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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.

Wild Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir contrasts his experience of the natural world with that of his artist companions, who are transfixed by idyllic mountain scenery. The artists, adhering to the “picturesque” philosophy, seek out choice vistas resembling the composition and subject matter of works of art. Muir, on the other hand, sees the entirety of the natural world as inherently beautiful beyond his own preferences and associations. As he articulated later, “None of nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.” This view, which came to be called “positive aesthetics,” attempts a non-anthropocentric position, wherein conventionally put-upon creatures, like snakes and insects, ignored topographies, like wetlands and barren plains, and frowned-upon events, like floods and earthquakes, are also things of beauty.

Muir’s philosophy avoids the pitfalls of scenery-obsession, subjective judgment, and selective preservation. By virtue of their pristineness, wild habitats are fundamentally beautiful, whereas humanity’s imprint—in whatever form and in whatever environment—invariably decreases beauty.

The starkness of this position invites criticism. To declare that all of nature is beautiful seems as erroneous as saying that all art is beautiful, or that all living things, including the deformed or nonviable, are aesthetically pleasing. However, this implies a thesis of equal beauty, which Muir does not. As Allen Carlson points out, positive aesthetics “holds not that all natural things have equal aesthetic value, but only that all have only positive aesthetic value.”

Soundscape ecology encompasses aspects of the two aesthetic approaches outlined above: positive and picturesque. Concerned with the effects of the acoustic environment on the physical environment, soundscape ecologists are sensitive to the balance and interrelatedness of sound signatures in a given habitat. They offer auditory tools through which to assess the health of an environment, specifically as it relates to the presence or absence of human-made (anthropogenic) noise, which tends to disrupt natural soundscapes and, consequently, threaten biodiversity. Following Muir’s positive aesthetics, the intrusion of human noise (anthrophony) into a wild habitat—whether coherent, incoherent, ordered, or chaotic—is generally considered disruptive.

Soundscape ecologists often appeal to our attraction to the picturesque, or “music-esque.” Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field, theorizes extensively on ways animal and environmental sounds shaped the development of music and language in humans. Krause’s friend and collaborator Ruth Happel waxes poetically: “[Natural soundscapes] helped shape music, and if we lose the sounds of the wild, then we will also lose an important inspiration and resource for the arts. When you hear a chimp drumming in the woods against a buttress, that is the origins of drums. When you hear the melody of a bird, that is the origin of our own melodies. If they are gone, our own music will wither.” In other words, preservation of what is acoustically valuable for humanity is reason enough to conserve the natural landscapes that support those sounds.

This practical-sentimental approach bypasses complex philosophical discussions in environmental aesthetics. If nothing else, Muir, Krause, Happel, and others remind us that animals and landscapes conventionally seen or heard as beautiful cannot survive in a vacuum. The picturesque and music-esque require the totality of their supportive habitats, whether or not we find it all beautiful.

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

Music and Supernaturalism

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The companionship of music and supernatural speculation appears to be almost as old as humanity itself. Paleolithic cave paintings, possibly created by shamans, are often found in the most resonant parts of the cave, implying their use in a chant-infused ritual. Hurrian song tablets from the city of Ugarit (c. 1400 B.C.E.) are not only the earliest examples of written notation, but are also hymns. Anthropologists observe that all cultures, ancient and modern, exhibit some partnership of singing/chanting and religious ceremony. Explanations for this pervasive phenomenon typically focus on the spiritual-emotional quality of sound. The ineffable essence of music simulates or stimulates the ineffable essence of the supernatural. While intuitively valid, such inferences overlook a more fundamental link between music and supernaturalism: the desire for order.

The Future of an Illusion (1927) presents the emphatic culmination of Sigmund Freud’s lifelong thinking on religion. Among its many proposals is the role of gods and spirits in the “humanization of nature.” The human psyche is uncomfortable with uncertainties. The precariousness of nature and uncertainty of life events suggest a cold and uncaring universe. “But,” Freud writes, “if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety.” In other words, if otherwise inscrutable happenings, good and bad, can be attributed to evil spirits and the deities that combat them, then a sense of purposeful organization can be obtained. The inexplicable becomes explicable.

