Category Archives: evaluation

Musical Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aesthetics is classically defined as the study of the beautiful in art. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Victorian biologist best remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog,” set the definition as a list: a beauty in appearance, visual appeal, an experience, an attitude, a property of something, a judgment, and a process. This expanded meaning touches on the original Greek aisthesis, which deals with feelings and sensations. Aesthetics, in this sense, is not limited to the thing itself, but rather is a holistic term encompassing the focal point—the object, performance, atmosphere, etc.—and the experience of and response to that focal point.

However, Huxley’s elucidation, like many others, suffers from an over-emphasis on beauty. While aesthetic engagement often involves perceptions of beauty, this is not the only (or even foremost) criterion of artistic merit. Art can be aesthetically satisfying without necessarily being “beautiful” in the conventional sense of eliciting pleasure.

Applied to music, aesthetics might be conceived as the relationship of music to the human senses. Rather than judging whether or not a composition is beautiful, or why one piece is more beautiful than another, attention shifts to the interplay between musical stimuli and the interior realm of sensations. The onus of appraisal moves from the cold tools of theoretical analysis to the auditor.

For some thinkers, this is the only appropriate location for aesthetic assessment. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music taps into channels of pure emotions: “Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.” T. H. Yorke Trotter, founder and principal of the Incorporated London Academy of Music, echoed Schopenhauer in a 1907 lecture, stating that, while other art forms awaken ideas and images that act on the feelings, music directly stirs “dispositions which we translate by the vague terms, joy, sadness, serenity, etc.”

In this revised view, aesthetic value does not depend on the micro or macro features of a piece, per se, but on how one responds to those features. Emotional arousals are instant aesthetic judgments. It is no accident that the perceived qualities of a piece or passage mirror the responses induced: joyful, mournful, serene, and so forth. The intensity of the emotion might separate one piece from another, but the immediacy of the music—as Schopenhauer and Yorke described it—seems to defy such classifications. Among other things, integrating (or equating) aesthetics with emotions underscores the subjectivity of the topic, and highlights the interconnectedness and simultaneity of stimulus, experience, and evaluation.

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

To Jargon or Not to Jargon

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art historian Bernard Berenson described the transformative potential of gazing at visual art, “when the spectator is at one with the work of art he is looking at, or with actuality of any kind that the spectator himself sees in terms of art, as form and colour. He ceases to be his ordinary self, and the picture or building, statue, landscape, or aesthetic actuality is no longer outside himself. The two become one entity; time and space are abolished and the spectator is possessed by one awareness.” Berenson compared this moment to a flash of “mystic vision,” when the workaday mind is muted and perceptive faculties transcend their ordinary functions.

This articulation of experientialism, which values experience as a source of truth, contrasts with intellectualism, where knowledge is derived from reason. The latter is characteristic of Marxist theorist Theodor W. Adorno, whose studies of the arts comprise over half of his oeuvre. Adorno used his considerable intellect to criticize jazz, the “in-the-moment” art par excellence, and popular music, which encourages pre-rational engagement. In fairness, he was less concerned with the substance of “pop” than with its capitalist producers and passive consumers. He viewed popular music as evidence of a devious hegemony rooted in the “industrialization of culture,” which conditions passive listeners to hardly listen at all.

This argument has some validity. Listening habits are standardized through exposure to “hits” and popular styles, such that listeners essentially know what will happen in a song before they hear it. As R. C. Smith, a philosopher of science and defender of Adorno, notes: “In the world of mass produced music, in the very experience itself, standardisation acts as a sort of regularisation of sensational patterns. As a result of the conformity of these patterns there is a sort of lulling effect which, in a manner of speaking, is almost (inter)subjectively stunting.”

What these social critiques overlook is the music’s experiential impact. The transcendence Berenson described can occur with any art form, regardless of its origins, intentions, or predictability. In the subjective, spontaneous, and totalizing moment, all that exists is the experience itself. Analysis is as impossible as it is superfluous.

Experientialism finds its opposite in Adorno’s writings, which have been called “excessively negative,” “excessively ornamented,” and “excessively difficult.” The complexity of his German prose made early English translations unreliable, and his esoteric vocabulary can obscure his insights. Adorno was critical of this tendency in others, as evidenced in his attack on the language of Martin Heidegger (Jargon der Eigentlichkeit). Yet he admitted in a footnote to that work: “Even he who despises jargon is by no means secure from infection by it—consequently all the more reason to be afraid of it.”

