Evaluating Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with a maxim: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By this, Tolstoy meant that harmony in the home requires a checklist of essential ingredients: parental authority, child discipline, respectful discourse, mutual support, political agreement, good humor and so on. The list is long and largely unspoken, but failure in any one respect can upset the family balance. Happiness is predicated on success in numerous general areas, but unhappiness can result from varied sources of discord. There is no single-issue explanation for why one family is dysfunctional and another isn’t, but functional families are functional for basically the same reasons.

Of course, not all inner-family differences are irreconcilable or severe enough to produce absolute unhappiness. Gradients of joy can be achieved without perfection. Few are the marriage and family counselors (or people in marriages and families) who would side wholeheartedly with Tolstoy’s saying and all that it implies. Still, there is wisdom in the underlying premise: positive feelings about anything in life depend on a number of converging factors.

These factors tend to reveal themselves slowly within interpersonal relationships—familial, platonic, passionate and otherwise. It takes time to analyze our compatibility with another human being; the complexity of each person necessitates a thorough evaluation. The process is usually quicker in relationships with other things, such as food and recreation. In those cases, we rely on our senses for instant verdicts. But the rapidness with which these decisions are made does not mean they are casual or unrefined.

For example, musical judgments are usually formed within ten seconds of listening. That is all the time we need to assess whether or not we like what we hear. Our conclusion comes with such speed and certainty that it might seem arbitrary or unreflective. However, many categories of appraisal are present in the moment of listening. It is just that they are triggered automatically and are most often unconscious.

Without realizing it, we make musical decisions based on styles and genres, hooks and phrases, colors and moods, vocals and instruments, performance technique, recording quality and other features. The music needs to satisfy each area in order to be liked. As with Tolstoy’s observation about family health, music that fails in just one way may cause disapproval. A lyric or guitar lick can spoil our relationship with the music.

This is not to say that musical judgment is always reflexive or cannot change over time. Elmer Bernstein argued this point with a crude analogy: “A piece of music is an art work, and to try to judge it by ‘instinct’ in four seconds has about as much validity as trying to evaluate the worth of a woman by the size of her bust.” Yet, even when the period of appraisal extends beyond a few seconds, music that is embraced must meet an assortment of usually unarticulated and always-personal requirements.

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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2 thoughts on “Evaluating Music

  1. Pingback: Evaluating Music | independent musician resourc...

  2. Pingback: Evaluating Music | Stan Stewart's Blog

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