Tag Archives: Judgment

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 space 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.

Real Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Atticus Finch, the noble defense attorney in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, coined a useful courtroom adage: “Delete the adjectives and you have the facts.” The reality of a situation tends to be hidden behind layers of embellishment and prejudice. It suffocates under the weight of bias and interpretation, losing its neutrality and assuming a character dictated by the commentator. This is a natural function of human perception. We are not robots; our big brains are wired to assess rather than sterilely measure. The process is sometimes harmless and sometimes not. What Atticus strove for is the ability to isolate intrinsic essence from cluttering vocabulary.

Atticus’s maxim finds a musical parallel in the writings of philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985). In Music and the Ineffable,  Jankélévitch reminds us that music is made to be heard, not to be talked about. In the intangible way music can be said to exist, it inhabits an abstract and ephemeral realm. Each listener associates sounds with personal images and feelings, which can be discussed in ornate—yet ultimately equivocal—detail. Music is a self-contained phenomenon, occurring apart from our attempts to decipher or characterize it. For this reason, Jankélévitch considers the music-language relationship a one-way affair: music can elicit endless talk, but talk gives nothing back to the music.

Musical description is a type of linguistic performance, in which the reader (or auditor) is manipulated to hear music a certain way. Once exposed to suggestive language, the possibility of “pure” listening becomes a near impossibility. This is true whether the adjectives are unsophisticated (“good,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly”) or flowery, as in Lazare Saminsky’s appraisal of Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service: “[It possesses] an awed gleam of cognizance of the Supreme force that clasps the universe into oneness.” More than simply allowing us to experience music through another’s sensibilities, figurative remarks irrevocably color our perception. To a certain extent, we end up processing the music as someone else wants us to.

Opinion and bias are inevitable outcomes of human cognition. A thinking brain is a judgmental brain. What the fictional Atticus and philosopher Jankélévitch stress is that objectivity demands resisting and overcoming: resisting the temptation to embroider the facts, and overcoming our susceptibility to such embroidery. The extramental thing—the thing-in-itself—is not language-dependent. It is what it is, as the tired saying goes.

Clearly, it is a fantasy to think that prejudicial adjectives will ever be expunged from the courtroom, or that music will ever be experienced in a non-verbal vacuum. One could even argue if it is desirable in all cases to dispense with a reasonable dose of colorful wordage. Nevertheless, we should pause to recognize that reality resides beneath the words.

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

Evaluating Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina begins with a maxim: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” By this, Tolstoy meant that harmony in the home requires a checklist of essential ingredients: parental authority, child discipline, respectful discourse, mutual support, political agreement, good humor and so on. The list is long and largely unspoken, but failure in any one respect can upset the family balance. Happiness is predicated on success in numerous general areas, but unhappiness can result from varied sources of discord. There is no single-issue explanation for why one family is dysfunctional and another isn’t, but functional families are functional for basically the same reasons.

Of course, not all inner-family differences are irreconcilable or severe enough to produce absolute unhappiness. Gradients of joy can be achieved without perfection. Few are the marriage and family counselors (or people in marriages and families) who would side wholeheartedly with Tolstoy’s saying and all that it implies. Still, there is wisdom in the underlying premise: positive feelings about anything in life depend on a number of converging factors.

These factors tend to reveal themselves slowly within interpersonal relationships—familial, platonic, passionate and otherwise. It takes time to analyze our compatibility with another human being; the complexity of each person necessitates a thorough evaluation. The process is usually quicker in relationships with other things, such as food and recreation. In those cases, we rely on our senses for instant verdicts. But the rapidness with which these decisions are made does not mean they are casual or unrefined.

For example, musical judgments are usually formed within ten seconds of listening. That is all the time we need to assess whether or not we like what we hear. Our conclusion comes with such speed and certainty that it might seem arbitrary or unreflective. However, many categories of appraisal are present in the moment of listening. It is just that they are triggered automatically and are most often unconscious.

Without realizing it, we make musical decisions based on styles and genres, hooks and phrases, colors and moods, vocals and instruments, performance technique, recording quality and other features. The music needs to satisfy each area in order to be liked. As with Tolstoy’s observation about family health, music that fails in just one way may cause disapproval. A lyric or guitar lick can spoil our relationship with the music.

This is not to say that musical judgment is always reflexive or cannot change over time. Elmer Bernstein argued this point with a crude analogy: “A piece of music is an art work, and to try to judge it by ‘instinct’ in four seconds has about as much validity as trying to evaluate the worth of a woman by the size of her bust.” Yet, even when the period of appraisal extends beyond a few seconds, music that is embraced must meet an assortment of usually unarticulated and always-personal requirements.

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