Tag Archives: Simon Frith

Is Anything Frivolous?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

From the critic’s perspective, the world of music consists of three parts: art, folk, and popular. This distinction is sometimes shortened to “serious” (art music) and “popular” (popular and folk). Precisely what makes some music “artistic” and other music something else is not always well defined, but minimum requirements usually include the use of written notation and sophisticated structural and theoretical considerations. The borders are blurred in some technical forms of jazz, and reinforced when classical composers adorn folk tunes with orchestral arrangements (as Aaron Copland did), or when pop musicians conspicuously quote classical repertoire in their songs (as Frank Zappa did). These combinations are appealing largely because they represent an almost taboo juxtaposition.

However, the aesthetic divide between serious and popular is not simply a question of musical attributes. It concerns the values ascribed to the respective music. Sociomusicologist Simon Frith sums up the underlying assumption: “Serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them.” In other words, art music stands apart from our basic human needs, thereby attaining sacredness, whereas popular music reflects everyday life, thus reaffirming mundaneness. The book from which Frith’s comment derives declares his position on the issue: Taking Popular Music Seriously.

An even stronger defense is found in Johan Huizinga’s classic tome, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1950. Huizinga sees play as simultaneously superfluous and necessary. Superfluous because it is irrational and entails a stepping out of “real life,” and necessary because it gives meaning to human existence.

Huizinga does not distinguish between types of play—games, sports, arts, entertainment—nor between its forms—professional, amateur, individual, group. He avoids equating “only pretend” with frivolity, noting that players can engage in the activity with utmost sincerity and determination. Most provocatively, he characterizes religious ceremonies as obligatory play. Like a game of soccer or hide-and-seek, a sacred ritual is a temporary and repeatable departure from ordinary life that operates according to its own guidelines. This is not meant to belittle religious rites, but rather to emphasize the potential for seriousness in all play.

Music, as a type of play, resides outside of normal time and space. It abides by its own logic, and the enjoyment of it makes it a human need. The labels “serious” and “popular” have little bearing on the experience itself, which can be taken lightly or seriously. As Huizinga reminds us, “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.”

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.