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

Tastemaking

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece—one of several story synopses in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions—a government official spins a wheel to assign cash value to works of art submitted by the citizenry. The wheel lands on a painting of a house cat by Gooz, a humble cobbler who had never painted before. The simplistic portrait is appraised at eighteen thousand lambos, or one billion earth dollars. Crowds flock to see it at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, a bonfire consumes all the statues, paintings, and books the wheel has deemed worthless.

This satirical vignette highlights the disproportionate and arbitrary role of industry officials (governmental and corporate) in determining aesthetic values and tastes. The top-down model lampooned in the parable is not distant from commercial radio stations that weed out music before it ever reaches our ears. Cultural critics contend that decisions to promote or bury certain songs too often rely on extra-musical factors: image, celebrity, markets, studio backing, etc. This results in a homogenized soundscape, where listeners have limited volition over the music they hear. In Vonnegut’s hyper-cynical scenario, a completely random process shapes the masses’ artistic sensibilities. They flock to see an amateur painting of someone’s pet, and think nothing of other works—no doubt many of high quality—going up in flames.

To an extent, Vonnegut’s bleak parable was more applicable in 1973, when Breakfast of Champions hit the shelves, than it is today. The online availability of music, access to independent radio stations, and platforms for compiling digital playlists provide unprecedented opportunities to short circuit the music industry’s control. Democratization has dented the industry’s historic role in pre-selecting sounds. Individuals more directly determine what they hear and what becomes popular. Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves are optimistic in their essay, “Music and Marketing”: “the digitization of music means that psychological factors will become more important than economic factors in explaining the music that people listen to on a day-to-day level. In decades to come we…suspect that the importance of economic explanations [for listening preferences] will diminish” (from Oxford’s Handbook of Music and Emotion, 2010).

We are not there yet; the old tastemakers still operate. As the digital age has broadened listening options, corporate interests have narrowed their palettes. In a high-stakes industry faced with escalating costs, intense competition, and a perpetually volatile youth demographic, safe bets overwhelm the airwaves. The complaint that “everything sounds the same on the radio” seems truer now than ever before. Listeners who do not explore digital or other options, either by choice or by circumstance, are left wading in an undifferentiated pool of cookie-cutter consumerism. They are stuck gazing at the cat.

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

The Useful and the Useless

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Among the many definitions of beauty is the one most operative in our everyday lives: the pleasing or attractive features of something or someone. This is beauty in the intuitive or experiential sense; we know it when we sense it. Aesthetic snap-judgments of this sort and the disagreements they ignite recall the cliché, “There’s no accounting for taste,” and its Latin predecessor, de gustibus non est disputandum (“In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”). This does not mean that taste is thoroughly or hopelessly subjective. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have uncovered basic universal principles of art. For example, philosopher Denis Dutton observed that we find beauty in things done especially well, while anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake contends that “decorating” was a crucial way our ancestors marked off practices essential to physical and cultural survival, such as hunting, peacemaking, and rites of passage. Yet, once we move beyond the baseline acceptance of the existence of beauty and its importance in human life, opinions take over and vary widely.

Historically, aesthetics has been a difficult subject to intellectualize. George Santayana observed in The Sense of Beauty (1896) that, as a philosophical subject, beauty has “suffered much from the prejudice against the subjective.” This is mitigated in part by the inclusion of art history and critical theory under the philosophical umbrella. Yet, such efforts highlight rather than bypass the fundamental obstacle of personal taste: in order for beauty to be taken seriously, it must be removed from the proverbial beholder’s eye and placed in some externalized rubric. Santayana summed it up: “so strong is the popular sense of the unworthiness and insignificance of things purely emotional, that those who have taken moral problems to heart and felt their dignity have often been led into attempts to discover some external right and beauty of which our moral and aesthetic feelings should be perceptions or discoveries, just as our intellectual activity is, in men’s opinion, a perception or discovery of external fact.” In other words, if beauty (and morality) cannot find footing in objective truth, they are forever doomed to triviality.

The dismissal of emotions runs counter to the biological-anthropological theories alluded to above. Whereas philosophers tend to view beauty as an end and art “for its own sake,” evolutionary theorists investigate the basis for art’s emergence and persistence as a cross-cultural phenomenon. For them, what constitutes the beautiful from one person or group to the next is less important than its functionality. Beauty and utility are not at odds, but are instead inextricably linked.

