Lessons from the Ear

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In many circles and in much of contemporary discourse, dogmatism is held up as a paramount virtue. Consistency of belief, firmness of position and unwavering opinions, whether of a religious, political or other kind, are viewed as treasured and noble traits. Conversely, those who exhibit intellectual flexibility and openness to revision are thought untrustworthy or insincere. This attitude persists despite our being the inheritors of millennia of ideas, our knowledge of the swiftly changing world, and our awareness of the historical tragedies ideologies have wrought. It seems that no matter how antiquated or simplistic the mindset—and regardless of the quality or amount of contrary evidence—steadfastness and cocksureness are judged intrinsically virtuous.

Allegiance to narrow principles and provincial notions does have its benefits, not the least of which are a (false) reduction of life’s complexities, a sense of stability in an unstable world, a solid foundation for self-identity and a basis for group cohesion—unrealistic and un-nuanced though some of this may be. But the truly critical mind is never satisfied with this type of thinking, since it necessarily involves surrendering to inherited assumptions and accepting conclusions arrived at by a person or persons other than oneself. More importantly, the supposed nobility of ideological stubbornness conflicts with another, more compelling, virtue: learning from experience.

Situations, circumstances, observations, readings, reflections, interactions, trial and error, cause and effect and other processes offer the open mind ample opportunities for reevaluation. The challenge is to keep a portion of our slate blank enough to accept, adopt and adapt new information, and to be willing to dismiss cherished views when they are proven faulty or insufficient. To quote nineteenth-century ethicist Thomas Fowler, “intellectual honesty requires that, if need be, we should sacrifice our consistency and our favorite dogmas on the altar of truth.”

In spite of its current unpopularity, this approach is more practical than radical, and far more ancient than it might appear. Its roots are planted in Greece and Rome, where minds as celebrated as Posidonius, Cicero and Seneca conceded that no single system of thought was adequate for understanding reality. Instead, these philosophical eclectics drew upon multiple theories and methods to gain insights into a certain subject or decipher a certain scenario. They favored reason over elegance, constructing sometimes-messy worldviews from existing beliefs and their own ideas.

Their apparent inconstancy was as pragmatic as it is opposed to conventions of modern discourse. Yet even the current-day dogmatist tends to be eclectic in some ways. A case in point is musical listening. If we were to take an inventory of the music we enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past), we would likely be astonished by the variety and lack of unifying characteristics. Most of us draw musical selections from abundant sources and styles. Others have a disciplined relationship with music, limiting themselves to a certain period or genre of recordings. But even when the range is relatively small, there is still diversification enough to dispute dogmatism.

Added to this, the way we listen to a piece at any given time tends to vary. Our hearing is usually directed toward one or more specific dimensions, be it melody, orchestration, rhythmic pattern, tonal density, timbre, coloration, phrasing or something else. Whether this variation of perception is conscious or unconscious, the result is that we are always processing musical sounds differently. The heterogeneity of our listening habits rivals that of our musical choices.

Like the philosophical eclectic who un-rigidly searches for ideas best suited to address an inquiry, the listener seeks out music that best matches personal leanings and the situation at hand. And like the adherent of eclecticism, whose outlook and theoretical tools are receptive to reassessment and modification, our musical preferences are subject to change. If at any time we were presented with a thousand recordings representing far-flung styles, we would find some of them bearable, others unlistenable and select a few as favorites. The determining factor would be this: whether or not the music “works.”

Of course, there are ideological purists in every area of life, including music. They fancy themselves honorable conservationists, but are just as often stubborn fossilizers artificially removed from the evolving experience that is life. Musical purists are unable and unwilling to budge, even if there are practical reasons for doing so. Clinging is construed as righteousness.

But such purists, while adamant and often vociferous, are the musical minority. Most of us have eclectic ears: we are open to and excited about adding to our constantly adjusting playlists. We approach music not as dogmatists, but as experimenters whose views derive from exposure and analysis. Honest engagement in all aspects of life requires a similar level of open-mindedness. If only we would listen to our ears.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s