Category Archives: preference

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.

Five Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Cultural evolution greatly outpaces biological evolution. The excruciatingly slow pace of natural selection is eclipsed by the rapid and localized intellectual, behavioral, and technological transformations that take place within human societies. Moreover, whereas the mutations and adaptations of genetic evolution typically lead in a single direction, cultural changes can be linear, cyclical, conservative, progressive, or all of these at once. Such variety is a result of human-directedness. Unlike the non-sentient forces of nature, which spawn diversity through gradual descent with modification, cultural advancements and retrenchments are conscious choices, and thus prone to splinter off in multiple directions.

In this sense, the use of the term “evolution” in discussions of culture, while commonplace, is somewhat misleading. Rather than progressing unidirectionally, human culture is the fickle and multidimensional product of a capricious species. This is obvious when examining music. If musical styles were placed on an evolutionary continuum organized from simple to complex, actual timelines would be demolished. Minimalism would predate Romanticism, blues would precede madrigals, and the Beatles would come before Bach. The absurdity is exacerbated when world musics are thrown into the mix.

Beneath the false premise that fewer notes indicates an earlier period is a bias regarding what constitutes complexity. Just as each style has its own history, each style is complex in its own way. Where harmonic density is lacking, rhythms may be more intricate. Where counterpoint is highly cultivated, modal choices may be limited. Where orchestration is refined, emotional content may be restricted. More often than not, these scenarios are the product of preferences: the relative absence or abundance of a musical element is dictated by taste, not chronology.

A good example is the Chinese predilection for the pentatonic (a five-note non-semitone scale). Chinese musicians are aware of “bigger and better” scales, but five is a sacred and symbolic number. The five notes of the scale—gong, shang, jue, zhi, and yu (usually equated with do, re, mi, sol, and la)—correspond with a variety of other fives. Among these are the cardinal directions (center, west, east, south, north), elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), colors (yellow, white, blue, red, black), tastes (sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, salty), and political structure (king, minister, people, national affairs, natural world). Far from being a “primitive” stage in musical development, the Chinese pentatonic is a conscious conservation of socio-historical meaning.

What’s more, while the pentatonic may exclude notes present in the Western heptatonic (not to mention chromatic and microtonal scales), it is similarly capable of generating endless melodies. This point is made in The Art of War, which observes that the five colors combine to “produce more hues than can ever be seen,” the five tastes “yield more flavors than can ever be tasted,” and the five notes “give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” Indeed, the value ascribed to discovering new combinations has ensured the preservation of the scale, despite many cultural changes that could have swept it away. This, in itself, goes against any hypothetical theory of musical evolution.

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

Music and the Myth of Free Will

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Pulling an album off the store shelf, dialing through the radio, buying a concert ticket, constructing a playlist, clicking around a music streaming site, pledging allegiance to a band or musician—these are exercises in musical freedom of choice. Few decisions are more personal or more decisive than selecting the music we want to hear. It is a process guided by the peculiarities of taste and spontaneity of gut responses. It is a display of volition over sound. It is an act of self-assertion. But how much control do we really have? Like most aspects of our lives, lay theory—the common-sense assumption about our behaviors—tells only part of the story. There is much more than meets the ear.

The question of free will has occupied the minds of philosophers and theologians for over two millennia. Precisely what free will is and how much or little we actually have is a topic too vast to summarize here; but contributions from naysayers shed intriguing light on musical decision-making.

Put simply, critics (known as incompatibilists) hold that free will cannot exist in a universe governed by cause and effect. This means that, try though we might, our choices can never truly be unimpeded by prevailing factors. This philosophical position has gained support from neuroscience in recent years. Sam Harris, in his controversial but perfectly reasonable book Free Will, gives the major points. First is that the brain has already determined what we will do before we decide on doing it. We only think we are making a conscious decision. Second, everything occurs in a chain of events. The sensation of free choice results from a “moment-to-moment ignorance” of the accumulating factors leading up to it. Third, free will can only exist if we are in control of all the variables that determine our thoughts and actions, including physical and emotional states, genetic traits, cultural conditioning, personal experiences, environmental settings, and so on.

Musically, this suggests that we have little say in our choices: we like what we hear before we even hear it. Short-term choices—like playing a CD while doing laundry—and long-term affinities—like a favorite piece or recording artist—are not entirely rational or voluntary. Whenever we encounter a song with glee, apathy, or repulsion, the reaction is predetermined. There are physical and psychological conditions: headaches, mood states, full bladders, deprivations, etc. There are personal histories: memories, prejudices, upbringings, peer groups, etc. There are environmental constraints: musical delivery systems, selections to choose from, cultural setting, socio-economic standing, etc. These and other elements swirl together behind the scenes in the subconscious. Their collective influence is such that before we engage in deciding, our minds are already set.

