Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Music is widely considered the most emotional of the arts. While other art forms may awaken ideas and images that act upon the feelings, music’s first and most lasting impact is emotional. This is true when music aims at particular sentiments, and when it provides no definite clues as to an intended response. We are vulnerable to sounds that enter our awareness. They can deliver us to emotional states bearing no resemblance to our prior feelings. The speed with which this occurs can make the emotions difficult to decode or articulate. Whether we are moved slightly or profoundly, music tends to inspire an immediate change (or changes) in mood. And since all this takes place in the private interior realm, the experience evades critical analysis.
As a predominantly emotional enterprise, music is saddled with the same term given to the emotions themselves: subjectivity. In music as elsewhere, this label is used in both a positive and negative sense. On the one hand, feelings derived from and felt toward music are biased—a uniformly ugly term. On the other hand, musical reactions and opinions are part of what makes us autonomous beings—a high and holy concept.
Musical bias is an inevitable byproduct of the listening experience. Each person filters auditory input through a singular and entangled web of perception and cognition. The type and magnitude of the elicited response rest on a host of conscious and unconscious forces, like personal history, cultural heritage, group affiliation, generational membership, general temperament and momentary frame of mind. As a result, reactions to music are not timeless or objective in the way that thoughts can be, but are embedded in a person’s peculiar and non-replicable point of view. Judgments about music are, then, necessarily distorted: in whole or in large part, they involve feelings expressed as facts. These biases come to the surface in heated exchanges between fans of different artists, and when lists of the “best” composers/compositions/performers/songs are assembled and reacted to.
However, factors that contribute to bias become admirable when viewed from a different perspective. This is because musical opinions, when not at the center of contentious debates, reside in the sacred realm of self-knowledge. Tastes comprise an area of “me-ness”: they are distinctive to the individual and their subjectivity needs no apology. Their basis in emotions shields them against rational and quantitative challenges. They retain personal validity no matter what anyone else says.
Musical preferences cannot be divorced from emotional responses. The former is essentially an expression of the latter. Even when we judge a piece using theoretical analysis or culturally accepted standards, our personal feelings play a determining role. We may decide that a piece or performance is “good” (problematic as that is), but we still might not like it. (It is also true that theoretical measurements and cultural assumptions are, at core, attempts to quantify emotional responses.)
Musical experiences are thoroughly subjective, with all the positive and negative meanings the term implies. Like the feelings music evokes, musical preferences are unabashedly our own.
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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