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Aesthetic experience: what is it?

What is an aesthetic experience? Could it be similar to:

* a spiritual happening, something beyond comprehension, one that leads to an expansion of being and meaning of life;

* Maslow's "peak experience" described as an illumination, an insight, an ecstatic time, a self validating moment of intrinsic value;

* Csikszentmihalyi's flow, a state of complete immersion in a challenging yet doable activity enjoyed "for its own sake"(p. 3), a kind of self- transcendence.**

An expansion of being, moments of illumination, ecstasy, self-worth, a happening beyond the ordinary, an intense involvement with meaningful content detached from personal issues seem to characterize the aesthetic experience.

In music, an aesthetic experience tends to favour an outstanding composition of intrinsic worth; however, that selection, rich in content, may prove to be unintelligible when there is little understanding and aural awareness.**

Any initial listening to a musical work of any style can be unpleasant, as in the strident dissonant-sounding structures of Movement 3 in Berg's violin concerto, yet, still intriguing to an individual whose musical knowledge may encourage forays into what appears to be too complex or different, i.e., trying to make sense of what is happening when sounds, shapes, rhythms, patterns, and ideas don't seem to cohere.

A receptive mode, then, is essential to grasping the significance of any composition, as well as motivating explorations into something beyond initial encounters, personal preferences, peer, and media influences. ***

Schooling is in a unique position to fostering opportunities not offered elsewhere, i.e. encouraging youngsters to develop analytical, critical, and aural skills embracing performing, composing, improvising, problem-solving, and critiquing, so they can meet the challenges of difficult works. Meanwhile, students continue to perfect technical problems, preferably at home, in order to focus on making music in the classroom.

A musically aware listener, at an initial encounter with a complex piece, attends to manipulative procedures in order to make possible meaningful associations with works, such as the 'Chaconne' from Bach's Second Partita for solo violin, any of Beethoven's late string quartets, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, etc.--compositions that require repeated visitations so that more is unveiled at each hearing. Instrumental works are cited because they tend to be abstract, i.e. lacking a program, although there may be an accompanying text suggesting one. However, is a program necessary when listening to Strauss's Till Eulenspiegals lustige Streich, Beethoven's Eroica, Shostakovich's 5th Symphony, Berg's Violin Concerto? A narrative or descriptive text may enhance the listening, but the music provides the intrigue/ substance, that demands more from a listener or interpreter in terms of engagement and imagination.

True, a program, descriptive as in Debussy's La Mer, or narrative as in Strauss's Till Eulenspiegal, initially, may encourage sympathetic hearings. But, more relevant are the musical manipulations--the rhythms, themes, harmonies, repetitions; and tensions wrought by unexpected dissonances, rhythmic asymmetries, changes in intensities, and other energizing features that contribute to multifold layers of meaning.

That there is a special relationship between content and form, between cognitive and affective traits confirms that form alone neither makes an artwork nor gives it whatever value it has (Freeman, 2010).

There need be no boundaries in approaches to complex music of diverse cultures, e.g. the Hindustani raga. Deriving meaning from extraordinary music-making necessitates an awareness as to what the musical expectations are, thus freeing the imagination, so that unexpected tension-creating encounters may encourage understanding as well as feelingful responses.

Note: that being cognizant of what is happening in a musical work of any culture may not lead to an aesthetic experience; that an experience can and does vary in intensity during successive encounters with the same selection; that an actual performance tends to reflect the expectations of the society in which it is performed; and that the interpretation, as enacted by performer and listener, will play an active role in creating meaning.

In any event, an experience of engaging with an outstanding composition can be so profound that words become totally inadequate in attempts to characterize that "aha" moment of wonder, of awe, of illumination; as well, a heightened awareness of one's own being.

So, call it what you will--aesthetic, peak, spiritual or flow --it is, in effect, out of the ordinary, one beyond explanation.


* Aesthetic experience is a term that may be used to characterize a natural, personal or arts event. An aesthetic experience in this commentary refers to an interaction with music. Aesthetic experience has been "hotly debated for thousands of years with conspicuously little progress towards consensus" (Galin, 2004, p. 251).

"In spite of its importance as well as its long history of philosophical and scientific investigation, aesthetic experience is also one of the most poorly defined concepts in psychology and neuroscience" (Juslin et al., 2010).

"We lack a philosophically sound conception of aesthetic experience" (Freeman, 2010, p. 56).

According to Boehner, Sengers & Warner (2009) it is something beyond the rational. It is tied to the particular, i.e., a composition appealing to the senses and requiring total concentration resulting in a heightened form of engagement. **For Diane Bogdan (2003) aesthetic experience is akin to the spiritual, a transformative response to a universal truth (p. 85). "The object of an art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties--of that, in fact, which is spiritual." Ralph Vaughan Williams as quoted by Eric Saylor (2014).

British philosopher Roger Scruton (2014) believes aesthetic experience in music, based on understanding, leads to knowing the transcendental.

Peter Sellars, during an interview with Wachtel (2014), claims that great works of art are about us--that music takes you back into feelings you don't have words for, and that time invested in listening to a rich, complex, and lengthy opera is worthwhile.

*** "A true aesthetic experience requires cognitive participation, which transforms the listener, and in so doing, teaching and revealing more about the potential possibilities of an idea" (A is for Aesthetic Experience, 2014, p. 4). It is transformative.

The initial stages necessary for an aesthetic experience of music embrace analysis, integration across modalities, and cognitive processing that tends to be based on accumulated knowledge (Brattico et al., 2013, p.1).


A is for aesthetic experience (2014), elee/aesthetic-experience-art-artworks, pp. 3-5.

Boehner K., Sengers P., Warner S. (2009). Interfaces with the ineffable: meeting aesthetic experience on its own terms. Cornell University, pp. 1-39.

Bogdan, Diane. (2003). Music spirituality: reflections on identity and the ethics of embodied aesthetic experience in/and the academy. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 37(2), 80-98.

Brattico E., Bogert B., Jacobsen T. (2013). Toward a neural chronometry for the aesthetic experience of music. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 4, Article 206, 1-35.

Galin, D. (2004). Aesthetic experience: Marcel Proust and the neo-Jamesian structure of awareness. Consciousness and Cognition, 13, 241-253.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Freeman, Damien. (2010). Aesthetic experience as the transformation of pleasure. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, XVII, 57-75.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Viking/ Esalen.

Saylor, Eric. (2014). The letter and the spirit: a response to Jonathan Bellman's "After silence, that which comes nearest." Ineffability: The Comparison Project, Drake University, 1-6.

Wachtel, Eleanor. (2014). An interview with renowned American theatre and opera director, Peter Sellars.

Professor Natalie Kuzmich chaired the Music Education Department at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Education (now OISE/UT) until 1998. Duringthattime, she also taught the strings program at the University of Toronto Schools, alab school for grades 7-graduation where she implemented and refined many creative problem solving teaching and learning strategies. Since her retirement, Kuzmich continues to contribute to teacher education through workshops, articles, and regular commentary. Natalie Kuzmich may be reached at
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Title Annotation:recurring motifs: commentary
Author:Kuzmich, Natalie
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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