Tag Archives: Taste

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.

Schoenberg vs. The People

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Arnold Schoenberg invented his twelve-tone method to replace normative conceptions of melody. In so doing, he discarded or otherwise obscured the most attractive and enduring elements of music: repetition, anticipation, and predictability. Musical satisfaction derives from our ability to identify phrases, discern tensions, predict resolutions, detect climaxes, perceive suspensions, and recognize other structural features. We are pleased when these expectations are fulfilled and surprised when anticipations are foiled or delayed. The relative unpredictability of Schoenberg’s system tosses all of this out.

According to the rules of twelve-tone technique, the chromatic scale must be organized in a tone row wherein no note is sounded more often than another. This eliminates intuitive patterns, annihilates key signatures, and contradicts millennia-old musical tendencies. When the row occurs again, as it does with mathematical regularity, its wide intervals, variation, and turbulent character do little to please the pattern-hungry ears of the average auditor.

Despite its novelty and intellectual intrigue, Schoenberg’s method has been called “senseless,” “unbearable,” “torturous,” and worse. In 1930 the Musical Times of London declared, “The name of Schoenberg is, as far as the British public is concerned, mud.” Two decades later the Boston Herald published this invective: “The case of Arnold Schoenberg vs. the people (or vice versa, as the situation may be) is one of the most singular things in the history of music. For here is a composer . . . who operates on the theory that if you know how to put a bunch of notes on a piece of score paper you are, presto, a composer” (Rudolph Elie, November 11, 1950).

Witty attacks like these are far too numerous to begin listing here. But are charges of misanthropy warranted? According to psychologist David Huron, Schoenberg’s system is less atonal (without a tonal center) than it is contratonal: it deliberately circumvents tonal implications. If the twelve notes were put into a randomizing computer program, they would occasionally occur in sequences resembling melody as we know it. But Schoenberg and his twentieth-century disciples meticulously avoided even hints of such patterns. As such, they expunged from their music precisely that which human ears have evolved to enjoy.

Lest this seem an overstatement, Huron and his colleague Joy Ollen found that roughly ninety-four percent of music contains clear and verbatim repetition within the first few seconds. This figure derives from examples spanning five continents and inclusive of styles ranging from Navajo war songs to Estonian bagpipes to Punjabi pop. It is probable that Schoenberg’s music wouldn’t even be recognized as music in many of these cultures.

This does not, of course, mean that twelve-tone serialism is without its admirers, or that Schoenberg’s name is unanimously considered “mud.” Some of his works even approach accessibility (in their own way), notably Moses und Aron and A Survivor from Warsaw. But general responses echo those of the Boston Herald, which went on to state: “[His music] never touches any emotion save curiosity, never arouses any mood save speculation on how the conductor can conduct it and how the musicians can count the bars.”

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

Musical Ideologies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a label, “ideology” usually assumes a pejorative tone. To have an ideology is to be distorted and stubborn in one’s thinking, intolerant of opposing points of view, forceful in asserting beliefs, willfully ignorant of contrary evidence. These are the so-called “isms,” which are apparently outgrowths and concretizations of our brain’s tendency to seek out patterns, embrace simplified explanations, adopt unifying theories, and welcome worldviews that mask the complexities of reality. Such systems help us to cope with and (at least pretend) to understand the world around us.

In truth, most of us hold ideas that could be classified as ideological, and no amount of defensiveness or lack of self-awareness can change that fact. Even an aversion to ideologies, which I’ve been known to profess, is itself an ideology. As cultural theorist Terry Eagleton stated, “As with bad breath, ideology is always what the other person has.” Our relationship with the term might improve if we adopted the confession of economist Paul Krugman, who, in accepting charges of being an ideologue, reduced ideology to two simple parts: (a) having values; (b) having some opinion about how the world works.

The realm of music is no stranger to ideology. As an astonishingly diverse and remarkably evocative medium, music begs for simplifying classifications and generates pointed responses. These conditions lead to the drawing of (often-untenable) lines between “genres”—groups of pieces that share enough in common to make them a unit—and the construction of binaries, around which musical ideologies coalesce: authentic vs. inauthentic; hip vs. old-fashioned; pure vs. impure; ugly vs. beautiful; pristine vs. debased.

