Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music

Peter Kivy

Notes by Mariana Blair

Music 829
April 10, 2001

Summaries by Mariana Blair

Peter Kivy. (1980). The Corded Shell. Chapters 1 & 12. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Stephen Davies. (1994) Kivy on Auditors' Emotions. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp235-236. Peter Kivy. (1994) Armistice, But No Surrender: Davies on Kivy. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp. 236-237.

The Corded Shell was named after a poem by John Dryden about a Biblical character who is credited with being the founder of music in some way. [1] Kivy's goal, rather than present a history of theories, is to make "a contribution to our present understanding of the aesthetics of music." Chapter 12 restates the paradox of musical description identified in the first chapter: that musical descriptions are either "intelligible at the cost of being inaccessible to all but the musically expert; or accessible to the layman, at the cost ... of being either nonsense, or subjective reverie." In other words, the descriptions are too technical (as opposed to having emotional content) for the common person, or are dripping with emotion without many technical references. Kivy hopes his argument can provide a "rational foundation for the emotive criticism of music."

Chapter 1 offers four examples of musical description (biographical, autobiographical, emotive description, and technical description) taken from five different critics. The "biographical" example is that of Robert Schumann’s writing about Ludwig Berger's études, in which he gives an emotive description of the composer's supposed state of mind rather than of the music itself. Berlioz' description of listening to Gluck's Armide provides an "autobiographical" account, that Kivy claims might as well be a description of taking a dose of laudanum rather than of the music. Tovey ascribes emotion directly to music (by Beethoven and Brahms) as if the music were actually "broken with grief" or angry, in which case Kivy wonders if we should "cheer the poor thing up" or "mollify" it. Two other examples (Cooper & Meyer and Kerman) are "technical descriptions" which, although they depart from "emotional flapdoodle," can only be understood by the "learned." Kivy points out the need for objective standards in identifying the emotional features of musical descriptions so that they can be more intelligible and subjective to please the "purist."

Chapter 12 is entitled "How to Emote over Music (Without Losing Your Respectability)," and is dedicated to the issue of subjectivity. Kivy examines the role of "conventions" in describing music, as well as certain "criteria" for doing so. He suggests that conventions for understanding the emotional content of music are based on enculturation. [2] He concludes that it would be "objective" to say a certain feature was "expressive of" an emotion if it was "frequently associated" with it, based on "usual standards of inductive reasoning."

As for criteria, Kivy makes a distinction between symptoms and criteria, and discusses the "moderate skeptic" and the "extreme skeptic" views. The moderate skeptic makes a distinction between certain features as actually expressing emotion and being expressive of those emotions. (We don't know if a person is actually sad or merely expressing sadness.) The extreme skeptic claims we know nothing at all about whether there are expressive features or what they convey. The "criteriological view" holds that expressive features become part of the "meaning" of emotions through the process of learning the concepts, so that the question of expressiveness is also objective in this case. (He is talking about the meaning of words, "logical grammar," and linguistic competence.) So then, both the inductive and criteriological models can be objective about expressiveness.

Kivy then presents a lengthy discussion of the writing of Guy Sircello (Mind and Art), who he would no doubt claim is an extreme skeptic, because he seems to say that there are no such things as expressive features. Kivy attempts to address Sircello’s questions, and states that they can indeed be answered more fully. Kivy accuses Sircello of "philosophical scare tactics in lieu of a real argument to show that these questions are really unanswerable." He then offers an argument concerning the frequency of scowling to show anger, but it is not very convincing. [3] Kivy concludes the chapter and the book with an example of a "competent listener" who is able to detect the sadness of "the blues," and states that "to fail to read musical expressiveness is to fail to read expressiveness in general, given that one is not musically incompetent."

The two articles are in response to Kivy's1993 article: "Auditor's Emotions: Contention, Concession and Compromise," in which Kivy contrasts his cognitive approach to listening to the emotional hearing of Colin Radford. Davies feels that Kivy "takes a stance that assumes a clear divide between cognitive appreciation and the kind of emotional reaction that mirrors the music's expressive character," and points out that the two types of listening are not mutually exclusive. Kivy responds that a listener may indeed be both moved emotionally and perceive the syntactic functions of the expressive features. However, he claims that he was not trying to show that one way of hearing was better or worse than the other, as Davies seems to suggest by his use of the terms "mirrorist" vs. "the intellectual high ground." (In other words, Davies misunderstood Kivy's intent.)


[1] What Passion cannot MUSIC raise and quell! When Jubal struck the corded Shell, His list'ning Brethren stood around And wond'ring on their Faces fell To worship that Celestial Sound. Less that a God they thought there cou’d not dwell Within the hollow of the Shell That spoke so sweetly and so well. What Passion cannot MUSIC raise and quell!

[2] I thought of the example of the Tonight Show band when they play certain recognizable themes at the punch lines of Jay's jokes.

[3] This is partly because in an earlier discussion of inductive reasoning vs. criteria, Kivy used the analogy that rashes are to measles (a specific disease), as a sad face is to sadness (a specific emotion). However when arguing against Sircello, Kivy makes the analogy that a rash is a frequent or regular symptom of illness (in general) as a scowl is a frequent or regular expression of anger (specific). Although it may be a valid point in its context, it was confusing to this reader due to the previous similar analogy.

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