Musical Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aesthetics is classically defined as the study of the beautiful in art. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Victorian biologist best remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog,” set the definition as a list: a beauty in appearance, visual appeal, an experience, an attitude, a property of something, a judgment, and a process. This expanded meaning touches on the original Greek aisthesis, which deals with feelings and sensations. Aesthetics, in this sense, is not limited to the thing itself, but rather is a holistic term encompassing the focal point—the object, performance, atmosphere, etc.—and the experience of and response to that focal point.

However, Huxley’s elucidation, like many others, suffers from an over-emphasis on beauty. While aesthetic engagement often involves perceptions of beauty, this is not the only (or even foremost) criterion of artistic merit. Art can be aesthetically satisfying without necessarily being “beautiful” in the conventional sense of eliciting pleasure.

Applied to music, aesthetics might be conceived as the relationship of music to the human senses. Rather than judging whether or not a composition is beautiful, or why one piece is more beautiful than another, attention shifts to the interplay between musical stimuli and the interior realm of sensations. The onus of appraisal moves from the cold tools of theoretical analysis to the auditor.

For some thinkers, this is the only appropriate location for aesthetic assessment. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music taps into channels of pure emotions: “Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.” T. H. Yorke Trotter, founder and principal of the Incorporated London Academy of Music, echoed Schopenhauer in a 1907 lecture, stating that, while other art forms awaken ideas and images that act on the feelings, music directly stirs “dispositions which we translate by the vague terms, joy, sadness, serenity, etc.”

In this revised view, aesthetic value does not depend on the micro or macro features of a piece, per se, but on how one responds to those features. Emotional arousals are instant aesthetic judgments. It is no accident that the perceived qualities of a piece or passage mirror the responses induced: joyful, mournful, serene, and so forth. The intensity of the emotion might separate one piece from another, but the immediacy of the music—as Schopenhauer and Yorke described it—seems to defy such classifications. Among other things, integrating (or equating) aesthetics with emotions underscores the subjectivity of the topic, and highlights the interconnectedness and simultaneity of stimulus, experience, and evaluation.

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To Jargon or Not to Jargon

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art historian Bernard Berenson described the transformative potential of gazing at visual art, “when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and colour. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness.” Berenson compared this moment to a flash of “mystic vision,” when the workaday mind is muted and perceptive faculties transcend their ordinary functions.

This articulation of experientialism, which values experience as a source of truth, contrasts with intellectualism, where knowledge is derived from reason. The latter is characteristic of Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, whose studies of the arts comprise over half of his oeuvre. Adorno used his considerable intellect to criticize jazz, the “in-the-moment” art par excellence, and popular music, which encourages pre-rational engagement. In fairness, he was less concerned with the substance of “pop” than with its capitalist producers and passive consumers. He viewed popular music as evidence of a devious hegemony rooted in the “industrialization of culture,” which conditions passive listeners to hardly listen at all.

This argument has some validity. Listening habits are standardized through exposure to “hits” and popular styles, such that listeners essentially know what will happen in a song before they hear it. As R. C. Smith, a philosopher of science and defender of Adorno, notes: “In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting.”

What these social critiques overlook is the music’s experiential impact. The transcendence Berenson described can occur with any art form, regardless of its origins, intentions, or predictability. In the subjective, spontaneous, and totalizing moment, all that exists is the experience itself. Analysis is as impossible as it is superfluous.

Experientialism finds its opposite in Adorno’s writings, which have been called “excessively negative,” “excessively ornamented,” and “excessively difficult.” The complexity of his German prose made early English translations unreliable, and his esoteric vocabulary can obscure his insights. Adorno was critical of this tendency in others, as evidenced in his attack on the language of Martin Heidegger (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit). Yet he admitted in a footnote to that work: “Even he who despises jargon is by no means secure from infection by it—consequently all the more reason to be afraid of it.”

