Category Archives: taste

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.

Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

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.

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.

Practical Creativity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creativity is conventionally defined as the use of imagination for the purpose of  achieving something novel. The Romantics understood it as a supernal gift bestowed upon a select and superior few. In the present day, “creative genius” is generously recognized in almost anyone involved in an artistic or quasi-artistic pursuit. Whether framed as a rarified possession or a universal property, creativity is made out to be a disembodied quality, appearing in a flash of insight and removed from everyday matters. Forgotten in all of this is the utilitarian proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

This saying reverberates throughout music history. The acoustic demands and tolerances of a music-making venue—forest, cave, hut, chapel, cathedral, club, concert hall, amphitheater, stadium, living room—have done more to shape musical styles, instruments and ensemble configurations than any other single factor. Technological advances in the 1920s gave us the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc, which played for just three minutes on each side and forced songwriters to invent the three-minute popular song form—still the industry norm. Architects of worship music often keep track of changing tastes of the general public, adjusting devotional sounds accordingly in hopes of filling the pews. Even jazz improvisation had a practical beginning. People wanted to continue dancing after the melodies were exhausted, so the musicians accommodated them by jamming over chord changes to stretch out their playing.

These and countless other musical developments were born of necessity. Their inspiration was more contextual than spiritual, more pragmatic than epiphanic. Like everything else, musical innovation is motivated by and responsive to perpetual forces: cause and effect, need and satiation, transition and mutation, problems and solutions. It is, then, better to think of creativity as an adaptive awareness than as something emerging from mythical nothingness.

Music is a living art. It is guided by evolutionary pressures. The survival of music in any of its myriad genres and forms requires that elements be modified and redirected to fit the social, physical and acoustic environment. When conditions are relatively static, music undergoes few and subtle alterations. When circumstances shift, musical creativity shifts along with them. These adaptive traits—technical, instrumental, presentational and other—are further tweaked as settings continue to morph. With the passage of time, and the technological advancements, trends and counter-trends that come along with it, some of these features persist and are absorbed into new mixtures, while others are rejected and replaced with new adaptations. And so it goes, down through the ages.

Need creates an opening for artistic maneuvering. Thus, at the risk of over-simplification, we might re-define creativity as the practical confrontation with necessity.

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

Seasonal Separations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Maintaining distinctions between sacred and secular music is a common religious concern. Ever since people began writing critically about music, faithful authors have wasted little time and much ink appealing to a higher authority and inventing higher demands for the music of worship. Views on the issue can be passionate, imaginative and thought provoking; but they ultimately fall short of delineating objective qualities. While attempts are made to outline intrinsic differences between sacred and secular music (that is, looking at non-textual and non-contextual attributes), such efforts are always subjective, frequently elitist and habitually ethnocentric. Taste and convention play a far greater role in determining the “sacred” in music than anything else. Music is music, and all sounds are susceptible to multiple applications, religious and other.

The debate could—and perhaps should—end here. After all, if there is no such thing as a sacred interval or a secular chord progression, then critics are simply couching their opinions in pious language. However, while the scientific search for separate essences comes up empty, cultural conventions inform us otherwise. Continuous usage in one setting or another creates fixed associations. Add to this thematic content and musical purpose, and disco obtains a secular character, while plainsong earns a religious one. Pure reason tells us to abandon efforts to place genres in their “proper” place (a socially constructed concept); but visceral reactions to perceived musical encroachments remain real and often intense.

As mentioned, this is most frequently a religious problem. It is, in fact, a symptom of a larger religious concern: separating sacred from profane. Fans of popular music are not as likely to complain when a church-linked idiom creeps into a Top 40 hit. But religious intrusions into secular music can be just as jarring, and may occasionally ignite criticism.

A seasonal example is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Christmas is a double holiday: one part secular, one part sacred. The first part manifests in snowmen, ugly sweaters, dazzling lights and fruitcakes, while the second includes nativity scenes, scriptural passages, angels and worship services. The two halves of Christmas have their own soundtracks: “carols” for one and “songs” for the other. Sonic differences between the two are sometimes clear and sometimes not, but the lyrics rarely conflict. “Angels We Have Heard on High” retells a New Testament story, “Jingle Bells” depicts a winter joyride. Among the few exceptions is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that intentionally confuses the territories.

As a cultural icon, Santa Claus fits neatly on the secular end of the Christmas spectrum. Santa is not Jesus, and Jesus is not Santa. Autry and Haldeman stepped over this line. “Here Comes Santa Claus” utilizes light and dancey music typical of the non-religious category, and travels through the usual secular references: reindeer, stockings, presents, sleigh bells. But beneath this innocuous façade is a religious agenda, evident in these sneaky lines: “Hang your stockings and say your prayers”; “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children, that makes everything right”; “Peace on earth will come to all, if we just follow the light. So lets give thanks to the Lord above, that Santa Claus comes tonight!”

Not surprisingly, this song is a favorite of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” crowd. In their minds, it shines a much-needed religious light on the “frivolous” celebration of a sacred holiday. But just as religious people complain when elements perceived as secular seep into their music, secularists are justified in objecting to the Autry-Haldeman concoction. If distinctions between sacred and secular songs exist at all—and they certainly do to the ears of many listeners—then respect for borders should be upheld on both sides of the divide. For this reason, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, at the very least, an uncomfortable hybrid.

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