In a way, our aesthetic judgments harmonize the philosophical and biological-anthropological sides of this debate. On the one hand, we over-rely on the moral-philosophical categories of “good” and “bad” when describing art, giving the impression of absolute or empirical standards, whether or not they actually exist. On the other hand, these designations stem from a functionalist response: “good” means useful; “bad” means “useless” (or “less useful”). A painting or musical composition might be beautiful according to academic standards, but fail to move us on a personal level. We can intellectually appreciate its creativity and execution without being emotionally attracted to it. Likewise, something of lesser technical quality can be strikingly beautiful if it serves a purpose. As Baruch Spinoza put it in his Ethics (1677): “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.”

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

Songs of House and Home

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A special issue of Rolling Stone published in December of 2004 touted “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Aside from pandering to its list-obsessed readers—and feeding its own list obsession—the article provided a window into the imprecision of musical taste. For starters, it made no mention of criteria used to evaluate the songs (if there were any), nor did it explain what kinds of songs were up for consideration. A breakdown of selections shows some glaring biases: 94% of the songs came from North America and the United Kingdom, 69% of the songs were from the 1960s and 70s, “La Bamba” was the only song not in English, one instrumental was included (technically not a song), and only one was recorded before 1950 (sorry, Irving Berlin).

It is easy to quibble about the contents of the list: how it differs from “greatest songs” lists published elsewhere, how “all time” really means 1950s to the present, how commercial success skewed the selection process, how certain bands were overrepresented (the Beatles have twenty-three songs), how Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” made it to number one (after all, that song helped inspire the magazine’s name). Issues like these expose the arbitrariness of “greatness” and challenge the very pursuit of a pop culture canon. However, despite—or perhaps because of—its flaws, the list tells us much about the human relationship with song.

It is clear that the 500 songs had personal importance for those who selected them. Each song was a radio hit, meaning that they were “in the air” during the selectors’ teen and early adult yearsa period of tremendous physical and emotional change when surging hormones make everything seem monumental. Music heard at that time is both a comfort and an identity marker, and its significance is sealed for life. Thus, the abundance of songs from the 1960s and 70s suggests that most of the selectors were baby boomers. There were also a few older voters (seventy-two songs were from the 1950s), and a smattering of younger voters (eighty-two songs spanned the 1980s to early 2000s).

From this perspective, what constitutes the “best” arguably has more to do with ownership than with the music itself. To use a domestic analogy, it is the difference between a house and a home. A house is a building designed for human habitation. It can be attractive to our eyes and suitable to our needs; but because it is not our dwelling place, it is of minor consequence. Yet, if we were to move into that house and fill it with our furniture, knick-knacks, routines, and memories, it would become our home. Like the songs we cherish, our affection for it would make it the “best.”

This subjectivity is implied in the Rolling Stone article, which makes no attempt at outlining objective measurements. Although its title suggests definitiveness, it is basically a glorified opinion poll. No reader would agree with all of its contents or the order in which they appear. This is not a criticism. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that songs are important to everyone, and that we are all curators of our own lists.

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

The Musician’s Burden

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Maybe due to my involvement in it, I feel I have to either listen intently or tune it out.” This statement by Talking Heads front man David Byrne speaks for many who make a living in the musical arts. It is an expression of the professional’s burden: an inability to subdue the analytical impulse when confronted with the subject of expertise. Total immersion in a craft or line of work—be it music, medicine, gardening, or child rearing—makes casual experiences in that area hard to achieve. The more time and energy one spends in a field, the less that field invites frolicking. For the musician, this leaves the two polar options Byrne suggests: conscious listening—which invariably involves critical assessment—or conscious distancing—which, in his words, makes music “an annoying sonic layer that just adds to the background noise.”

This might seem counterintuitive. Musicians are obviously music lovers, and their profession is largely a pursuit of that love. But theirs is usually a refined affection rather than a wild passion. As skills are honed and knowledge sharpened, so are opinions deepened and judgments polished. Nuances of performance and details of construction are ever apparent to the learned listener; it is difficult to readjust the ear for “just” listening. True, such a state is more easily attained when listening to music of a type or culture other than one’s own. Yet, because the brain still recognizes those foreign sounds as music, it may instinctively launch into assessment mode, whether or not it is justified in doing so.