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Musical (Nearly) Universals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human universals refer to aspects of culture, language, behavior, and psyche found in historically and geographically distributed human populations. These include, but are by no means limited to, tools and tool-making, grammar and syntax, myths and proverbs, social groups and kinship systems, mores and moral codes, facial recognition and psychological defenses, and gestures and emotional displays. Some of these are universals of classification, as opposed to universals of content: they share common patterns and purposes, but not necessarily individual elements.  Myths and languages, for example, take on many different forms and meanings, but their presence in widely varied societies make them universal categories.

Music is universal in this classificational sense. While a universally applicable definition of music seems impossible, no human society, past or present, has been without some type of culturally intelligible musical expression. Anthropologists and aestheticians highlight dissimilarities in styles and sounds, and modern music-makers push barriers beyond what is normatively called “music.” Yet within the overwhelming variety and complexity reside ubiquitous acoustic cues.

Psychological studies have uncovered an array of associations between general musical sounds (i.e., not tied to a specific genre or music-culture) and human responses. Loud music, for instance, tends to increase psychological arousal. Lower pitches are perceived as negative or aggressive, whereas higher pitches are heard as positive or submissive. Vibrato tends to evoke strong emotionality, while sudden or unexpected sounds tend to startle. Auditors synchronize body movements with music’s temporal organization. Cuteness is conveyed through certain resonant cavities (roughly 20 milliliters in volume), such as ocarinas and music boxes, which apparently trigger nurturing behaviors associated with infant vocalizations. Other cues suggest a link between vocal tendencies and musical expression, such as intensified speech (angry, fearful, happy, etc.) with faster tempi.

As this partial list suggests, similar responses to similar characteristics persist across the human experience, even as the music itself can differ dramatically. This seems to go against the “incommensurability thesis,” which posits that because objects, concepts, and behaviors have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. However, without denying music’s irreducible diversity, associations appear to cut through culturally specific signatures. Underlying the wide range of rhythms, tonalities, modalities, and timbres are basic and essentially predicable emotional responses.

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1 Grotrian-Steinweg_Concert-Hall_Braunschweig

Accuracy and Soul

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I may say that in the studio accuracy is more readily manageable than ‘soul.’” This statement appears in master pianist Alfred Brendel’s 1983 essay, “A Case for Live Recordings.” Brendel, who played his last concert in 2008 at age 78, is no stranger to the recording studio, and appreciates its technological advantages. However, he opines that studio perfection is merely mechanical, not musical. More is lost than gained when the tension and risk of the concert hall is replaced with the purification of numerous takes.

Brendel notes several differences between live concerts and studio recordings. The live performer has one chance to convince the audience; the studio allows multiple playthroughs. The concert is only experienced once; the recording is repeatable. The concert performer imagines, plays, projects, and listens all at once; the studio player can hear it again and react accordingly. The concert atmosphere is raw and often nerve-racking; the studio allows for loosening up. The concert involves audience-performer interaction; the recording is made in virtual solitude. The live performance includes unscripted coughs and chirps; the studio offers manicured silence. The concert has a physical presence; the recording is a disembodied sound. The concert does not value absolute perfection; the studio is “ruled by the aesthetics of compulsive cleanness.”

Although both sides of the dichotomy have pluses and minuses, Brendel contends that the controlled studio environment adversely impacts listening habits and performance approaches. Pristine recordings condition listeners to expect technical precision, even in the unfiltered concert setting. Performers try to replicate what fans have heard over and over on the recordings. As Brendel puts it: “[A] concert has a different message and a different way of delivering it. Now that we listeners to records and studio troglodytes have learned so much from studio recordings, it seems time to turn back and learn from concerts once again.”

He recommends live recordings as a middle ground between the unfettered electricity of the concert hall and the artificial sterility of the studio. Specifically, he prefers live recordings that come about by chance and without the artist’s knowledge (but sold later with the artist’s permission). This oft-neglected “stepchild” stands between the one-shot concert, which takes place on a certain day in front of a particular audience, and the recording, which can be heard anywhere at any time, paused, and played again. The live recording is portable and fossilized, yet it captures the spontaneity of the performance and the presence of an audience. The quality may suffer compared to a studio version, but the aura of being there is worth the imperfections.

