Thomas Clifton and Music as Given and Experienced

In his work Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology , Thomas Clifton engages in a study of the phenomenology of music, seeking “to listen carefully to what is given, making sure that what is given is the music itself” (Music as Heard, x). Clifton seeks to avoid a view of music as chiefly symbolic or representational, and attempts to focus on the music as lived, as experienced. “It is not simply a thing in the world, but a humanly meaningful way of being, of lived experience that lies at the nexus between a human being and sound. Most importantly, music is a bodily experience in the fullest sense: a richly corporeal mode of being that integrates mind, emotion, all the senses, an entire person” (Philosophical Perspectives on Music, p. 268). According to Clifton, sound is not music, but rather is that through which music is experienced. In other words, music is not simply reducible to sounds, but is integrally connected with human experience in a kind of reciprocal relationship. As Clifton explains, “We are not the passive receivers of uninterpreted sense data, nor are we the cause of an object’s properties […] Thus, while it is true that a sonata by Mozart exists independently of me, it has significance for me to the extent that I perceive it adequately” (Music as Heard, p. 41). For Clifton is makes no sense to speak of “objective” and “universal” aesthetic standards, as different people experience the same piece of music differently. Rather than speak of music as an either subjective or objective matter, “Clifton grounds its nature and value in the lived experience of people who reside in a fundamentally human world. The result is a distinctly and laudably pluralistic account of music” (Ibid., p. 268). One of Clifton’s main concerns is that the music be allowed to speak for itself and not be silenced by theoretical layers that mute the musical experience. In light of this concern, Clifton shows how tradition musical analysis, which focuses on “pitch and interval as basic substances to which features like timbre, dynamics, and expressive qualities somehow adhere as ‘attributes,’ is misguided (Philosophical Perspectives on Music, p. 269). Here Clifton considers a few musical examples and asks, “Do we really hear col legno[1] as something simply attached to the primary substance of pitch? […] If a French horn prolongs an open E, and then quickly mutes it, is it the same E? Logically, yes; but in terms of musical behavior, I think not” ( Music as Heard, p. 6). What Clifton is highlighting then is that the so-called basic elements of music are in fact notbasic to music as lived experience. When the self-givenness of music is revealed, “what counts as lived musical experiences are such intuited essences as the grace of a minuet by Mozart, the drama of a symphony by Mahler, or the agony of Coltrane’s jazz. If we hear the music at all, it is because we hear the grace, the drama, and the agony as essential constituents of […] the music itself. It is not even accurate enough to say that these constituents are what the music is about: rather they are the music […] What the music says is what it is” (Philosophical Perspectives on Music, p. 17.


1. Bowman, Wayne D. Philosophical Perspectives on Music. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998.

2. Clifton, Thomas. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983.


[1] Literally, “with the wood.” This is a directive given to one playing a bowed string instrument to perform a particular passage by striking the strings with the wood of the bow rather than with the hair.

7 thoughts on “Thomas Clifton and Music as Given and Experienced”

  1. Very interesting–could one then say that music is ‘sacramentally’ communicated by means of sound?

  2. Hi Anxietas,

    I like it! Why not?

    Warm regards,


    p.s. I would love to read your dissertation when you finish. Also, if you are interested in posting a series on St. Thomas and analogy (pulling from your current work), I would personally love it. However, I understand that you may be under time constraints/deadlines and wouldn’t want to put any extra pressure on you. Just let me know if you are interested and I can give you more details via email([email protected]).

  3. Cynthia,

    Sure I can arrange for you to get a copy of it. I’m hoping to have it done and defended by the end of the spring semester. But, as you probably know, what one plans and what one achieves can often be quite different.

    Once I’m finished, though, I’d be happy to offer a posting on Thomas’s analogy of being.

    All the best

  4. David Byrne has some reflections that sprung to mind when reading this post, especially the part about a prolonged E note stopped short and its particular qualities apart from the note E. If music is not reducible to the notes played but to the experience given and recieved then the fact that human involvement (or at least a mimic of human involvement) should be a defining factor.

    He speaks of a musical researcher who plays a piano piece and then has a computer record the performance and play the same piece but without ‘feeling’ or ‘expression’.

    He says, “To me this “dead” performance was also a faithful transcription of written music with no expressive markings. Much of Bach is like that, I believe, the expression left to the interpreter, but if played exactly as written it would sound like a machine. The limitations of musical notation.”

    You can find the journal entry here:

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