As a theory of the origin of religion, this is perhaps too reductionistic—a charge Freud himself was willing to entertain. However, its logic does play out in all sorts of theologies and cosmologies. Anthropocentric projections onto nature are instinctual and often subconscious. They underpin descriptions of the weeping willow, raging storm, wise old owl, and pleasant valley. Such humanization brings comprehension to an unstable world. That this impulse would generate religious conceptions seems inevitable.

Music can be understood as a sonic consequence of the yearning for order. Natural sounds, like visible phenomena, can give the impression of disarray and erratic spontaneity. The earliest human-made patterned sounds—what is minimally defined as music—were in all likelihood imitations of sounds from the local habitat, generated by rain, wind, insects, birds, critters, and the like. By mimicking these sounds, humanity could achieve psychological control over them, and, in turn, hear their own sentiments expressed in nature.

Admittedly, this musical conjecture has the same reductionist shortcomings as Freud’s proposal. Neither theory addresses the full picture of why and how human beings invented religion and music. No single theory can do so. Nevertheless, their shared motivation adds some clarity to the age-old union of music and religion. Both aid our largely fanciful quest for reason and order.

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

Solitary Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music consumption has become increasingly individualized since the tail end of the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the gramophone in the late 1800s made it possible to experience music alone and without the aid of musicians. Solitary listening expanded with the arrival of radio in the 1920s, and went mobile when the car radio debuted a decade later. By the 1970s music could be played from portable boom boxes, and by the 1980s cassette players could be worn on the waist and heard through headphones. When the iPod came out in 2001, music as an isolated experience took another giant leap.

As accustomed as we are to these technological advances, they represent a dramatic shift in human history. What originated as a social practice with social functions has progressively become a private affair. Evolutionary theories of music point to human relations. Music either arose to facilitate group bonding, advertise to potential mates, communicate information, provide comfort, or some combination of the above. Until very recently, music remained a live, communal activity involving performers and audiences. In societies with access to recorded sound, this is no longer a requirement.

Even so, evolutionary roots are not easily discarded. While the physical presence of multiple actors may not be needed, secluded listening can be likened to a simulated group experience. Those impulses that gave rise to music in the prehistoric past are still present in the unaccompanied context of an individual with headphones.

Person-to-person connections exist even in the most isolated listening modalities. Hearing a band, orchestra or a solo performer through ear buds or a car stereo retains the essence of a group context. Although removed from the action, the listener—by virtue of listening—is part of a collective happening: the auditor is connecting with music produced by someone other than oneself. The obvious difference is that the interaction is one way. Unlike live performances, where musicians interface with audience members in a shared space, there is a distance of time and place between a listener and a recording, which is by definition an archive of sounds that have already occurred.

To be sure, something is lost in the transition from the live venue to solitary after-the-event listening. But our evolved appetite for music is still fed (though perhaps in a more limited way). Listeners can still bond with the musicians they hear, still become sexually stimulated, still receive information, still find comfort. In a strict sense, music’s interpersonal foundation is absent. But in a simulated sense, it has never gone away.

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

Art and Humanness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Moments of intense aesthetic awareness are often portrayed in metaphysical terms. One becomes lost in the brushstrokes of a painting, swept away in a symphony’s swelling harmonies, lifted outside of oneself by the grandeur of an architectural edifice. These sensations are available to multiple parties: the makers, the gazers, the performers, the audience. They are suggestive of an artwork’s perceived independence: its capacity to rise above the material domain and take us along with it. But when the mystical surface is scratched and emotional influence is separated from the equation, what remains are human beings reacting to the handiwork of other human beings.

