Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The absence of essentialism is a recurring motif in postmodern philosophy. In that line of thinking, there are no foundational or inherent characteristics that distinguish one entity, object or idea from another. Whatever essence or defining substance there appears to be is an illusion shaped in the mind of the perceiver. Even the concept of human nature comes into question. Without confidence in our suppositions or in data derived from reason and observation, there cannot be a stable or set core of human characteristics. Our personalities become a malleable matrix of personal and socially constructed thoughts, perceptions and experiences.
The notion that we are the product of dispositions and circumstances can be overstated. Physical and elemental properties, scientific laws, genetic encoding and other measurable aspects of the material world inform who we are and what we know. Still, the practice of critical self-reflection—the “post-modern pause”—does help us confront tendencies, proclivities and prejudices we unknowingly possess, and realize the degree to which the beliefs we hold are grounded in subjective consciousness. Whatever the limits of the postmodern position, it does force us to examine and re-examine our assumptions.
This is particularly valuable for subjects rooted in aesthetics, such as music. For the strict postmodernist, music has no essence defining its fundamental nature. Rather, it exists in boundless varieties, each with culturally based particularities and expectations.
It is hardly novel to suggest that musical reactions and assessments are dependent upon the listener’s prior conditioning and exposure. Musical conventions, like a modulation or turn of phrase, arouse generalized emotions for listeners familiar with those devices. Music tied to a holiday or special event brings entire communities into shared sentiments connected with that day. Melodies are often linked to one’s past, stirring feelings and memories of a particular time, place or relationship.
But these observations can be taken too far. Even without the questioning voice of postmodernism, it is clear that how we think and feel about music is largely the product of our composite identities. Yet postmodern claims are softened by the fact that musical signatures and strains are felt in similar ways across wide audiences (within a cultural setting). If we concede that musical appraisal is essentially subjective, then consensus response is a valuable rubric. Musical conventions, figurations, parameters, conclusions and expectations were not forced upon us or dictated from on high. They developed over time through an organic and collective process of experimentation, consolidation and familiarization. As such, standard reactions and attitudes toward musical stimuli are firmer than postmodernists would contend.
No experience, musical or otherwise, is entirely pure or unadulterated. However, this does not mean that qualities attributed to music are simply imaginary. Music appreciation occupies a middle ground, in which sounds are inextricably combined with multi-dimensional experiences. The music’s essence is both intrinsic and entangled with the listener’s personal history. The two cannot be separated.
Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.