Is All Music Functional?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The role function plays in determining aesthetic qualities is far greater than we might intuit. Responses to artistic creations and performances are largely rooted in perceived levels of functionality. “I like it” or “I don’t like it” are, in essence, statements about whether or not the artistic object left us moved and, if so, whether it moved us to a desirable or undesirable outcome. If the goal is to be sent into a state of awe or a flood of tears, does it happen or not? When we dial through the radio on a highway drive, does the music aid the journey or not? If the artwork accomplishes the task and/or meets certain expectations, it is “good”; if it fails, it is “bad.”

Along with this observation come two sub-points: (1) No creative display satisfies everyone’s tastes (which are, more accurately, needs); (2) Evaluation of the art’s effectiveness (the foundation of aesthetic judgment) varies depending on the setting, season, activity, momentary mood, and so on. As such, phrases like “It does it for me” and “It doesn’t do it for me” are closer to the functional-aesthetic mark.

If we travel along this line of thinking, we might conclude that aesthetics are utterly arbitrary. This may or may not be so. (The adverb “utterly,” in any case, gives too strong a sense of certainty.) External conditions constantly and subconsciously inform our sense of beauty, including cultural norms and evolutionary adaptations. What the functional lens brings into focus is the active nature of aesthetics—that is, the degree to which deciding that something is pretty, repulsive, profound, trite, pleasant, disturbing, inspiring, bland, touching or cold is shaped by what we’re doing and what we’re looking for while we’re doing it.

Turning to music specifically, we find explicit and implicit ways in which functionalism is linked to appraisal. The explicit group includes all music that is overtly functional, or music made for an extra-musical purpose (the majority of music in the history of music-making). A holiday concert, a commercial jingle, a nursery rhyme, a military march, a movie soundtrack. These and countless other situational sounds either work—and earn positive assessments—or do not work—and collect harsh critiques.

Here, associations are key. If a particular genre or manner of performance is generally or personally associated with a context other than the one for which it is presented, it is likely to be called “bad.” Stylized renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and identifiably secular styles in religious services are common illustrations of this. Yet, the mere fact that a performance location is odd or unusual does not automatically make it bad. If the person sitting next to the grumpy critic is fond of the associations the music connotes, then the opposite reaction will take place. The music works for her, therefore it is “good.”

Implicit functional music is music that is not overtly attached to a purpose. Pop music, for instance, is not designed for or heard within a single designated setting. It is accessible virtually anywhere and at virtually any time. If it supports, synchronizes with, or in any way resonates with what one is doing in the listening moment (including “just” listening), then it is positively labeled. If the opposite occurs, then an opposite label occurs too.

Again, this appraisal is prone to fluctuate depending on the circumstances: something heard as lousy in one situation may be heard as lovely in another. And even our aversion to certain styles or songs can serve the beneficial function of reminding us of who we are, which is almost synonymous with what we do or do not like.

All music can be placed in either the explicit or implicit functional categories. Thus, by simple extension of the argument, all music can be viewed as functional. More important, the functional efficacy or inefficacy of a given piece of music (or any artwork) contributes mightily to our judgment of it. A simple formula: what works is “good,” what doesn’t work is “bad.”

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

5 thoughts on “Is All Music Functional?

  1. John Morton

    You cover most of this subject here except, possibly, the extent to which what we ‘create’ is governed by the complexes acquired, especially during our early, formative and most receptive, years leading to the regurgitation of past memories.

    As I mention in the book, if we write a phrase early in a composition and repeat it later, slightly differently (which we might well do, of course, for good reasons), did we intend it to be different or did we just not notice. These small-scale issues, too, can be governed by moods and immediate experiences even, perhaps, what we ate for breakfast.

    You might remember, from our previous exchanges, that I have trouble with the idea of abandoning my efforts to fortuitous events such as these. I’ve definitely produced my favourite work as a result of the ‘conscious’ manipulation of musical material. Architects have no trouble at all in doing similar things.

    All in all, I like the way you’re thinking on these matters.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      Thanks as always, John. I would probably place the formative factors under the “external conditions” I alluded to, though I might add a word on upbringing. My only goal here was to highlight the overlooked role of whether something works or doesn’t work in the discussion of good v. bad in art. I hope I did so adequately.

      1. John Morton

        Very adequately. I touched on morality in art in the book but it’s a can of worms as you must have discovered. I also asked if we’re necessarily better than our neighbours if they rely on instant gratification rather than our more substantial diet, both adding up to the same ‘amount’ of pleasure.

        Mathematician Professor Roger Penrose, who has written books on mentality (The Emperor’s New Mind etc.) has pointed out that we don’t have a theory of perception, anyway. (He was referring to the ‘measurement problem’ which is off base to this discussion.)

  2. Pingback: SoundEagle in Art, Aphorism and Paramusic | SoundEagle

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s