety through the aesthetic processes are processes of enriching and growing and of self experiencing most of all.


Aldrich, Virgil, Back to Aesthetic Experience”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 1968.

Aldrich, Virgil, The Philosophy of Art, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs 1963.

Berleant, Arnold, Notes for a Phenomenology of Musical Performance”, Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), pp. 73-79.

Blacking, John, How Musical is Man?, University of Washington Press, Seattle 1973.

Cox, Christopher, Warner, Daniel, Audio Culture: Reading in Modern Music, Bloomsburry Publishings, London 2004.

Cumming, Naomi, The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2000.

Dufrenne, Mikel, The Phenomenology of Aesthetics Experience, transl. E. S. Casay et al., Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1973.

Godlovitch, Stan, Music Performance: A Philosophical Study, Routledge, London 2002.

Husserl, Edmund, Lectures on the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, transl. by J. B. Brough, Kluwer Academic Publishers, London 1991.

Ingarden, Roman, Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object”, In: Journal of Phenomenological Research, No. 3 [21], pp. 289-313.

Levinson, Jerrold, Music in the Moment, Cornell University Press, New York 2007.

Możdżer, Leszek, Możdżer kontuzjowany przez Reicha”, Polskie Radio, see,Mozdzer-kontuzjowany-przez-Reicha (access 09.03.2017).

Reich, Steve, Hiller, Paul, Writings on Music 1965-2000, Oxford University Press, New York 2002.


[1] Th. Adorno, Teoria estetyczna, przeł. K. Krzemieniowa, Warszawa 1993, s. 185.

[2] M. Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetics Experience, transl. E. S. Casay et al., Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1973, p. 34.

[3] V. Lee, „Varieties of Musical Experience”, The North American Review, vol. 207, No. 750 (May, 1918), pp. 748-757, p. 748.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] S. Reich, P. Hillier, Writings on Music 1965-2000, Oxford University Press, New York 2002, p. 22.

[6] The score then shows that two musicians begin in unison playing the same pattern over and overagain and thatwhile one of them stays put, the other gradually increases tempo so as to slowly move one beat ahead of the other”. Ibidem, s. 24.

[7] Ibidem, s. 24.

[8] Ibidem (underlining by the author – MS).

[9] L. Możdżer, Możdżer kontuzjowany przez Reicha”, Polskie Radio 2011, see,Mozdzer-kontuzjowany-przez-Reicha (access 09.03.2017).

[10] M. Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetics Experience, transl. E. S. Casay et al., Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1973, p. 31.

[11] Ibidem , p. 31

[12] R. Ingarden, Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object”, In: Journal of Phenomenological Research, No. 3 [21], p. 300.

A version of this text has been presented at the International Conference in Lithuania Essence – Context a Conference in Philosophy of Music”, Vilnius 31-04 August/September 2016.

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