Tag Archives: Aestetics

The Limits of Transmission

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Since at least the Romantic period, musicians and theorists have argued that musically expressed emotions cannot be fully or adequately conveyed in words or rational concepts. Instead, music is understood as a mode of communication that bypasses ordinary language and speaks directly to the ineffable realm of the “inner life.” This emotional conveyance is typically regarded as both cultural and highly personal: conventions within a music-culture determine the generalized impressions of musical qualities, such as mode, pitch range, and tempo, but specific interactions between those qualities and the listener are not predetermined. A wide and highly variable range of factors, as unique as the listener herself, fundamentally shapes the experience.

Deryck Cooke’s influential treatise, The Language of Music (1959), proposes a more systematic approach. Through an examination of hundreds of examples of Common Practice tonality (Western tonal music since 1400), Cooke developed a lexicon of musical phrases, patterns, and rhythms linked to specific emotional meanings. In his analysis, recurrent devices are used to effect more or less identical emotional arousals, thus yielding a predictable, idiomatic language.

This theory, while helpful in identifying and organizing norms of Western music, has been criticized for omitting the role of syntax. There might be a standard musical vocabulary, but without rules for arranging constituent elements into “sentences,” there can be no consistent or independent meanings. For even the most over-used idiom, the performance and listening contexts ultimately determine the actual response.

This observation casts doubt on another of Cooke’s central claims. If, as Cooke argued, musical elements comprise a precise emotional vocabulary, then a composer can use those elements to excite his or her own emotions in the listener. This is achievable in emotive writing, such as a heartfelt poem or autobiographical account, which uses the syntactic and semantic structures of language to reference ideas, images, and experiences. However, because music lacks these linguistic features, direct emotional transmission is hardly a sure thing.

Philosopher Malcolm Budd adds an aesthetic argument to this criticism. By locating the value of a musical experience in the reception of the composer’s emotions, the piece loses its own aesthetic interest; it becomes a tool for transmitting information, rather than an opening for individually shaped emotional-aesthetic involvement. According to Budd, Cooke’s thesis, which he dubs “expression-transmission theory,” misrepresents the motivation for listening: “It implies that there is an experience which a musical work produces in the listener but which in principle he could undergo even if he were unfamiliar with the work, just as the composer is supposed to have undergone the experience he wants to communicate before he constructs the musical vehicle which is intended to transmit it to others; and the value of the music, if it is an effective instrument, is determined by the value of this experience. But there is no such experience.”

The enduring appeal of musical language is its multivalence. Idiomatic figures may be commonplace in tonal music, but their appearance and reappearance in different pieces does not carry definite or monolithic information, whether from the composer or the vocabulary employed.

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

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.

Minimal Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The study of aesthetics favors the top end of the artistic spectrum. The majority of attention is devoted to examples seen as great, groundbreaking, or otherwise distinct. With minor variation, consensus lists develop of the best architects, the leading composers, the foremost sculptors, the finest actors, the distinguished poets, the extraordinary painters. Big names and well-known works are referenced again and again in lectures, textbooks, classrooms, concerts, television programs, and the like. Their popularity demonstrates the human attraction to standouts: specimens that soar above the unremarkable background. However, without that background, there would be no greatness.

It is easy to ignore the aesthetic minimal; its very minimalness leads to anonymity. Yet, without the subtle, everyday expression of beauty, our lives would be diminished and our appreciation of the “greats” would perhaps disappear. Higher displays of beauty grow from a landscape seeded with beauty in lower degrees.

Aesthetic minimalism is exemplified in all sorts of seemingly mundane things: a nicely laid table, a tidied room, a paved sidewalk, a clean shirt, a smooth tabletop, a navigable website, a fresh coat of paint. Because they crowd the context in which we live our lives, their beauty usually goes unnoticed. Few stand in awe before a well-dimensioned traffic sign or a flawlessly functioning folding chair. If anything, they are recognized as the serviceable result of craft and design. But, on a deeper level, they express and confirm our innate desire for harmony, symmetry, order, intention, symbolism—those qualities that are exploited in art galleries and concert halls.

Unlike the high-end of artistic achievement, which dramatically catches our notice, minimal beauty tends to stand out only in its absence. The offensiveness of a patchy lawn or a dirty street is proportional to its distance from minimal beauty. The standard by which such things are called “ugly” is set by the basic pleasantness of our everyday environments. Likewise, the exceptionalness of celebrated artwork derives from its augmentation of the base standard. An architectural marvel is still recognized as a building, the elements of which are determined by ordinary structures: doors, windows, stairways, roofs, and so on. The same is true of intricate symphonies, complicated ballets, and ornamented silverware. Without the foundation of minimal beauty, these achievements would be excesses lacking substance.

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