Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Identity and Songs

I've been wondering about what makes a song the song that it is. That is, what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a particular song. Here's a clip from Ray Charles in 1968. He's performing a song called "Going Down Slow" (it's a pretty famous Blues standard).

And here's a clip from Eric Clapton singing "Going Down Slow." Notice that the titles of the songs are the same. The lyrics are very similar (though not identical) and there's clearly quite a bit in common between the two performances. But, at the same time, they're extremely different.

We might wonder whether Ray and Eric are playing the same song.

A natural answer is that they are playing different versions of the same song. They have their own interpretations of it, but it's just one song--"Going Down Slow." But this suggests that a number of things can be different between two performances and yet the two can be performances of the same song. For example, the chord progression between them can be different, the lyrics can be different, the tempo can be different, the instrumentation can be different, etc. Of course, they can't be too different--because then they wouldn't be performances of the same song. But where does one draw the line? In other words, what makes something a version of "Going Down Slow" as opposed to some other song? Interestingly, I've heard instrumental versions of "Going Down Slow," where there are no lyrics since no one is singing. It still seems right to say that the song performed was "Going Down Slow." So what do you think about these issues? What makes a song the song that it is?


Toby said...

This is probably an annoying question, but I wonder if you (or another commenter) can say a bit more about what the question 'What makes a song the song that it is?' exactly means? I'm not sure what kind of fact you're trying to identify here.

What stops me replying with something like, 'Well, every song is just the song that it is'? I mean, what extra thing might two songs have in common, over and above the factors you mentioned like tempo/chords/lyrics/title, if they are 'the same song'?

Jesse Steinberg said...

Toby- The question isn't annoying at all. I'm trying to keep posts simple, as my main intended audience are my students, most of whom are are not majoring in philosophy. So it's hard to be as precise and in-depth as I might be in another venue.

One question I'm concerned about has to do with what might be called "song identity." That is, suppose that X is a song and Y is a song. Under what conditions are X and Y the same song. A related issue having to do with identity is change over time. So I'm also worried about the sorts of changes a song can endure and still remain the same song--as opposed to it being no longer the same song and now a new one. I'm thus concerned about a cluster of problems related to "sameness" or "identity."

What strikes me (and a lot of other folks) as odd is that two things can be quite different from each other and yet still be the same--in the sense that they are "numerically identical." I am the same person as the one that my parents raised in California years ago despite the fact that I now have very different properties (e.g., I can speak English; I'm a different size and shape; etc.). My favorite basketball team is the Lakers. They've been my favorite basketball team since I was a kid, but now they have all different players, a different owner, a different coach, etc. And yet it seems true to say that it's the same team as the team that I grew up loving. So we can ask similar sorts of questions about "personal identity" or "team identity" as I'm asking here about "song identity."

I hope this clears up the sorts of things I've got in mind.

Anonymous said...

I believe each song must first be heard to be considered a song. Consider an author of a song who composed lyrics (and/or musical notes) and died. If his true intention was never performed, one musician after another may examine any one of the songs produced from, and including, the original song (of which is only known lyrics and perhaps notes for a particular set of instruments) only to find that they are only in part identical. Each performance of a song, therefore, may be performed to the musician's liking. In fact, that is the basis of their profession, I believe.

In this line of thinking, each song would kind of have the property of all being a part of, and thus constituting the whole of, the song.

I suppose another example would be to say that they are like clones. Though a clone is an exact genetic copy, it will have been created at a different time, for a different reason, by someone other than the conceiving parents, and have different experiences. Much like each individual performance of a song.

Since it is in fact called a record, one can say for sure that what is being discussed here is a particular set of recordings, each with the same name. That name ought to be thought of as the title of all those songs with the universal property of being the song under discussion. That's why when you search on iTunes for a song (record), the artist, and the date (among other legal garbage) are often displayed.


Anonymous said...

A song is a mode rather than a substance, Hume'e substance example is gold: yellow, malleable, fusible, heavy, etc. On discovering that it is also dissolvable in aqua regia, because it is a substance, we conclude it always had that property. A mode, on the other hand, becomes something new/different upon any new addition:

"The simple ideas of which modes are formed, either represent qualities, which are not united by contiguity and causation, but are dispers'd in different subjects; or if they be all united together, the uniting principle is not regarded as the foundation of the complex idea. The idea of a dance is an instance of the first kind of modes; that of beauty of the second. The reason is obvious, why such complex ideas cannot receive any new idea, without changing the name which distinguishes the mode."

- David Hume, Hume's Treatise, Book I Of The Understanding, Section VI Of Modes And Substances

In your example the name of the song is the same; however, it was given by the artist who has license to name it however he/she pleases.