Tag Archives: Baruch Spinoza

Music to the Rescue

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Jerry Goldsmith, a top film composer of the second half of the twentieth century, regularly worked on projects unworthy of his artistic expression. His filmography includes over two hundred titles, along with a hefty body of television work. Much of it is stale genre fare: thrillers, westerns, maritime adventures, and war movies. According to Mauricio Dupuis, author of Jerry Goldsmith: Music Scoring for American Movies, “It is almost proverbial, among enthusiasts of this composer and the applied cinematic genre in general, to consider Goldsmith a rare example of talent and technical ability frequently applied to projects lacking in ideas.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a case in point. Somewhere between mediocrity and a critical failure, the thinly-scripted and over-budget 1979 film famously strayed from the character-driven saga of the original series. It is a meandering attempt to hybridize Star TrekStar Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the costumes are a bland shadow of their former selves. Director Robert Wise—legendary for helming The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music—admitted, “Thank goodness we had Jerry’s score…He really saved us.”

Film music accomplishes a number of aims: establishing atmosphere, setting a mood, building anticipation, amplifying gratification, aiding characterization, shaping narrative, unifying images, and so forth. A well-written score (or well-constructed compilation score) naturalistically undergirds and interacts with the visuals and non-musical sounds. On screen as in life, music is interwoven into human experience, at times underscoring activities, and other times transcending them.

Just as a thoughtful score can “save” a lackluster scene, good music can mitigate a less-than-spectacular day. “Good” is used here in the utilitarian sense of serving a need or function; or, as Baruch Spinoza wrote, “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us” (Ethics IV, Definition 1). A soundtrack for film or daily life is essentially Gebrauchsmusik: music for a purpose outside of the music itself. When the action is intrinsically compelling, good music enhances it. When events are droll or disappointing, good music provides a ray of light. The latter might be called “Gebrauchsmusik plus,” with the effect surpassing the reality of the moment.

University of Groningen researchers Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs touched on this in their 2011 study, “Music Alters Visual Perception.” They found that emotional stimuli, like music, influence not only how listeners feel, but also how they see the world. When music stimulates something positive within, the world tends to improve accordingly. (Of course, the opposite is also true.) A favorite song on the radio can temporarily brighten a slog in heavy traffic; a well-chosen playlist can ease the toil of washing dishes. And, as Jerry Goldsmith often discovered, incidental music that exceeds the quality of a film can improve the cinematic experience.

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

Music Good and Bad

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The God of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is not a personal or independent creator of the universe, but the universe itself. The deity, whom Spinoza called “God or nature,” is the ultimate cause of all things because all things follow causally and necessarily from the divine essence. There is a definite order in the universe, and everything operates according to that structure. In this deterministic system, where the whole of nature proceeds “eternally from a certain necessity and with the utmost perfection,” “bad” and “good” are illusory categories relative to human experience, and free will (as commonly conceived) is but a figment of human consciousness. We are not free to do what we want: every action is conditioned by circumstances preceding it, those circumstances are determined by causes preceding them, and on and on. Things can only turn out one way: the way they do. As such, the appearance of rightness or absurdity, justice or unfairness in nature stems from our ignorance of the coherence of the universe and our demand that everything be arranged in accordance with human reason.

Arguing the merits and demerits of this concept is a favorite sport among philosophers. In some ways, Spinoza’s ideas seem as radical today as when they led to his expulsion from Amsterdam’s Jewish community in 1656. What is intriguing from a musical standpoint is an analogy he used to challenge conventional wisdom on morality: “As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another. Thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad” (The Ethics, IV).

As controversial as this evaluation may be, the comment on music deserves our consideration. There have been many attempts to devise standards and categories of good and bad music. Famously, sociomusicologist Simon Frith proposed four signifiers of bad pop recordings: tracks that rely on false sentiment; tracks featuring outmoded sound gimmicks; tracks displaying uneasy genre confusion; and tracks incompetently performed or produced. Yet, aside from perhaps the last part, these are essentially matters of taste. To use a well-worn aphorism, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Similar issues of preference and bias—which, we might add, are deterministically conditioned by circumstances like exposure and environment—cloud attempts to separate the trash from the treasure of any musical genre. Objective measurements simply do not (and cannot) exist.

Spinoza goes a step further in identifying the murkiness and subjectivity of musical judgment. Namely, he recognizes utility as a determining factor. Certain music may be appropriate or inappropriate for certain people in certain states at certain times. (Hence, the examples of the depressed person, the mourner and the person unable to hear.) It follows, then, that the perceived goodness or badness of a piece derives from two qualities: personal taste and situational function.

Spinoza sums up this non-absolutist, contextual approach thus: “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us.” If the music is “good,” it is because we like it and because we find it suitable for a particular situation. “Bad” music fails on both accounts. It is also true that one’s opinion of a piece may shift from good to bad or vice versa depending on changes in aesthetic leanings and the contexts in which the music is heard. As Spinoza might say, the conditions, causes and effects leading up to the listening experience determine whether the music is heard as good or bad (or indifferent).

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