Viewpoints on Instrumentality

2015, Sarah-Indriyati Hardjowirogo

By the term instrumentality I refer to the potential property of things to be used as musical instruments or, more precisely, to their instrumental potential as such. While sharing the assumption that virtually anything –a shoe, a bottle, a pen– can become a musical instrument under certain conditions, I keep wondering what exactly these conditions are. Utilitarian approaches to this question, such as It’s a musical instrument if it is used as a musical instrument, are by no means trivial since they emphasize the importance of a purposeful use for the process that turns an arbitrary object into a commodity with a well-defined function. Still, I cannot help finding this kind of circular reasoning hardly satisfactory: What, then, does it mean to use something as a musical instrument? What are the actions and procedures associated with musical instruments? What kind of mental and physical knowledge do we have to access in order to recognise or use something as a musical instrument? How is this knowledge being shaped by cultural conventions and temporal conditions? And, finally, how has this complex structure of actions, knowledge and meaning changed over time? More broadly, what are the conditions that constitute a musical instrument as such?
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