Is music the most abstract art form?

The Quora question that prompted this post asks:

Why has music been historically the most abstract art form?
We can see highly developed musical forms in renaissance polyphony and baroque counterpoint. The secular forms of this music is often non-programmatic or “absolute music.” In contrast to this, the paintings and sculpture of those times are often representational. Did music start as representational but merely move to a more abstract art form than other types of arts sooner? Does it lend it self to this sort of abstraction more easily?

I had an art professor in college who argued that all “representational” art is abstract, and all “abstract” art is representational. Any art has to refer back to sensory impressions of the world, internal or external, because that’s the only raw material we have to work with. Meanwhile, you’re unlikely to ever mistake a work of representational art for the object it represents. You don’t mistake photographs (or photorealistic paintings) for their subjects, and even the most “realistic” special effects in movies require willing suspension of disbelief.

Music seems more abstract than other art forms because it represents emotional states, symmetry and repetition, and other intangibles. But just because you can’t see or touch these things, doesn’t make them any less real. In preliterate societies, music was probably one of the best methods for storing and conveying complex stories and information.

Also, I dispute the idea that visual art started representational and then “progressed” toward greater abstraction. Architecture, textiles, tile work, face and body decorations and jewelry all use pattern, color and texture for their own sake, without any representational content.

Any one of the above images could pass as a music visualization or notation. I see a strong parallel between this kind of decorative art and the mathematical patterns in music — there’s the interest in interlocking patterns and symmetry for their own sake. Symmetry is a fact of the world, and both abstract art and music represent that fact clearly.

Original post on Quora

2 thoughts on “Is music the most abstract art form?

  1. Hmm. Ok, well, sure. But, then isn’t this essentially a semantic debate about the idea of abstraction? About the semantic meaning of the word “abstract?” I mean, I’d say that at the very least, if you can’t call instrumental music largely abstract, then what is? Aside from static — the sound equivalent of a color field painting — everything you hear will have some kind of structure. Everything you see will represent something. You seem to be saying that if a color field painting “represents” color, then it’s not abstract. That construction seems very subjective, and denies the (imo) manifest utility of separating a photo of a duck wearing a hat from a painting of the feeling of not quite being able to remember the meaning of a dream as expressed through shades of the color turquoise.

    • This is exactly my art prof’s point, which I agree with: since you can’t call instrumental music largely abstract, nothing is. There’s always a reference to a feeling state or sense memory, even if it’s diffuse and difficult to verbalize. Sometimes I think the whole point of music is to represent feeling states and sense memories that are diffuse and difficult to verbalize.

      The difference between a light-blue color field painting and the sky is that the color field painting is referring to something (or many somethings, including the sky.) If the art has zero symbolic or emotional content — if it’s just some object or happening that you put a frame around arbitrarily — then it’s pretty bad art. Frankly, I’m not too wild about color field paintings, for that exact reason. Too close to just being randomly chosen Pantone chips at scale, you know?

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