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Wild Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir contrasts his experience of the natural world with that of his artist companions, who are transfixed by idyllic mountain scenery. The artists, adhering to the “picturesque” philosophy, seek out choice vistas resembling the composition and subject matter of works of art. Muir, on the other hand, sees the entirety of the natural world as inherently beautiful beyond his own preferences and associations. As he articulated later, “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” This view, which came to be called “positive aesthetics,” attempts a non-anthropocentric position, wherein conventionally put-upon creatures, like snakes and insects, ignored topographies, like wetlands and barren plains, and frowned-upon events, like floods and earthquakes, are also things of beauty.

Muir’s philosophy avoids the pitfalls of scenery-obsession, subjective judgment, and selective preservation. By virtue of their pristineness, wild habitats are fundamentally beautiful, whereas humanity’s imprint—in whatever form and in whatever environment—invariably decreases beauty.

The starkness of this position invites criticism. To declare that all of nature is beautiful seems as erroneous as saying that all art is beautiful, or that all living things, including the deformed or nonviable, are aesthetically pleasing. However, this implies a thesis of equal beauty, which Muir does not. As Allen Carlson points out, positive aesthetics “holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value.”

Soundscape ecology encompasses aspects of the two aesthetic approaches outlined above: positive and picturesque. Concerned with the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical environment, soundscape ecologists are sensitive to the balance and interrelatedness of sound signatures in a given habitat. They offer auditory tools through which to assess the health of an environment, specifically as it relates to the presence or absence of human-made (anthropogenic) noise, which tends to disrupt natural soundscapes and, consequently, threaten biodiversity. Following Muir’s positive aesthetics, the intrusion of human noise (anthrophony) into a wild habitat—whether coherent, incoherent, ordered, or chaotic—is generally considered disruptive.

Soundscape ecologists often appeal to our attraction to the picturesque, or “music-esque.” Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field, theorizes extensively on ways animal and environmental sounds shaped the development of music and language in humans. Krause’s friend and collaborator Ruth Happel waxes poetically: “[Natural soundscapes] helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origins of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.” In other words, preservation of what is acoustically valuable for humanity is reason enough to conserve the natural landscapes that support them.

This practical-sentimental approach bypasses complex philosophical discussions in environmental aesthetics. If nothing else, Muir, Krause, Happel, and others remind us that animals and landscapes conventionally seen or heard as beautiful cannot survive in a vacuum. The picturesque and music-esque require the totality of their supportive habitats, whether or not we find it all beautiful.

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Objective and Subjective Emotions in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music.” This oft-quoted statement from Igor Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography Chronicles of My Life remains hotly debated. It seems to fly in the face of intuition, which automatically senses in music a definite emotional quality. Postmodern deconstructionists have taken Stravinsky’s statement to its extreme, discounting an essential relationship between music and emotions, and arguing that music can only express musicality itself. Nonmusical associations—emotional, symbolic, and visual impressions—have nothing to do with music per se, but instead prove the human tendency to endow everything in our environment with animate qualities. Advocates of this view, like Peter Kivy and Malcolm Budd, agree especially with the second part of Stravinsky’s statement: “If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention—in short, an aspect we have come to confuse, consciously or by force of habit, with its essential being.”

Stravinsky’s words might confound listeners of his music, which elicits a range of deeply emotional responses. However, his comment speaks more to process than impact. It articulates a formalist position, wherein music’s meaning is determined by form. Music invariably produces emotions, but it does not embody them. This viewpoint marked a shift from nineteenth-century romanticism, which valued irrationality, spontaneity, and transcendence over Enlightenment ideals of reason, order, and materiality.

Importantly, 1936 was the middle of Stravinsky’s neoclassicist period, bookended between a Russian “neo-primitive” period (1907-1919) and a period of serialism (1954-1968). Neoclassicism was a return to compositional attributes favored in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including light textures, conciseness, conventional forms (dance suites, sonata forms, etc.), and tonality (more a reaction to modernism than to romanticism). It was not simply an imitative movement: “neo” denotes both return and innovation. Even Stravinsky’s dry and Bach-like Octet for wind instruments (1923)—an early effort dismissed in the press as a bad joke—bears the composer’s signature.