Whether or not we smell it on our own breath, our musical preferences tend to coagulate into musical ideologies, or allegiances to certain musical values and opinions about how the world of music should or should not work. The caricature of the classical music snob comes to mind. In his defense, and in our own, it is near impossible to uphold a completely non-judgmental stance on things musical. While we might concede philosophically that music criticism (sophisticated and garden variety alike) is planted in the soil of subjectivity, music’s raison d’être is to move us, making it difficult to stand stoically still.

Personally, while I am convinced that aesthetics is not a science and that music is a receptacle for non-rational value judgments, I frequently catch myself turning the radio up in delight or off in disgust. Most of the time, musical ideology takes this harmless, visceral form. Other times, it gushes from influential pens and oozes into academic circles, as with Theodor Adorno’s Marxist critique of popular music. On thankfully rare occasions, musical ideology can have a damaging or even devastating effect, especially when it is part of a nationalist agenda, as with Hitler’s censorship of Jewish musicians and Stalin’s crusade against “formalism” (an amorphous concept that included modernist trends, like dissonance and atonality, and famously targeted Shostakovich and Prokofiev).

The issue, then, is not about whether we are ideological by nature or ideologues when it comes to music. As Eagleton and Krugman remind us, to be human is to be homo ideologicus—creatures driven by ideas, judgments, viewpoints and firm beliefs. The issue instead is one of degrees. To restate, ideology has accumulated negative connotations because of its potential for distasteful manifestations and harmful consequences. Ideology has led (and will continue to lead) to some terrible things. Plus, most of us fancy ourselves as open-minded, which is presumed to be the opposite of ideological. (This, even as we proudly identify as Democrats, Presbyterians, Capitalists, Mystics, Foodies, Deadheads, and countless other ideologies we prefer not to think of as ideologies.) All of this can be sorted out with a crude prescription: ideologies are unavoidable—just don’t be a jerk.

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

Practical Creativity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creativity is conventionally defined as the use of imagination for the purpose of  achieving something novel. The Romantics understood it as a supernal gift bestowed upon a select and superior few. In the present day, “creative genius” is generously recognized in almost anyone involved in an artistic or quasi-artistic pursuit. Whether framed as a rarified possession or a universal property, creativity is made out to be a disembodied quality, appearing in a flash of insight and removed from everyday matters. Forgotten in all of this is the utilitarian proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

This saying reverberates throughout music history. The acoustic demands and tolerances of a music-making venue—forest, cave, hut, chapel, cathedral, club, concert hall, amphitheater, stadium, living room—have done more to shape musical styles, instruments and ensemble configurations than any other single factor. Technological advances in the 1920s gave us the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc, which played for just three minutes on each side and forced songwriters to invent the three-minute popular song form—still the industry norm. Architects of worship music often keep track of changing tastes of the general public, adjusting devotional sounds accordingly in hopes of filling the pews. Even jazz improvisation had a practical beginning. People wanted to continue dancing after the melodies were exhausted, so the musicians accommodated them by jamming over chord changes to stretch out their playing.

These and countless other musical developments were born of necessity. Their inspiration was more contextual than spiritual, more pragmatic than epiphanic. Like everything else, musical innovation is motivated by and responsive to perpetual forces: cause and effect, need and satiation, transition and mutation, problems and solutions. It is, then, better to think of creativity as an adaptive awareness than as something emerging from mythical nothingness.

Music is a living art. It is guided by evolutionary pressures. The survival of music in any of its myriad genres and forms requires that elements be modified and redirected to fit the social, physical and acoustic environment. When conditions are relatively static, music undergoes few and subtle alterations. When circumstances shift, musical creativity shifts along with them. These adaptive traits—technical, instrumental, presentational and other—are further tweaked as settings continue to morph. With the passage of time, and the technological advancements, trends and counter-trends that come along with it, some of these features persist and are absorbed into new mixtures, while others are rejected and replaced with new adaptations. And so it goes, down through the ages.

