Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.
Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, Cage’s 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)
The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains intact.
“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought-provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.
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