This is not to diminish the value of music appreciation courses and other programs of cultural enrichment. The premise of such enterprises is undoubtedly valid, namely, that listening is enhanced through greater understanding of musical styles, materials, and techniques. However, a line tends to be crossed when avocation becomes vocation, when amateur infatuation becomes professional discipline. Enjoyment is no longer the primary goal or foremost outcome. Music—all music—becomes work.

Of course, this condition is not universal. Some musicians have more success than others dividing musical labor from musical play. A rare and enviable few can even derive endless pleasure from listening. But most are more selective and methodical in picking their musical spots. Again quoting Byrne: “I listen to music at very specific times. When I go to hear it live, most obviously. When I’m cooking or doing the dishes I put on music, and sometimes other people are present. When I’m jogging or cycling to and from work down New York’s West Side bike path, or if I’m in a rented car on the rare occasions I have to drive somewhere, I listen alone. And when I’m writing and recording music, I listen to what I’m working on. But that’s it.”

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

Beauty and Human Potential

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.          

Beauty is chiefly understood as a matter of the senses rather than of the intellect. Familiar phrases like “in the eye of the beholder” and “there’s no accounting for taste” stress the role of individual perceptions and gut reactions in arriving at aesthetic conclusions. More than an absolute law, beauty is typically described as a feeling, emotion, passion or sentiment. From one point of view, this removes aesthetic judgments from the plane of rational discourse, essentially eliminating the possibility of an empirical framework for measuring gradients of beauty. However, aesthetics remains an active area of philosophy concerned with principles of attractiveness and taste. Even liberal humanism, that branch of philosophy that champions the dignity of personal values and opinions, has put forward criteria for evaluating beauty.

A particularly lucid formulation comes from Rabbi Daniel Friedman, one of the founders of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. In “Art and Nature: Beauty and Spirituality,” a philosophical sketch originally presented at the 2001 Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Friedman offers some yardsticks for aesthetic determination that approach objectivity (as much as such a thing is possible). Friedman contends that beauty is not a property of nature, but a concept formed in the mind. As human beings, we extract and infuse purpose, meaning and value in our experiences and observations. Judging something as beautiful is fundamentally a conceptualization of feelings evoked inside of us: serenity, wonder, elation, awe, satisfaction, etc. Aesthetics is thus an internal process. It is idiosyncratically derived.

Yet, according to Friedman, this does not relegate beauty to an arbitrary decision or a relativistic whim. While the assessment takes place internally and is ultimately shaped by forces like culture and biography, the object or phenomenon itself remains outside of us. It is in that realm of creation—rather than perception—that objective standards can be applied, however imperfectly. Specifically, Friedman argues that higher and lower worth can be assigned to human artworks based on how much and to what degree they utilize distinctly human qualities.

He gives the example of comparing Mozart to elevator music (presumably meaning easy-listening instrumentals with simple and unobtrusively looped melodies). A Mozart composition is aesthetically superior, Friedman claims, because it uses more and better-refined human capacities, including reason, intellect, imagination, discipline, education and talent. It demands deeper understanding and appreciation from both the composer/performer(s) and the listener. It requires more of our humanity, and is thus more beautiful.

The obvious flaw in this comparison is a confusion of kind: it is improper to apply the same criteria or expectations to two selections from disparate musical spheres. Mozart should be compared to other composers of the Classical period, just as bluegrass should be judged against other bluegrass and yodeling against other yodeling. (It also follows that all elevator music should not be lumped together—some elevator music exhibits more and fuller human qualities.) Nevertheless, Friedman’s proposal—the measurement of beauty by degrees—is consistent with the broader thrust of humanism, which celebrates the exploration of human potential as the highest goal one can strive for. In art or anything else, the more of our potential we use and the further we push ourselves toward that end, the more worthy the outcome.

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

Object and Motion

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The physical universe can be thought of either in terms of objects (substance) or motion (process). When substance is the focus, the universe appears as bundles of photons. When process is emphasized, the universe appears as waves. From the point of view of physics, both perspectives are true. Objects and motion are both made of light: photons are packets of light; waves are undulations of light. It is beyond my purpose (and my ability) to elucidate the finer points of this scientific principle. I wish instead to draw a rough analogy between substance and process as understood in physics, and the general way in which they are used in musical criticism.