Need creates an opening for artistic maneuvering. Thus, at the risk of over-simplification, we might re-define creativity as the practical confrontation with necessity.

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

Is All Music Functional?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The role function plays in determining aesthetic qualities is far greater than we might intuit. Responses to artistic creations and performances are largely rooted in perceived levels of functionality. “I like it” or “I don’t like it” are, in essence, statements about whether or not the artistic object left us moved and, if so, whether it moved us to a desirable or undesirable outcome. If the goal is to be sent into a state of awe or a flood of tears, does it happen or not? When we dial through the radio on a highway drive, does the music aid the journey or not? If the artwork accomplishes the task and/or meets certain expectations, it is “good”; if it fails, it is “bad.”

Along with this observation come two sub-points: (1) No creative display satisfies everyone’s tastes (which are, more accurately, needs); (2) Evaluation of the art’s effectiveness (the foundation of aesthetic judgment) varies depending on the setting, season, activity, momentary mood, and so on. As such, phrases like “It does it for me” and “It doesn’t do it for me” are closer to the functional-aesthetic mark.

If we travel along this line of thinking, we might conclude that aesthetics are utterly arbitrary. This may or may not be so. (The adverb “utterly,” in any case, gives too strong a sense of certainty.) External conditions constantly and subconsciously inform our sense of beauty, including cultural norms and evolutionary adaptations. What the functional lens brings into focus is the active nature of aesthetics—that is, the degree to which deciding that something is pretty, repulsive, profound, trite, pleasant, disturbing, inspiring, bland, touching or cold is shaped by what we’re doing and what we’re looking for while we’re doing it.

Turning to music specifically, we find explicit and implicit ways in which functionalism is linked to appraisal. The explicit group includes all music that is overtly functional, or music made for an extra-musical purpose (the majority of music in the history of music-making). A holiday concert, a commercial jingle, a nursery rhyme, a military march, a movie soundtrack. These and countless other situational sounds either work—and earn positive assessments—or do not work—and collect harsh critiques.

Here, associations are key. If a particular genre or manner of performance is generally or personally associated with a context other than the one for which it is presented, it is likely to be called “bad.” Stylized renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and identifiably secular styles in religious services are common illustrations of this. Yet, the mere fact that a performance location is odd or unusual does not automatically make it bad. If the person sitting next to the grumpy critic is fond of the associations the music connotes, then the opposite reaction will take place. The music works for her, therefore it is “good.”

Implicit functional music is music that is not overtly attached to a purpose. Pop music, for instance, is not designed for or heard within a single designated setting. It is accessible virtually anywhere and at virtually any time. If it supports, synchronizes with, or in any way resonates with what one is doing in the listening moment (including “just” listening), then it is positively labeled. If the opposite occurs, then an opposite label occurs too.

Again, this appraisal is prone to fluctuate depending on the circumstances: something heard as lousy in one situation may be heard as lovely in another. And even our aversion to certain styles or songs can serve the beneficial function of reminding us of who we are, which is almost synonymous with what we do or do not like.

All music can be placed in either the explicit or implicit functional categories. Thus, by simple extension of the argument, all music can be viewed as functional. More important, the functional efficacy or inefficacy of a given piece of music (or any artwork) contributes mightily to our judgment of it. A simple formula: what works is “good,” what doesn’t work is “bad.”

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

Comfort Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Contact with the new and returning to the familiar are common occurrences among listeners of music. During the course of an average day and through the duration of an average life, a person is exposed to countless doses of music. Music is all around: on television, online, on the radio, on cellphones, in the grocery store, in children’s mouths, in our own heads. Previously unheard material is always within access, whether it comes to us through active consumption or passive reception. And, because music is such a longstanding and boundlessly varied form of expression, no pair of ears will ever hear it all.

There is some attraction in music’s apparent infiniteness. The appetite for the exotic, which exists in most people to a greater or lesser degree, can always feed upon new musical flavors. Yet, while much is gained from nibbling on diverse sounds, listeners eventually return to playlists of a much smaller size and scope. These individualized compilations are as distinct as the people who treasure them, and include selections of personal significance. The pleasure and assurance derived from such music is immediate, reliable and profound. It is audible comfort food.

