John Dewey provided “America’s chief contribution to the age-old theories of beauty and creation” in 1934.

Dewey (1859–1952) published Art as Experience in 1934 based on his Harvard lectures on esthetics. In 1932, Dewey was the first William James Lecturer at Harvard and among the early developers of philosophical pragmatism. Republished by Capricorn/Putnam in 1958, Art as Experience examines the structures and characteristics of art from architecture to sculpture, painting, literature, and music. Excerpts here explore Dewey’s comments on music, or musical art as experience.

Art As Experience by John Dewey was originally published in 1934. The book cover here is from the 1958 republication by Capricorn/Putnam. Contents are based on Dewey’s 1931 winter/spring lectures on The Philosophy of Art as Harvard’s first William James Lecturer.

Foreshadowing the Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2010) ethos of philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford, Dewey notes that “The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection, is artistically engaged.” Dewey situates art and artistic endeavor as part of the commonplace or quotidian life. People from the times of Plato onward have often overlooked the skills of artisanal life and esthetic appreciation. “The arts which today have most vitality for the average person,” Dewey writes, “are things he does not take to be arts: for instance, the movie, jazzed music, the comic strip, and, too frequently, newspaper accounts of lovenests, murders, and exploits of bandits.”

The art of everyday experience, particularly the musicality of everyday life, is not only all around us, and habitually overlooked, but a range of sensory experience available at any given moment. Like listening for birdsong on a morning stroll, we can direct our attention in each moment to esthetic appreciation as an opportunity for immersion in the richness of any community’s acoustic environment.

The collective life that was manifested in war, worship, the forum, knew no division between what was characteristic of these places and operations, and the arts that brought color, grace, and dignity, into them. Painting and sculpture were organically one with architecture, as that was one with the social purpose that buildings served. Music and song were intimate parts of the rites and ceremonies in which the meaning of group life was consummated. Drama was a vital reenactment of the legends and history of group life.

No contemporary of Plato, Dewey writes, “would have doubted that music was an integral part of the ethos and the institutions of the community. The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ would not have been even understood.”

Before I continue, a caveat: Dewey was a product of his day. Despite his philosophy calling out racism, gendered language and nearly exclusive reference to other white, male sources in Art as Experience diminish his legacy just as with most other male philosophical writing. It is challenging to review Dewey and his contemporaries through an intersectional lens, where multiple (i.e. typically marginalized) perspectives work to actively decenter the predominant Euro-American male view. This post, however, is not a comparative piece of historical research situating Dewey against the wisdom of wider intersectional sources. The fault in that limitation is mine alone.

Below is a summary of John Dewey’s thoughts on musical esthetics in the early 20th century United States. Page numbers align with the 1958 Capricorn/Putnam edition.


If all meanings could be adequately expressed by words, the arts of painting and music would not exist. There are values and meanings that can be expressed only by immediately visible and audible qualities, and to ask that what they mean in the sense of something that can be put into words is to deny their distinctive existence. (p.74)


Paintings as well as music, drama, and the novel are characterized by tension. (p.157)

The medium through which energy operates determines the resulting work. The resistance to be overcome in song, dance, and dramatic presentation is partly within the organism itself, embarrassment, fear, awkwardness, self-consciousness, lack of vitality, and partly in the audience addressed. Lyrical utterance and dance, the sounds emitted by musical instruments stir the attention that is found in reshaping external material. Resistance is personal and consequences are directly personal on the side of both producer and consumer. Yet eloquent utterance is not writ in water. The organisms, the persons concerned are in some measure remade. Composer, writer, painter, sculptor, work in a medium that is more external and at a greater remove from the audience than do actor, dancer, and musical performer. They reshape an external material that offers resistance and sets up tensions within, while they are relieved of the pressure exercised by an immediate audience. The difference goes deep. It appeals to difference in temperament and talent and different moods in the audience. Painting and architecture cannot receive the direct excited simultaneous acclaim evoked by the theater, the dance, and musical performance. The direct personal contact established by eloquence, music, and enacted drama is sui generis. (p.158)


Is the same music nonrepresentative [of rigid classification] when played in a concert hall and representative when it is part of a sacramental service in a church? (p.223)

The ear and eye complement one another. The eye gives the scene in which things go on and on which changes are projected — leaving it still a scene even amid tumult and turmoil. The ear, taking for granted the background furnished by cooperative action of vision and touch, brings home to us changes as changes. For sounds are always effects; effects of the clash, the impact and resistance, of the forces of nature. They express these forces in terms of what they do to one another when they meet; the way they change one another, and change the things that are the theatre of their endless conflicts. The lapping of water, the murmur of brooks, the rushing and whistling of wind, the creaking of doors, the rustling of leaves, the swishing and cracking of branches, the thud of fallen objects, the sobs of depression and the shouts of victory — what are these, together with all noises and sounds, but immediate manifestations of changes brought about by the struggle of forces? Every stir of nature is effected by means of vibrations, but an even uninterrupted vibration makes no sound; there must be interruption, impact, and resistance. (p.236)

Music, having sound as its medium, thus necessarily expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life. The tension and the struggle has its gatherings of energy, its discharges, its attacks and defenses, its mighty warrings and its peaceful meetings, its resistances and resolutions, and out of these things music weaves its web. It is thus the opposite pole from the sculptural. As one expresses the enduring, the stable and universal, so the other expresses stir, agitation, movement, the particulars and contingencies of existences — which, nevertheless, are as ingrained in nature and as typical in experience as are its structural permanences. Within only a background there would be monotony and death; with only change and movement there would be chaos, not even recognized as disturbed or disturbing. The structure of things yields and alters, but it does so in rhythms that are secular, while the things that catch the ear are the sudden, abrupt, and speedy in change. (p.236)

…Sounds have the power of direct emotional expression. A sound is itself threatening, whining, soothing, depressing, fierce, tender, soporific, in its own quality.

Because of this immediacy of emotional effect, music has been classed as both the lowest and the highest of the arts. To some its direct organic dependence and resonances have seemed evidence that it is close to the life of animals; they can cite the fact music of a considerable degree of complexity has been successfully performed by persons of subnormal intelligence. The appeal of music — of certain grades — is much more widespread, much more independent of special cultivation, than that of any other art. And one has only to observe some musical enthusiasts of a certain kind at a concert to see that they are enjoying an emotional debauch, a release from ordinary inhibitions and an entrance into a realm where excitations are given unrestricted rein… musical performances are resorted to by some for obtaining sexual orgasms. On the other side, there are types of music, those most prized by connoisseurs, that demand special training to be perceived and enjoyed, and its devotees form a cult, so that their art is the most esoteric of all arts. (p.238)

…What has been said in general about the power of an art to take a natural, raw material and convert it, through selection and organization, into an intensified and concentrated medium of building up an experience, applies with force to music. Through the use of instruments, sound is freed from the definiteness it has acquired through association with speech. It thus reverts to its primitive passional quality. (p.238–239)

It is the peculiarity of music, and indeed its glory, that it can take the quality of sense that is the most immediately and intensely practical of all the bodily organs (since it incites most strongly to impulsive action) and by use of formal relationships transform the material into the art that is most remote from practical preoccupations. It retains the primitive power of sound to denote the clash of attacking and resisting forces and all accompanying phases of emotional movement. But by the use of harmony and melody of tone, it introduces incredibly varied complexities of question, uncertainty, and suspense wherein every tone is ordered in reference to others so that each is a summation of what precedes and a forecast of what is to come. (p.239)

Place Writing. Musicking. Sauntering. PhD. Driftless Area, USA.