Tag Archives: Identity

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.


Pop as Folk

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There is an old adage about folk music: “You know it when you hear it.” The saying refers in part to the ubiquity of folksongs in human cultures. Populations throughout the world lay collective claim to a subset of songs that have seemingly been around forever. The saying also hints at the difficulty of defining what is and what is not “music of the people.” Parameters used to separate folk from non-folk allow frequent exceptions: songs with identifiable authors, songs that are “impure” (mixed influences), songs that are not very old, etc. In the end, folk designation has less to do with authenticity (whatever that term means), than with identification. We know it when we hear it because it sounds like us.

A cursory review of folk music definitions highlights the ambiguity of the term. Possibilities include: music transmitted by mouth; music of indigenous peoples; music of the lower classes; music with unknown authorship; music written by a known person but passed on orally; songs interwoven with a national or ethnic group; music long associated with an event or holiday; music that identifies a people; and more.

As is evident from this sample list, no single folksong exhibits all of these elements. Moreover, some of the elements are contradictory (music by a known or unknown source), some are outdated or bigoted (music of indigenous or lower class peoples), and others could refer equally to popular music (holiday songs and songs of group-affiliation).

Let us turn to the latter point. Although it is not fashionable to admit, folk and pop music have much in common. In fact, one could argue that folk music is a type of pop music, and pop music is a type of folk music. In order to appreciate these affinities, we must set aside two classic signifiers of pop: commercialism and artist-centrism. Looking at the basic nature of the songs (melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic material) and their effect on those who cherish them, the distance between the presumably opposite poles of pop and folk is greatly reduced.

Part of what shapes the perception of folk music is a sense of stability and longevity. Folk songbooks and audio collections tend to be homogenous retrospectives: they gather well-known favorites that share certain linguistic, thematic, and stylistic characteristics. A quick listen to any Celtic or Russian folksong anthology makes this point obvious. Because the songs come from the same stock and (ostensibly) emerged from the same collective process, they are more or less interchangeable. The dance songs sound like other dance songs, the lullabies like other lullabies, the meditative songs like other meditative songs, and so on. Even when sonic identifiers are removed, such as regional instruments and performance techniques, strong melodic and structural resemblances remain.

This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated with partner songs: songs that are so melodically and harmonically similar that they can be performed simultaneously. In the library of English-language folksongs, this is accomplished, for example, with the simultaneous singing of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Three Blind Mice,” “London Bridge,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “The Farmer in the Dell,” and “Here We Go Looby Loo.” The same can be done in the world of pop. For instance, any song built on the common I-V-vi-IV progression can be sung together, including “No Woman, No Cry,” “With or Without You,” “Unconditionally,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Although they derive from different personages, serve different aims, and fit in different styles, they are as melodically and harmonically homogenous as partner songs from folk sources. All that is lacking is longevity, and the blurred distinctions that come with it.

Just as important is the degree to which pop songs encapsulate and perpetuate mass tastes. As much as individual performers and songwriters strive to give their music a unique stamp, it does not materialize from nothingness. Underlying these songs is a folk-like process, in which the sounds and sentiments of a particular group are harnessed and played back, thus generating a sense of collective ownership. This is not to ignore the creative process of popular artists, but rather to stress that such a process cannot be divorced from its cultural milieu. If we were able to scratch beneath the surface of songs that have come down to us as folk, we would likely discover individual musicians who offered melodies into a cultural pool, and whose individuality was obscured by the forces of time and transmission.

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

Listen and Learn

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Advocates for music education often highlight the side benefits of formal training, even for students who do not aspire to perform professionally. Among the reported non-musical cognitive advantages are improved reading skills, higher standardized test scores, and increased spatial-temporal reasoning. The scholastic value of simply listening to music is not as clear and certainly not as dramatic. Despite the popularity of the Mozart Effect and other research purporting a link between listening to certain types of music and augmented mental capacity, they mask a mixture of fiction and fact. Yet, while quantitative benefits reside overwhelmingly with those who study an instrument, conscientious listening does have qualitative rewards.

