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Abstract

When a jazz, rock, or hip-hop drummer strikes certain notes in each measure slightly late, instead of hearing the degree to which those notes are late, we typically hear the effects of those variations; namely, a groove, the "feel" of a rhythm. Slight variations of pitch function similarly. In this essay, I argue that certain analytic theorists go astray due to their preoccupation with the variations themselves. By invoking Maurice Merleau-Ponty's insights into subtle visual perceptions, and his notion of perceptual indeterminacy, I avoid an account of musical subtlety suggested by Daniel Dennett that is too coarse-grained, as well as the bleak conclusion that certain musical subtleties are ineffable, Diana Raffman's view. I conclude that elements of music that are perceived ambiguously can perform a positive function in such aesthetic experiences: they can mediate or foster emergent qualities; moreover, they must be perceived in this way to do so.

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