In the scheme of things, the absence of true free will does not matter all that much. Whether we actively direct our actions or are directed by background forces, the perception of freedom is a powerful thing.

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

Music of the Squares

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Humans are vertically symmetrical beings. The skeleton provides scaffolding for mirror images on either side of an invisible divide. In both body and face, the average person exhibits an essentially balanced figure: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. And the more evenly proportioned, the better: cultures throughout the world view exceptionally symmetrical faces as the most beautiful. (This facial preference is also observed in some non-human animals, including various insects and birds.) Contrastingly, the more excessive the deviation, the more unattractive a face is thought to be. In global myths and popular culture, exaggerated asymmetry is a common feature of monstrous creatures.

Attraction to symmetry in conspecifics has a biological basis. Symmetry is an indicator of fitness: animals that are more properly developed have more symmetry in the body and face. A sound exterior is an indication of a sound interior. (Even the pheromones of highly symmetrical men are more attractive to women than those of less symmetrical men.) Intuitive detection of biological fitness underlies the more general association of symmetry with sturdiness, strength, and security.

In the wide world of art, symmetry is fundamental in works ranging from the sculptures of ancient Greece to the architecture of Imperial China to the poetry of Dr. Seuss. Musically, the desire for balance is most clearly represented in four-bar phrasing, which has dominated Western music since at least the Classical period.

Almost every folk, popular, and art melody consists of four-measure phrases grouped with other four-measure phrases (usually in eight- to sixteen-bar form). This is true of melodies as varied as “Yankee Doodle,” “Ode to Joy,” “Kalinka,” “Hava Nagila,” and “Wrecking Ball.” Virtually any song that springs to mind fits into this square structure. Indeed, four-bar patterns are so natural that, even when composers expand the phrasing with additional bars or extra beats between phrases, they typically even them out through repetition or tagged on measures.

The ubiquity of four-square melodies is not merely a product of collective cultural conditioning. Rather, it shares organic roots with the biological affinity for symmetry. Just as a balanced figure signals strength and reliability, so does a symmetrical tune evoke comfort and stability. The limited appeal of modernist music, which among other things rejects conventional phrasing, further emphasizes this point. Our ears are endlessly pleased by four-bar patterns. To update a Shakespearian phrase: “But hark, what music? . . . The music of the squares. . . Most heavenly music!”

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

Hearing Averages

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our field of perception is constantly crammed with tastes, smells, sights, sounds and other intrusions from the outside world. To make sense of this multifarious bombardment, our brains not only choose which stimuli to pay attention to, but also organize that information. The procedure is aided by prototype recognition, or the categorization of perceptions based on the central or average representation of a class. Countless hues enter our vision, but we sort them out based on a finite number of colors—red, blue, green, etc.—with modifying adjectives—light, dark, -ish, etc. The same occurs when deciphering shapes, words, weather conditions, food odors, facial expressions, and so forth.

Organizing experiences in this way is highly economical. The brain simplifies reality by placing an enormous variety of information into basic classifications. Virtually everything we perceive is processed in this stereotyping way. Yet, as obvious as this might be, we are less apt to recognize the role of prototypical elements in ascertaining beauty.

In 1990, psychologists Judith H. Langlois and Lori A. Roggman published a study entitled, “Attractive Faces are Only Average.” They asked college students to rank the beauty of human faces in a series of photographs. Their conclusion: faces with features approximating the mathematical average of all faces in a population are the most attractive. On the flipside, the researchers noted, “unattractive faces, because of their minor distortions . . . may be perceived as less facelike or as less typical of human faces.” We subconsciously reference the prototype of “faceness” when evaluating appearances. Our preference for averages and aversion to extremes is likely rooted in a primal sorting out of genetic regularities from potentially harmful mutations. Normal is safe and safe is beautiful.

Of course, when we go beyond photographs into real life, unconventional faces can be (and often are) judged favorably. In such cases, beauty is said to reside in the “eye of the beholder.” However, this very cliché acknowledges a baseline or common appearance of beauty from which an individual departs. (The natural preference for a prototypical face is overridden by extra-facial qualities, like kindness, talent and a sense of humor.)

As it is with faces, so it is with music. Within a given population in a given time and place, certain musical features are normative. These can be likened to the mathematical average of faces, and might include major and minor triads, common chord progressions (e.g., I-V-vi-IV), rising and falling melodies, normal structures (e.g., 8-bar form), and so on. These features comply with expectations and suggest stability—traits also detected in the “normal” face.

In music, temporary deviation from these elements can be a measurement for separating “interesting” from “bland” and “good” from “mediocre.” But deviating too much is, to most ears, an unwelcome mutation. As a rule, popular music is popular because it is prototypical. Attractive songs are only average.

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.

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.