Stravinsky clarified his rejection of romanticism and its “supernatural muse” in Poetics of Music (1947): “Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.” Fellow twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland saw in Stravinsky’s approach the beginnings objectivism, which came to dominate concert music as the twentieth century march toward the twenty-first.

Unlike the overly expressive music of the Romantics, which expands harmony, dynamics, and form to transmit intensely personal sentiments, Classical and modern works, while sonically light years apart, share an air of impersonality. Construction precedes and produces expression, rather than the other way around. Thus, as Copland wrote in The New Music: 1900-1960, there is “no need, therefore, to concentrate on anything but the manipulation of the musical materials, these to be handled with consummate taste and craftsmanship alike.”

Viewed in this light, Stravinsky’s provocative stance on music and emotion really answers a question of style: Should emotions drive composition (Romantic-subjective) or derive from it (Classical-objective)? The broader issue of whether feelings originate within musical sounds or are grafted onto them seems almost moot. Not to sidestep the debate entirely, but the experience remains emotional all the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.



Conductor as Performer

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Felix Mendelssohn is credited with popularizing the use of a baton for orchestral conducting, beginning in 1829. Louis Spohr claimed he introduced the practice in 1820 while guest-conducting the large and spread apart London Philharmonic Society. Accounts of wooden batons appear before the end of the eighteenth century, but the device was slow to catch on, largely due to resistance from orchestras. Seventeenth-century ensembles were typically lead by violinists (concert masters), who kept groups together by playing loudly, bowing vigorously, and occasionally tapping with the bow. Other tactics emerged as ensembles grew in size. In a 1752 treatise, C. P. E. Bach advised leading from the keyboard. When orchestras were first joined with choirs, the violinist would often lead one section, while the harpsichordist led the other. Opera conductors sometimes stood off to the side, pounding a staff on the floor. By the early nineteenth century, conductors positioned themselves in front of orchestras, brandishing rolled-up sheets of paper. They typically faced the audience, not the players, so as not to appear rude.

As this sketch suggests, the history of conducting is not uniform or altogether clear. The stable position as we know it today masks a gradual and convoluted development. Mendelssohn was key in establishing the conductor’s independent role. According to Leonard Bernstein, a famously kinetic twentieth-century conductor, Mendelssohn founded the “‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.” The two styles are not necessarily diametrically opposed: there can be passion in elegance, and elegance in passion. Nevertheless, they represent contrasting aesthetics, as outlined by Phillip Murray Dineen of the University of Ottawa.

The first is resident aesthetics, or functional beauty accrued from gestures associated with the music performed. These include fixed beat patterns and their modifications: accelerandos, ritardandos, fermatas, dynamic changes, and the like. The second is sympathetic aesthetics, or beauty derived from decorative contrivances apart from the task at hand. Dineen describes it as “a largely non-functional set of gestures unique to a given conductor, which often accomplish little or nothing mechanical in and of themselves, but instead either work to elicit a particular and specialized affect from the players or serve merely as interesting bodily motions for the aesthetic satisfaction of the audience.”

Bernstein is representative of the latter class. As music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 (and conductor emeritus thereafter), he was praised and criticized for his ecstatic, dance-like style. His statement in The Joy of Music took some by surprise: “Perhaps the chief requirement of all is that [the conductor] be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience.” Gunther Schuller considered it “saddening and perplexing that Bernstein rarely followed his own credo.”

Of course, some music demands more exaggerated gestures than others. Compare, for instance, a quasi-spontaneous avant-garde composition with a predicable Classical chamber piece. In the former, demonstrative conducting is more functional than self-indulgent. Still, whether the movements are staid, effusive, or somewhere in between, the modern composer adds an important visual dimension to a largely aural phenomenon.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.