Thoughtful listening opens up a unique avenue of self-awareness. This is not to be confused with “good listening,” or the identification of technical aspects such as rhythm, dynamics, meter, melody, harmony, and form. Such knowledge is an essential part of musicianship and undoubtedly amplifies cultural appreciation. But there is more to musical reflection than memorizing Italian terms or recognizing stylistic indicators. Basic curiosity about why we even care about music can open the mind to deep discoveries.

From the moment we wake up, our lives are inundated with musical sounds. Daily activities unfold to a partly selected and partly random musical soundtrack. Some music is intentionally heard from the car radio, mp3 playlist, or headphones at the gym. Other music invades the auditory system through advertisements, a neighbor’s stereo, or loudspeakers at the grocery store. In most cases, the music stirs a certain, if not always conscious, response. The type and magnitude of that response can teach us much about ourselves.

The listening experience encompasses a potpourri of individual and environmental factors. How a person reacts to a single selection is determined by his or her disposition, personality type, peer group, generational grouping, geographic location, access to resources, education, cultural heritage, past history, socio-economic class, personal associations, momentary temperament, physical setting, recording quality, volume level—just to list a handful. Peeling off any one of these layers and contemplating its impact on musical perception is an enlightening exercise.

Music is as ubiquitous as it is taken for granted. Because it is so omnipresent and tightly woven into everyday life, rarely does one pause to ponder its profundity; and since intellectual involvement is not a prerequisite for musical reaction, music seems more apt for experience than examination. True, music affects us whether or not we understand what is taking place, and musical opinions are formed with or without introspection. But as soon as we scratch the surface, we begin peering into ourselves.

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

Essence and Non-Essence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The absence of essentialism is a recurring motif in postmodern philosophy. In that line of thinking, there are no foundational or inherent characteristics that distinguish one entity, object or idea from another. Whatever essence or defining substance there appears to be is an illusion shaped in the mind of the perceiver. Even the concept of human nature comes into question. Without confidence in our suppositions or in data derived from reason and observation, there cannot be a stable or set core of human characteristics. Our personalities become a malleable matrix of personal and socially constructed thoughts, perceptions and experiences.

The notion that we are the product of dispositions and circumstances can be overstated. Physical and elemental properties, scientific laws, genetic encoding and other measurable aspects of the material world inform who we are and what we know. Still, the practice of critical self-reflection—the “post-modern pause”—does help us confront tendencies, proclivities and prejudices we unknowingly possess, and realize the degree to which the beliefs we hold are grounded in subjective consciousness. Whatever the limits of the postmodern position, it does force us to examine and re-examine our assumptions.

This is particularly valuable for subjects rooted in aesthetics, such as music. For the strict postmodernist, music has no essence defining its fundamental nature. Rather, it exists in boundless varieties, each with culturally based particularities and expectations.

It is hardly novel to suggest that musical reactions and assessments are dependent upon the listener’s prior conditioning and exposure. Musical conventions, like a modulation or turn of phrase, arouse generalized emotions for listeners familiar with those devices. Music tied to a holiday or special event brings entire communities into shared sentiments connected with that day. Melodies are often linked to one’s past, stirring feelings and memories of a particular time, place or relationship.

But these observations can be taken too far. Even without the questioning voice of postmodernism, it is clear that how we think and feel about music is largely the product of our composite identities. Yet postmodern claims are softened by the fact that musical signatures and strains are felt in similar ways across wide audiences (within a cultural setting). If we concede that musical appraisal is essentially subjective, then consensus response is a valuable rubric. Musical conventions, figurations, parameters, conclusions and expectations were not forced upon us or dictated from on high. They developed over time through an organic and collective process of experimentation, consolidation and familiarization. As such, standard reactions and attitudes toward musical stimuli are firmer than postmodernists would contend.

No experience, musical or otherwise, is entirely pure or unadulterated. However, this does not mean that qualities attributed to music are simply imaginary. Music appreciation occupies a middle ground, in which sounds are inextricably combined with multi-dimensional experiences. The music’s essence is both intrinsic and entangled with the listener’s personal history. The two cannot be separated.

