Musical Ideologies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a label, “ideology” usually assumes a pejorative tone. To have an ideology is to be distorted and stubborn in one’s thinking, intolerant of opposing points of view, forceful in asserting beliefs, willfully ignorant of contrary evidence. These are the so-called “isms,” which are apparently outgrowths and concretizations of our brain’s tendency to seek out patterns, embrace simplified explanations, adopt unifying theories, and welcome worldviews that mask the complexities of reality. Such systems help us to cope with and (at least pretend) to understand the world around us.

In truth, most of us hold ideas that could be classified as ideological, and no amount of defensiveness or lack of self-awareness can change that fact. Even an aversion to ideologies, which I’ve been known to profess, is itself an ideology. As cultural theorist Terry Eagleton stated, “As with bad breath, ideology is always what the other person has.” Our relationship with the term might improve if we adopted the confession of economist Paul Krugman, who, in accepting charges of being an ideologue, reduced ideology to two simple parts: (a) having values; (b) having some opinion about how the world works.

The realm of music is no stranger to ideology. As an astonishingly diverse and remarkably evocative medium, music begs for simplifying classifications and generates pointed responses. These conditions lead to the drawing of (often-untenable) lines between “genres”—groups of pieces that share enough in common to make them a unit—and the construction of binaries, around which musical ideologies coalesce: authentic vs. inauthentic; hip vs. old-fashioned; pure vs. impure; ugly vs. beautiful; pristine vs. debased.

Whether or not we smell it on our own breath, our musical preferences tend to coagulate into musical ideologies, or allegiances to certain musical values and opinions about how the world of music should or should not work. The caricature of the classical music snob comes to mind. In his defense, and in our own, it is near impossible to uphold a completely non-judgmental stance on things musical. While we might concede philosophically that music criticism (sophisticated and garden variety alike) is planted in the soil of subjectivity, music’s raison d’être is to move us, making it difficult to stand stoically still.

Personally, while I am convinced that aesthetics is not a science and that music is a receptacle for non-rational value judgments, I frequently catch myself turning the radio up in delight or off in disgust. Most of the time, musical ideology takes this harmless, visceral form. Other times, it gushes from influential pens and oozes into academic circles, as with Theodor Adorno’s Marxist critique of popular music. On thankfully rare occasions, musical ideology can have a damaging or even devastating effect, especially when it is part of a nationalist agenda, as with Hitler’s censorship of Jewish musicians and Stalin’s crusade against “formalism” (an amorphous concept that included modernist trends, like dissonance and atonality, and famously targeted Shostakovich and Prokofiev).

The issue, then, is not about whether we are ideological by nature or ideologues when it comes to music. As Eagleton and Krugman remind us, to be human is to be homo ideologicus—creatures driven by ideas, judgments, viewpoints and firm beliefs. The issue instead is one of degrees. To restate, ideology has accumulated negative connotations because of its potential for distasteful manifestations and harmful consequences. Ideology has led (and will continue to lead) to some terrible things. Plus, most of us fancy ourselves as open-minded, which is presumed to be the opposite of ideological. (This, even as we proudly identify as Democrats, Presbyterians, Capitalists, Mystics, Foodies, Deadheads, and countless other ideologies we prefer not to think of as ideologies.) All of this can be sorted out with a crude prescription: ideologies are unavoidable—just don’t be a jerk.

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


8 thoughts on “Musical Ideologies

  1. John Morton

    It’s unreasonable to make statements and to take actions, based on beliefs, that affect those who do not share them. The ultimate goal of a global family of mankind cannot be realized under such circumstances. In other words, ‘believe what you like but please do it at home’. I’m pleased to notice the breadth and tolerance of your views, considering that Judaism contains so many followers who believe what they believe so strongly.

    Back to music, the most obvious alternative view to those expressed so far is that we spend enough time discussing and considering and that art should exist to enable us to forget all that and just party. I briefly mention these details in my own book where I wonder whether or not we’re better than our neighbours because we prefer a more substantial diet, rather than their preference for instant gratification. (It’s a book on music, not philosophy). Accepting or rejecting art on moral grounds would have some of the greatest works thrown on the bonfire. Indeed, it’s easy to believe that talent and immorality are destined to be joined.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      It is, of course, natural to think that we are better than our neighbors in terms of music and everything else — there’s an evolutionary advantage to believing that way. But the more enlightened among us try to follow the direction you suggest: not harming others through acting out on our particularistic beliefs. It is often forgotten that the original biblical decree to “love your neighbor as yourself” was literal: it applied to one’s own community, but not to the “other.”

      By the way, I am a Humanistic Jew, so that might account for my tolerance.

  2. John Morton

    Thanks for clearing the way on that. I’ve upset more than one person on forums but then, forums tend to attract a number of opinionated people who, characteristically, will defend their position to the end. I’m here to exchange information and to learn (and enjoy our chats!).