The ideal of “art for its own sake” (“l’art pour l’art”) has roots in the early nineteenth century, when works of art were conceived as disembodied objects removed from utilitarian purposes and moral concerns. Artists were depicted as channelers of divine inspiration and transmitters of the muse. Art was separated from life; artist was separated from art. What distinguished the master from the ordinary person was the possession of some supernatural gift. 

Lost in this view is the essential humanness of the artistic endeavor—a process best described as the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination to produce something that is appreciated primarily for its beauty or emotional effect (Merriam-Webster, adapted). Our reactions to visual and performing arts are fundamentally empathetic. We stand in awe of the work (or are repelled by it) not because it exudes otherworldly energy, but because we instinctively place ourselves in the artist’s shoes. We admire those whose skill and creativity exceed our own because we know what it means to have skill and creativity. We are mesmerized by the difference in degree between a Di Vinci sketch and our own scribbles, a verse from Chaucer and our own babbling, a passage from Bach and our own noodling. Moreover, our interactions with specific artworks are heavily shaped by culture: learned sets of ideas and behaviors acquired by people as members of a society. There is a human history underlying our reception of artistic creations and our appraisal of them.

The argument can be made that, because art is made by and for human beings, it can never fully be experienced as independent or absolute. It bears the inextricable imprint of human consciousness and manipulation. Perhaps the only way to achieve a pure aesthetic experience is via encounters with nature. It is in wild places that beauty detached from human meddling truly exists. Unlike art, which is representative, a natural landscape is simply itself. Its beauty is derived from its autonomy and apartness. While human artwork can display the highest human potential, nature conveys something greater. Its beauty, as philosopher Roger Scruton has written, has the “capacity to show us that the world contains things other than us.”

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

The Role of the Listener

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.

This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.

Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”

The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.

The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.

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

Is It Music?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Neither the particulars nor the generics of musical sound are universally agreed upon. Music exists in many and widely variegated “dialects.” No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles might fail when applied to a non–Western society. Arriving at a useful conception of music is further complicated by the fact that ideas about sounds change over time, as most music-cultures interact with the outside world, respond to internal and external pressures, and contain subgroups with divergent tastes and preferences.

It is not even foolproof to identify music by ingredients traditionally thought of as musical: rhythm, meter, pitches, durations, dynamics, etc. The musical envelope has been sufficiently stretched in our postmodern world to include an endless array of possibilities. Perhaps the best we can do is combine a few intentionally broad definitions, if only to enhance our recognition of music’s subjectivity.

Edgard Varèse famously called music “organized sound.” Taking a lead from ethnomusicology, the Encyclopædia Britannica states, “while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell avoids the “dangerous task” of defining music, recommending an inclusive approach instead: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.”

Merging these quotations, we arrive at a practical (though still lacking) elucidation: Music consists of tightly or loosely organized sounds that adhere to strict or lenient parameters of a given culture or sub-culture, and are accepted by a consensus large enough to qualify it as “normally called music.” But, as intimated above, attempting a catch-all definition is hopelessly problematic. Hearing something as music always depends on a complex web of culturally and personally determined factors, which are themselves subject to shift depending on the agenda of a person or group.

An illustrative case in point is the shofar, a sound-maker fashioned from the horn of an animal in the Bovidae family (excluding the cow). The shofar appears seventy-two times in the Hebrew Bible, usually to announce festivals, rally troops, intimidate enemies and call out to the deity. Any discussion of biblical instruments, long or short, includes a section on the horn. But Talmudic sources refrain from labeling the shofar a musical device.

The rabbis’ rationale had a double motivation: one part aesthetic, one part pragmatic. Outside of modern-day novelty acts (like the shofar player who blows Hatikvah), the shofar is a notoriously temperamental horn. The average blower produces two to three tones, which typically come across as unsettling or unattractive. Unlike other instruments, the shofar does not accompany singing or provide mood-setting preludes, interludes or postludes. Rather, it serves a ritualistic role akin to lighting candles or drinking from a ceremonial cup. For these reasons, it was not thought of as musical.