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

Prejudicial Listening

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anglo-Irish author Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) made a hobby of observing people in taverns, coffee houses and other public gathering spots. One such occasion is recorded in his celebrated essay “National Prejudices” (1760), which describes a boisterous “pseudo-patriot” pontificating on the character of European nations to a group of like-minded men. He calls the Dutch “avaricious wretches,” the French “flattering sycophants,” Germans “beastly gluttons,” Spaniards “surly tyrants.” The speaker has only pleasant things to say of the English, the people to which he belongs. In his not-so-humble estimation, they excel all the world in “bravery, generosity, clemency, and in every other virtue.”

Not wanting to be dragged into the hysterics, Goldsmith strikes a ruminative pose and pretends to think about something else. But the speaker, betraying the insecurity typical of the assertive dogmatist, insists that he collect everyone’s approval, even Goldsmith’s. After some prodding, Goldsmith reluctantly drops the observer’s cloak and assumes the role of participant. With calm voice and careful words, he explains that he cannot make broad statements about any population. He then artfully demonstrates how negative portrayals can be spun into compliments: the Dutch are “frugal and industrious,” the French “temperate and polite,” Germans “hardy,” Spaniards “staid.” As for the English, they can just as easily be called “rash, headstrong, and impetuous.” The essay concludes with a question that gets to the heart of the matter: “Is it not very possible that I may love my own country, without hating the natives of other countries?”

Prejudice derived from self-love is something most of us are guilty of. True, citizens of the contemporary West are, for the most part, less ardently nationalistic than the inhabitants of eighteenth-century Europe. But the larger point still resonates. Despite our increasing individualism, rising global awareness and the triumphs of multiculturalism, we have not outgrown the false premise that in order to applaud ourselves, we must also put down others.

For most of us, this impulse has migrated away from chauvinistic nationalism and into other facets of life. Its presence is obvious in historically contentious areas like religion, politics, ethnicity and class. But it also thrives in less severe, but no less sensitive, areas such as food, automobiles, clothing, sports, television and music. We are quick to attack the character of a blouse or sedan that is not our own, and freely exaggerate the virtues of things we possess or to which we are attracted.

Building up and tearing down are prevalent in musical discussions. It is not enough to simply enjoy or feel a connection to this song or that performer. It must also be better than the rest. No musical creation or creator can stand alone or be appreciated by itself. Comparisons have to be made. A recording cannot simply draw us in or escape our interest. It must be awesome or awful.

This impulse is present among professional critics and regular folks alike. Peruse any music-related online message board and discover droves of passionate fans making points and counterpoints, striking and counterstriking, defending and counter-defending. Jimi Hendrix versus Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell versus Nina Simone, Richard Tucker versus Jan Peerce, the London Symphony Orchestra versus the Berlin Philharmonic. Bring up two names and watch the heated exchange unfold. Neither side is willing to concede that its evaluation is clouded in personal ties and tastes, or accept that there is something for everyone in the vast world of music. If your opinions clash with mine, yours must be certifiably inferior. And let me count the ways.

Returning to Goldsmith’s essay, loves and hatreds surrounding nationalism and musical preferences seem to have common roots. In both cases, feelings are hyper-charged because they are part and parcel of self-identity. Elevating one’s national affiliation or musical tastes is an act of self-elevation, as is the companion instinct to degrade the nationality and musical affinities of others.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the insecurity underlying these twin inclinations. The rhetoric intensifies as confidence decreases. If a person is self-assured and comfortable with his or her place in the world, then there is less need to boast or put down. What Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about fanatic religiosity applies to national and musical prejudices as well: “[It] is never rooted in faith but in doubt; it is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.”

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

Subjective Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is widely considered the most emotional of the arts. While other art forms may awaken ideas and images that act upon the feelings, music’s first and most lasting impact is emotional. This is true when music aims at particular sentiments, and when it provides no definite clues as to an intended response. We are vulnerable to sounds that enter our awareness. They can deliver us to emotional states bearing no resemblance to our prior feelings. The speed with which this occurs can make the emotions difficult to decode or articulate. Whether we are moved slightly or profoundly, music tends to inspire an immediate change (or changes) in mood. And since all this takes place in the private interior realm, the experience evades critical analysis.

