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.