Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Value in music is of two kinds. The first is formal, or value in the technical sense of the term. Within a musical system, there are agreed upon and objectively verifiable measurements for calculating elements such as tonality, texture, dynamics, temporal properties and structure. For example, theoretical analysis of Western concert repertoire includes specific names for chord types, normative concepts of articulation, parameters for simple and complex compositions, qualifications for themes and variations, and numerous other mechanical and quasi-mechanical computations.
The second kind of value is not so absolute. It is value in the humanistic sense, or the judgment of aesthetic qualities based on sensuous response. This is qualitative worth, in which subjective ideas like beauty, purpose, pleasantness, truth and goodness are applied to music. Such value exists on a continuum. An audience’s impression of a piece can range from strong affinity to staunch dislike, with shades of nuance in between. These varied reactions are common despite attempts to standardize conceptions of excellence. Mozart is supposed to be received as beauty nearing perfection, even if a person does not resonate with it, while elevator music is supposed to be repugnant, even if one aimlessly rides up and down the shaft just to hear it.
True, one can never fully escape the musical pre-judgments that pervade a culture. Through cultural membership, we are involuntarily exposed to a set of consensus-driven artistic rules and expectations. Yet, on an individual level, there can be varying degrees of agreement and disagreement. This is because aesthetics are not inherent in the piece or in the mind of the listener. They arise from a transaction between the two.
Aesthetic valuation occurs in three successive stages: perception, statement of position, and reason for judgment. In a typical scenario, a listener hears a song, pronounces that it is boring, and explains that it lacks motion and variation. Another person might hear the same song and find it soothing for the same reasons. As a general rule, any piece is capable of attracting fans, no matter how vehement or widespread the opposition. The opposite goes for pieces widely regarded as good or pleasing: they still have their detractors.
Thus, the question follows: Is there any right or wrong way to feel about music? Critics and aestheticians would argue that there is. They point to the role of convention in determining things like attractiveness, balance and symmetry. By these guidelines, a selection can be certified as great, good, mediocre, bad, etc. An exception is made for works outside of one’s purview, namely music of a foreign culture or subculture. For instance, the average American cannot accurately assess a gamelan performance, nor can a Baroque enthusiast give definitive appraisals of gansta rap. But critics object when similar leeway is given for music produced in one’s own cultural setting.
Conclusions drawn by critics and aestheticians are often well reasoned and sometimes thought provoking. But they can also be overly academic and remote from the actual musical encounter. As much as they strive to distance music from arbitrary evaluations, the act of listening is by nature arbitrary. While music has absolute value in terms of its measurable components, the sensuous value we ascribe to it is the result of intimate contact. Norms and inherited assumptions can and do inform our decision-making, but the final judgment remains our own. Music is a matter of taste, and taste matters.
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