Music Good and Bad

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The God of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is not a personal or independent creator of the universe, but the universe itself. The deity, whom Spinoza called “God or nature,” is the ultimate cause of all things because all things follow causally and necessarily from the divine essence. There is a definite order in the universe, and everything operates according to that structure. In this deterministic system, where the whole of nature proceeds “eternally from a certain necessity and with the utmost perfection,” “bad” and “good” are illusory categories relative to human experience, and free will (as commonly conceived) is but a figment of human consciousness. We are not free to do what we want: every action is conditioned by circumstances preceding it, those circumstances are determined by causes preceding them, and on and on. Things can only turn out one way: the way they do. As such, the appearance of rightness or absurdity, justice or unfairness in nature stems from our ignorance of the coherence of the universe and our demand that everything be arranged in accordance with human reason.

Arguing the merits and demerits of this concept is a favorite sport among philosophers. In some ways, Spinoza’s ideas seem as radical today as when they led to his expulsion from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656. What is intriguing from a musical standpoint is an analogy he used to challenge conventional wisdom on morality: “As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad” (The Ethics, IV).

As controversial as this evaluation may be, the comment on music deserves our consideration. There have been many attempts to devise standards and categories of good and bad music. Famously, sociomusicologist Simon Frith proposed four signifiers of bad pop recordings: tracks that rely on false sentiment; tracks featuring outmoded sound gimmicks; tracks displaying uneasy genre confusion; and tracks incompetently performed or produced. Yet, aside from perhaps the last part, these are essentially matters of taste. To use a well-worn aphorism, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Similar issues of preference and bias—which, we might add, are deterministically conditioned by circumstances like exposure and environment—cloud attempts to separate the trash from the treasure of any musical genre. Objective measurements simply do not (and cannot) exist.

Spinoza goes a step further in identifying the murkiness and subjectivity of musical judgment. Namely, he recognizes utility as a determining factor. Certain music may be appropriate or inappropriate for certain people in certain states at certain times. (Hence, the examples of the depressed person, the mourner and the person unable to hear.) It follows, then, that the perceived goodness or badness of a piece derives from two qualities: personal taste and situational function.

Spinoza sums up this non-absolutist, contextual approach thus: “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.” If the music is “good,” it is because we like it and because we find it suitable for a particular situation. “Bad” music fails on both accounts. It is also true that one’s opinion of a piece may shift from good to bad or vice versa depending on changes in aesthetic leanings and the contexts in which the music is heard. As Spinoza might say, the conditions, causes and effects leading up to the listening experience determine whether the music is heard as good or bad (or indifferent).

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

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