As a predominantly emotional enterprise, music is saddled with the same term given to the emotions themselves: subjectivity. In music as elsewhere, this label is used in both a positive and negative sense. On the one hand, feelings derived from and felt toward music are biased—a uniformly ugly term. On the other hand, musical reactions and opinions are part of what makes us autonomous beings—a high and holy concept.

Musical bias is an inevitable byproduct of the listening experience. Each person filters auditory input through a singular and entangled web of perception and cognition. The type and magnitude of the elicited response rest on a host of conscious and unconscious forces, like personal history, cultural heritage, group affiliation, generational membership, general temperament and momentary frame of mind. As a result, reactions to music are not timeless or objective in the way that thoughts can be, but are embedded in a person’s peculiar and non-replicable point of view. Judgments about music are, then, necessarily distorted: in whole or in large part, they involve feelings expressed as facts. These biases come to the surface in heated exchanges between fans of different artists, and when lists of the “best” composers/compositions/performers/songs are assembled and reacted to.

However, factors that contribute to bias become admirable when viewed from a different perspective. This is because musical opinions, when not at the center of contentious debates, reside in the sacred realm of self-knowledge. Tastes comprise an area of “me-ness”: they are distinctive to the individual and their subjectivity needs no apology. Their basis in emotions shields them against rational and quantitative challenges. They retain personal validity no matter what anyone else says.

Musical preferences cannot be divorced from emotional responses. The former is essentially an expression of the latter. Even when we judge a piece using theoretical analysis or culturally accepted standards, our personal feelings play a determining role. We may decide that a piece or performance is “good” (problematic as that is), but we still might not like it. (It is also true that theoretical measurements and cultural assumptions are, at core, attempts to quantify emotional responses.)

Musical experiences are thoroughly subjective, with all the positive and negative meanings the term implies. Like the feelings music evokes, musical preferences are unabashedly our own.

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

Playing Favorites

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A young cellist waited anxiously for her turn to audition for the high school all-district orchestra. She had searched carefully for an audition piece that was both appropriately demanding and personally meaningful. Her choice fell upon Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1881), a work combining motifs chanted on Yom Kippur evening, phrases from a song arranged by Isaac Nathan (“O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel’s Stream”) and passages derived from Bruch’s imagination. For the cellist and most others reared in Ashkenazi Judaism, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is saturated with associations linked to the atonement holiday and larger themes of Jewish culture and identity. (This, despite the fact the Bruch was a Protestant, composed the piece for the concert hall, and intended it as a study in folklore, not for sacred consumption.)

As the cellist played for the adjudicator, her mother sat in the corner of the room weeping. The soaring tones flooded her with memories and emotions, just as they did each time her daughter practiced at home. The adjudicator was less visibly moved, partly because he had to maintain a professional demeanor, but mainly because he was not Jewish and had no investment in the music. To him, it was merely a nice piece, which was the term he used to describe it (and the performance).

This vignette is indicative of how we process music. No piece is heard in isolation. The mother’s experience was informed by past exposure, religious sentiments, ethnic affiliation and pride that her daughter, through her playing, was preserving their heritage. The adjudicator’s experience was not so weighty. The piece had no personal resonance for him, other than maybe recalling other late-Romantic adagios. If the girl had played something that touched him on a personal level—like a sonata he learned from a dearly departed mentor—he might have shown more emotion.

Our backgrounds always inform our musical reception. If we are intimately familiar with certain music and if that music has deep associations for us, we are likely to hear it as superior or otherwise set apart. It matters little what the music is or from which genre, era or purpose it derives. What is important is that we hear it as our music, and that it serves as an extension and self-reminder of who we are.

There are no rules or limits regarding which type of music can conjure profound attachments. Kol Nidrei might be an obvious example, with its lofty Romanticism and ethnic-religious substance; but for someone else, a tango, doo-wop ballad or cartoon theme song can have the same effect. There is really no point in debating whether one selection is more worthy of this high esteem than another. Fondnesses occur on such an individual level that they (at least should) escape criticism.

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