Less is More

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old opera joke that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, while Puccini’s music sounds better than it is. The humor of this quip lies in the absurdity of judging music—the audible art—apart from how it sounds. It lampoons the elitist’s assertion that accessible music is almost definitionally inferior to more esoteric works, regardless of what our ears tell us. Whatever truth there may be in this musicological system of merits and demerits—and whatever influence such assessments may have—it nevertheless highlights distinctions between listening and evaluating, and between scholars and ordinary folk. It is the difference between experiential knowledge—“I know what I like when I hear it”—and analytical discernment—“I discern its value when I measure it.” These divergent modes of apprehension help explain the often-wide chasm separating popular musical opinions and the rarified views of music critics, theorists, historians and other professionals. “The expert knows best,” so says the expert.

None of this is meant to negate the worth or even accuracy of musical criticism. When a musicologist or respected composer extols or disparages this or that opus, we should probably pay attention. But even the specialist will admit that too much information tends to tarnish the musical experience. What is primarily a medium of emotional expression becomes the subject of cognitive probing.

There is a standard line of thinking in the philosophy of aesthetics that visceral reactions to art are most intense in an art form other than one’s own. For example, a painter will have a primitive rush of emotions when standing in a Gothic cathedral, while the architect next to her closely examines the stonework of the clerestory, the dimensions of the fan vault and so on. The painter excitedly declares, “This place is awesome!” The architect replies, “Did you notice the design flaw in that section of the ceiling?” Similarly, an architect seated in a concert hall will surrender himself to the mass of sound, while the musician sitting beside him busily scrutinizes melodic contours, harmonic density, tonal color and so forth. The architect blurts out, “This is marvelous!” The musician responds, “Trivial rubbish.” The first is wrapped in sensual pleasure; the second is absorbed in adjudication.

It is sometimes said of the music theorist that he has a refined appreciation of the analytical and abstract, but a cultivated disregard for the affective and aesthetic. This “spiritless” perspective was articulated by seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne, who believed music to be “nothing more than the movement of air, and thus amenable to mechanical and mathematic treatment.” Of course, expertise in the science of music does not in itself preclude musical enjoyment. It is, after all, the musical expert who is most interested in and enthusiastic about musical history, variety and subtlety. But, as the aesthetician readily acknowledges, interest and experience are not the same thing. To paraphrase Aaron Copland, the “gifted listener”—i.e., the musically educated—may hear more in a performance, but as the listener’s knowledge expands so does her distance from the “primal and almost brutish level” of musical emotions. Again, this is not necessarily good or bad; but it does account for the disconnect between the novice’s professed love for this or that conventional fare and the critic’s supercilious remark that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Goethe’s famous saying has relevance here: “Doubt grows with knowledge.” If we replace “doubt” with “critical analysis”—which is the essence of Goethe’s phrase—we begin to recognize how difficult it is for the knowledgeable musician to replicate the relative simplicity and abandonment of the average person’s musical encounter. Proficiency in the art tends to impede purity of experience.

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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