Furthering the culinary analogy, the pull of familiar music has been likened to a hungry American traveling abroad. Native eateries have a certain appeal, offering unusual recipes and a doorway into local folkways. But for many tourists, restaurants serving familiar dishes are even more alluring. When navigating strange surroundings, the taste of home can simulate a sense of stability. A McDonald’s hamburger helps to “normalize” cities as disparate and anxiety inducing as Paris and Hong Kong.

The same occurs each time a person hears well-liked music. Recognizable sound patterns mitigate the complexities and uncertainties of existence. Of course, personal preference is the determining factor regulating which sounds bring this relief. But the effect is rooted much deeper than taste.

Researchers observe that when foreign noises are introduced into a wild biome, animals exhibit restlessness and other signs of distress. Once natural sounds are restored to purity, the reactions fade away. In a similar and similarly basic way, the music we cherish provides an antidote to unwelcome noises, both literal and metaphorical. Having a special attachment to certain sounds is less about stubbornness or a fear of change, and more about seeking refuge from the clutter and stress that confront us daily. Our curiosity appreciates the exotic, but our nerves rely on the familiar.

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.

Taste Matters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Value in music is of two kinds. The first is formal, or value in the technical sense of the term. Within a musical system, there are agreed upon and objectively verifiable measurements for calculating elements such as tonality, texture, dynamics, temporal properties and structure. For example, theoretical analysis of Western concert repertoire includes specific names for chord types, normative concepts of articulation, parameters for simple and complex compositions, qualifications for themes and variations, and numerous other mechanical and quasi-mechanical computations.

The second kind of value is not so absolute. It is value in the humanistic sense, or the judgment of aesthetic qualities based on sensuous response. This is qualitative worth, in which subjective ideas like beauty, purpose, pleasantness, truth and goodness are applied to music. Such value exists on a continuum. An audience’s impression of a piece can range from strong affinity to staunch dislike, with shades of nuance in between. These varied reactions are common despite attempts to standardize conceptions of excellence. Mozart is supposed to be received as beauty nearing perfection, even if a person does not resonate with it, while elevator music is supposed to be repugnant, even if one aimlessly rides up and down the shaft  just to hear it.

True, one can never fully escape the musical pre-judgments that pervade a culture. Through cultural membership, we are involuntarily exposed to a set of consensus-driven artistic rules and expectations. Yet, on an individual level, there can be varying degrees of agreement and disagreement. This is because aesthetics are not inherent in the piece or in the mind of the listener. They arise from a transaction between the two.

Aesthetic valuation occurs in three successive stages: perception, statement of position, and reason for judgment. In a typical scenario, a listener hears a song, pronounces that it is boring, and explains that it lacks motion and variation. Another person might hear the same song and find it soothing for the same reasons. As a general rule, any piece is capable of attracting fans, no matter how vehement or widespread the opposition. The opposite goes for pieces widely regarded as good or pleasing: they still have their detractors.

Thus, the question follows: Is there any right or wrong way to feel about music? Critics and aestheticians would argue that there is. They point to the role of convention in determining things like attractiveness, balance and symmetry. By these guidelines, a selection can be certified as great, good, mediocre, bad, etc. An exception is made for works outside of one’s purview, namely music of a foreign culture or subculture. For instance, the average American cannot accurately assess a gamelan performance, nor can a Baroque enthusiast give definitive appraisals of gansta rap. But critics object when similar leeway is given for music produced in one’s own cultural setting.

Conclusions drawn by critics and aestheticians are often well reasoned and sometimes thought provoking. But they can also be overly academic and remote from the actual musical encounter. As much as they strive to distance music from arbitrary evaluations, the act of listening is by nature arbitrary. While music has absolute value in terms of its measurable components, the sensuous value we ascribe to it is the result of intimate contact. Norms and inherited assumptions can and do inform our decision-making, but the final judgment remains our own. Music is a matter of taste, and taste matters.

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