On a practical level, the rabbis felt obligated to include the shofar in the sacred service despite their ban on musical instruments (a ruling based on historical factors too involved to be discussed here). First and foremost, the biblical command to observe Rosh Hashanah decrees that the day be commemorated with shofar blasts (Lev. 23:24). Added to this are the vivid and abounding associations aroused whenever the horn is blown. Since biblical times, the sound and appearance of the shofar have served as a symbol of group identity, and eliminating it from practice would have diminished Jewish solidarity and self-awareness. Thus, it was not advisable to lump it in with other (banned) instruments. (As an aside, in communities bound by Jewish law the shofar is not blown on Shabbat—not because it falls under the prohibition against instrumental playing, but because it might be carried four cubits in the public domain, which is considered work. See BT RH 29a.)

Taking the minimal view that music is defined as organized sound understood as music, the shofar is clearly a musical instrument. And it has been described as such in enough publications and conversations to make it indisputably so. Still, the rabbis had ideologically coherent reasons for excluding the shofar from the musical realm. Similarly overt motives are present whenever someone remarks that a certain genre “isn’t music,” or makes (elitist) claims about “real music.” Though it is difficult to formulate an objective definition of music that is applicable everywhere, subjective opinions and agendas are easy to spot.

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

Parties and Piety

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There are musical puritans in every age. Viewing the enjoyment of the sonorous art as a symptom and instigator of depravity, they vehemently preach the avoidance of musical sounds. Their disdain for music derives partially from knowledge of its effect. Human beings are, it seems, helplessly at the mercy of musical influences, which can steer us to darkness. They also malign music as part of a larger mission to separate sacred and profane. Song, argue the puritans, should be designated for the house of worship and used exclusively (and sparingly) for prayerful purposes. Sacred song might inspire virtue, but secular music always leads to transgression.

This viewpoint is repeated so much that we need only cite a few pronouncements to illustrate the point. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c. 215) condemned instrumental playing: “if people occupy their pipes and psalteries, etc., they become immodest and intractable.” Islamic scholar Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 894) said, “all dissipation begins with music and ends with drunkenness.” A major figure in Jewish anti-music discourse was Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who declared: “A person who listens to foolish songs with musical accompaniment is guilty of three transgressions, listening to folly, listening to song and listening to instrumental music. If the songs are sung with accompaniment of drinking, there is a fourth transgression, if the singer is a woman there is a fifth.”

Underlying these opinions is the belief that delighting in music is a self-indulgent diversion, which stifles awareness of the divine and opens the door to other hedonistic vices. To borrow a contemporary phrase, it is considered a “gateway drug.”

Not surprisingly, we find this attitude among biblical prophets, whose role it was to condemn behavior regarded as sinful, immoral and deviant. The prophets railed against actions they thought reflected a lack of allegiance to divine will. They denounced rote sacrifice, chastised idol worshipers, berated the unjust and criticized people whose preoccupation with “frivolous” music apparently distracted them from righteous causes.

Isaiah refers to those who, “at their banquets have lyre and lute, timbrel, flute and wine; but who never give a thought to the plan of the Lord, and take no note of what He is designing” (Isa. 5:12). Amos castigates the upper echelon of Samaria, who have ostentatious banquets and “sing idle tunes to the sound of the lute . . . They drink straight from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils” (Am. 6:5). In these and similar instances, the prophets forcefully advocate piety over parties. Sumptuous foods, abundant drinks, luxurious oils and decadent music can only derail the eternal cause of justice and goodness.

For biblical prophets and later sages of the Abrahamic faiths, music is a symbol of self-gratification. Being caught up in the amusement of music—especially that of a nonreligious kind—is an automatic affront to virtue. Few who enjoy music would support this puritanical principle, the absurd potential of which is displayed in Hells Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1989), an infamous documentary that portrays rock music as satanic and anti-Christian. Nevertheless, we might concede that music should be used to enhance life, not to distract us from things of ultimate importance.

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