Object in music is the final product: the sound recording, the lyric sheet, the notated score (composition or transcription). Process is the performance: the music making, the listening, the audible manifestation. The former is a starting place for (or record of) the latter; the latter is the content of the former. Unlike physicists, music critics tend to perceive object and process as utterly distinct, ignoring the “light” uniting the two. More often than not, one mode of understanding takes over, or is unduly elevated above the other.

For example, John Brownell notes a trend in jazz studies of applying analytical models to improvisation. He takes specific aim at Thomas Owens, who dissected a large number of Charlie Parker’s improvisations, cataloging sixty-four melodic devices ranked according to frequency of occurrence. For Brownell, this systematic method is antithetical to the spontaneous purpose and process of improvisation. Brownell is similarly critical of Gunter Schuller’s study of Sonny Rollins, which elucidates the saxophonist’s “thematic” improvisational approach. Schuller identified hallmarks of a well-crafted composition in Rollins’s solos—themes, coherence, deliberation, form—and on that basis claimed that his playing was aesthetically superior. From Brownell’s viewpoint, such analytic models have no place in jazz, which is, in essence, a performance practice outside the range of mechanistic tools. He dismisses these attempts as  “notism,” or the “fixation on the object of analysis rather than on the process from which it springs.”

While it is true that aesthetic expectations from one artistic form do not translate appropriately to other forms, the notion that experience and analysis are mutually exclusive is not entirely so. Notation, whether of a written piece or an improvisation notated later, is always and necessarily a shorthand for the real (audible) thing. It is a useful language for understanding music, but it is no substitute for the thing itself. At the same time, a purely experiential appreciation of music, without facility in the written language, is to a certain extent incomplete. It is through listening and analytics that music is grasped in its full dimensions.

It is unfortunate that music is often apprehended from an either/or vantage point. Either it is received in the moment of perception, or it is shoved under the microscope. Exclusivity arises in the extremes of experientialism and notism. What is needed is a balanced view, which values both the product and the performance. They are, after all, aspects of the same thing. Returning to the physics analogy, performance (process) is a manipulation of sound, while score (object) is a map of sound.

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

 

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.

Real Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Atticus Finch, the noble defense attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, coined a useful courtroom adage: “Delete the adjectives and you have the facts.” The reality of a situation tends to be hidden behind layers of embellishment and prejudice. It suffocates under the weight of bias and interpretation, losing its neutrality and assuming a character dictated by the commentator. This is a natural function of human perception. We are not robots; our big brains are wired to assess rather than sterilely measure. The process is sometimes harmless and sometimes not. What Atticus strove for is the ability to isolate intrinsic essence from cluttering vocabulary.

Atticus’s maxim finds a musical parallel in the writings of philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985). In Music and the Ineffable,  Jankélévitch reminds us that music is made to be heard, not to be talked about. In the intangible way music can be said to exist, it inhabits an abstract and ephemeral realm. Each listener associates sounds with personal images and feelings, which can be discussed in ornate—yet ultimately equivocal—detail. Music is a self-contained phenomenon, occurring apart from our attempts to decipher or characterize it. For this reason, Jankélévitch considers the music-language relationship a one-way affair: music can elicit endless talk, but talk gives nothing back to the music.

Musical description is a type of linguistic performance, in which the reader (or auditor) is manipulated to hear music a certain way. Once exposed to suggestive language, the possibility of “pure” listening becomes a near impossibility. This is true whether the adjectives are unsophisticated (“good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly”) or flowery, as in Lazare Saminsky’s appraisal of Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service: “[It possesses] an awed gleam of cognizance of the Supreme force that clasps the universe into oneness.” More than simply allowing us to experience music through another’s sensibilities, figurative remarks irrevocably color our perception. To a certain extent, we end up processing the music as someone else wants us to.

Opinion and bias are inevitable outcomes of human cognition. A thinking brain is a judgmental brain. What the fictional Atticus and philosopher Jankélévitch stress is that objectivity demands resisting and overcoming: resisting the temptation to embroider the facts, and overcoming our susceptibility to such embroidery. The extramental thing—the thing-in-itself—is not language-dependent. It is what it is, as the tired saying goes.

Clearly, it is a fantasy to think that prejudicial adjectives will ever be expunged from the courtroom, or that music will ever be experienced in a non-verbal vacuum. One could even argue if it is desirable in all cases to dispense with a reasonable dose of colorful wordage. Nevertheless, we should pause to recognize that reality resides beneath the words.

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