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Musical Vitalities

Ventures in a Biotic Aesthetics of Music

Does it make sense to refer to bird song—a complex vocalization, full of repetitive and transformative patterns that are carefully calculated to woo a mate—as art? What about a pack of wolves howling in unison or the cacophony made by an entire rain forest?

Redefining music as “the art of possibly animate things,” Musical Vitalities charts a new path for music studies that blends musicological methods with perspectives drawn from the life sciences. In opposition to humanist approaches that insist on a separation between culture and nature—approaches that appear increasingly untenable in an era defined by human-generated climate change—Musical Vitalities treats music as one example of the cultural practices and biotic arts of the animal kingdom rather than as a phenomenon categorically distinct from nonhuman forms of sonic expression. The book challenges the human exceptionalism that has allowed musicologists to overlook music’s structural resemblances to the songs of nonhuman species, the intricacies of music’s physiological impact on listeners, and the many analogues between music’s formal processes and those of the dynamic natural world. Through close readings of Austro-German music and aesthetic writings that suggest wide-ranging analogies between music and nature, Musical Vitalities seeks to both rekindle the critical potential of nineteenth-century music and rejoin the humans at the center of the humanities with the nonhumans whose evolutionary endowments and planetary fates they share.

240 pages | 3 halftones, 21 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

New Material Histories of Music

Music: General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics


"In Musical Vitalities, Holly Watkins invites her readers to vegetate. . . Building a philosophy of musical form and meaning around the idea of music’s vitality, Watkins brings humanistic and scientific approaches to bear on the question of how the aesthetic realm, and specifically music, exposes cross-species biological commonalities. . . . Musical Vitalities is imaginative and stimulating in its nuanced rethinking of relationships among music, consciousness, and the nonhuman."

Kirsten Paige | Journal of the American Musicological Society

“A post-humanist organicism? A formalism fit for the Anthropocene? Watkins shows that these are not contradictions—far from it. Musical Vitalities makes a timely case for the contemporary relevance of Hanslick, Schopenhauer, and Darwin. This is the urgent aesthetic manifesto for ecomusicology that we have been waiting for.”

Alexander Rehding, Harvard University

“This audacious book revisits the rich relationship between music and nature so central to Romantic aesthetics. . . . Beautifully written and punctuated with eclectic analyses of works ranging from Schumann to John Luther Adams, Musical Vitalities uncovers important, indeed vital, connections between nineteenth-century ideals of music and post-humanist conceptions of life.”

Berthold Hoeckner, University of Chicago

“With rare generosity and an exhilarating abundance of ideas, Holly Watkins reanimates long dismissed organicist concepts of music in this bracing synthesis of nature and culture, physis and poiesis, science and aesthetics. The result is the fullest measure yet taken of music’s vitality in the bountiful worlds within us and around us.”

Scott Burnham, City University of New York

“Expertly researched and beautifully written, Musical Vitalities reaches beyond musicology in innovative and provocative ways. It stands to make a lasting contribution to interdisciplinary dialogue.”

Aaron S. Allen, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

"Musical Vitalities is a challenging, even necessary read for ecomusicologists, particularly those who have ever questioned if their taste for nineteenth-century music was somehow ecologically suspect. Watkins’s synthesis of past criticism and modern science will also appeal to those interested in nineteenth-century musical aesthetics, even if they do not already identify as ecocritical readers."


Table of Contents


1 Reanimating Musical Organicism

2 Formalism’s Flower

3 Schopenhauer’s Musical Ecology

4 The Floral Poetics of Schumann’s Blumenstück, op. 19

5 Music between Reaction and Response

6 On Not Letting Sounds Be Themselves


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