  3. autismtoohuman

    I think I understand what you mean, Jonathan, by “aesthetics is not a science”. And, I agree with what I think you mean by it.

    But, I’ve been thinking in a holistic way about aesthetics in contrast to ‘intelligence-and-utility’.

    First, in so thinking, I have identified what seems to me an effective assumption within our paradigmatic contrastive conceptions of aesthetics and ‘intelligence-and-utility’: that the two ultimately are mutually alien domains. In any case, my conviction, for myself, is that the two *must* be very much inherent to each other. So, in reflection of what one fictional Cameron Mitchell (in the episode of Stargate SG-1 titled “Off The Grid”) said just before his escape route literally disappeared, “Here’s an obvious question…” A perfect circle is self-evident, so what’s a perfect triangle? Equilateral, right? Same for a square, a pentagon, etc.. But, here’s a less obvious question: What’s a perfect rectangle? …So, a most simple example of what I’m thinking by this ‘mutual inherence’ between aesthetics and intelligence-and-utility is the pre-geometrician’s aesthetic preference for the ‘perfect rectangle’: Prior to our being cognizant of the geometric efficiency of this particularly proportioned rectangle, this rectangle commonly has, of all variously proportioned rectangles, been found to be, in general, the most aesthetically pleasing.

    Second, I think that the reason why aesthetics is, for a large part, so non-‘science-y’ is because so very much about aesthetic experience inheres in the unique and dynamic individual. A one-size-must-fit-all view of aesthetics is like a one-size-must-fits-all close-fitting Iron Man suit. The snobbish, self-appointed suit guides tell you, “If you happen not to measure so much like the persons for whom the suit is made, well, then, you measure wrong, so, suck it up until you’ve figured out how to conform to the suit like you know you ought to”.

    1. John Morton

      Geometric shapes are idealized constructs invented by man for everyday practical purposes. They don’t actually exist although, you might argue, we’re talking about our perceptions of them here. Even the most perfectly milled engineering surface looks like a mountain range under the microscope. If we’re having trouble with aesthetics which, if everyone on here is honest, we should all agree that we are, then I’m not sure that expanding the argument in this way is helpful. It might be, but I’m not sure. Added to this, the intelligence/utility argument is, itself, very subtle because of the mystery relating to the nature of mentality at the quantum level.

      Nevertheless, thanks for an interesting post.

      1. autismtoohuman

        I’m rather sure that you have concepts and relationships in mind that I cannot even yet imagine. Because, while I find my own point ‘too obvious to mention’, you “I’m not sure that expanding the argument in this way is helpful”. I only wish I could know your mind like I (sort of) know mine. All I mean to be doing here about aesthetics is stating what I’ve been observing that in the literature seems not to be stated: “Oh, there’s a flying blue bus! Hey, look, look! No, look! Over here! What? You don’t see it? It’s right there! In the water!” And to think some people have thought I’m particularly intelligent: all I ever do is point out what to me is too obvious to miss save that it seems to me that everyone else is so taken with talking about the importance of various common rocks on the shoreline. “There’s a blue bus is the water, and it just flew out of the sky! Oh, there it goes again! Look out, now it’s coming back! Duck!”

        As for the quantum physics angle, I’m too cave-man-like to begin to get any of it. I’ve tried to read up on it, and, while I’m sure it must be important in so many ways, I lack the mentation even of modern humans to find it so in any way. I’m still grappling with the fact that matter is not the inert stuff that, on the macroscopic level, it appears to be. I passed Basic Wheel Making, and that’s as far as I got.

        To my mind, aesthetics is proto-logic, proto-mathematic, proto-linguistic, etc.. And, I think of hearing more-or-less as proto-kinesthetic, in that kinesthetic is a sense of gravity and motion. Hence, music.

        Have you ever bothered to wonder why we are we not moved to dance to the sight of paintings and oriental rugs? Why we are not moved by smells to gather to enjoy them (a New York Aroma Orchestra?) Why we do not experience visceral memories by friendly pats on the shoulder or deep massage? As if by now you should have bothered to wonder why your face should be on the front of your head instead of the back.

        Music, I say. There is no wonder in the wonder. A sense of gravity, by way of the pressure of a domestic medium (air, water). Light is too fast-and-…light to be so in contact with us. Have you ever felt light vibrating an orchestra hall like a huge pipe organ can? Or, when was the last time you…saw light serve in the percussion section? Light has it’s abilities, but being music isn’t one of them. I think of music like Einstein thought of light.

      2. John Morton

        Thanks for that. When I mentioned expanding the argument (discussion) as being unhelpful I meant that we already have a tough problem on our hands and likening matters to geometric shapes doesn’t help for the reasons I gave. I like the reference to gravity and motion. It’s what I regard as kinetic energy in musical form. I find the rest of your comments difficult to follow. Sorry about that.

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