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We Are the Instrument: A Humean Perspective on Music and Self



What happens when you sit at a piano or strum a guitar? Conventionally, we think of music-making as a musician producing sound through an instrument. But what if this perception is merely a habit of thought, not the true nature of our musical engagement? Inspired by the philosophical insights of David Hume, this blog post explores the idea that, in music, the musician is the true instrument, and the physical tool is just an extension of the musician’s creative expression.


Section 1: Redefining the Musician-Instrument Relationship


Before diving into Hume's philosophy, let's rethink the traditional view where the instrument is seen as the primary source of music. This view limits our understanding of the music-making process. If we consider that the musician molds the music through their unique perceptions and intentions, we start seeing the instrument not as a separate entity but as a medium through which musicians express their evolving selves.


Section 2: David Hume’s Philosophy on Perception and Self


David Hume, a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, argued that human understanding of the world is shaped not by objective truths but by our perceptions and the habits they form. According to Hume, what we perceive as cause and effect, for instance, is actually just our mind's tendency to expect certain outcomes based on past experiences. Applying this to music, the sounds produced by an instrument are not simply the effects of strings being strummed or keys being pressed; they are the interpretations of the musician's actions based on their perceptions and emotional inputs.


Furthermore, Hume’s notion that the self is just a bundle of perceptions without a core essence suggests that a musician’s identity is constantly reshaped by their interactions with music. This view encourages us to see musical performance as a dynamic and deeply personal act where the musician, as the true instrument, brings music to life through a fluid expression of their perceptions and feelings.


Section 3: Practical Implications in Music


Embracing a Humean perspective transforms how musicians approach their art. It shifts the focus from mastering the instrument technically to understanding how each touch and movement reflects their inner state. This approach can make musical practice more introspective and fulfilling, potentially even reducing performance anxiety by emphasizing control over personal expression rather than technical perfection.


Conclusion: David Hume’s insights into perception and the self provide a profound framework for understanding our relationship with music. By viewing ourselves as the primary instrument—through which music is not just played but genuinely created—we can experience a deeper connection to our art. Every note and every melody becomes an expression of our momentary self, our bundle of perceptions. As musicians and lovers of music, let’s challenge ourselves to not just play music, but to be the music.

Call to Action: Reflect on your own experiences with music. How does seeing yourself as the primary instrument change your approach to your art? Share your thoughts and join the conversation about philosophy and music on social media or in the comments below.

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