Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Are Musical Opinions Objective? - part 2

The following are selections from my side of an email discussion with an online acquaintance, which were subsequently edited:

I absolutely think that anyone who claims that "greatness" is inherent in certain music and that "crapola" is inherent in other music is wrong. This is not to say that I think these judgments don't exist, because I make them all the time. But I don't think the judgments have objective reality.

The Barney Theme Song and serious music
I think the guy (sic) that wrote the Barney theme didn't intend it to be in any way "serious music", however it may appeal to someone who doesn't even think Classical music is worth a listen. And sure I'd think they were a bit weird, but can I say they are objectively wrong to like it? Compare instead Strauss' “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and Beethoven's Ninth. Strauss was considered a second rate composer, even by his own admission. But that has to do mostly with analyzing musical content held to defined academic standards, and not to do much with what listeners get out of the pieces. The strictly mathematical musical content has objective reality (the use of well defined musical structure etc). But can we really say Zarathustra is objectively better/worse than Beethoven's Ninth. I don't see that as being an objective issue. Who is to decide? Do a bunch of music critics know better than I do which music is good? Do they know better than anyone else? Do they even agree? Is there anyone who could be held up as having the final word on what music is great and what is worthless? I say no. If the evaluation of music was objective, then everyone would just know which was better in the same way that I know that there's a desk under my hands, or I am drinking water out of a blue cup.

Basically, I think there are objective aspects of music (written notes, sound waves, instruments, and recordings...i.e. the things of music). But the experience of music that we have, the range of emotions it can produce (in us), can't be objectified. It's potentially different for anyone who listens to it. And so, judgments based on those experiences are subjective. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

(In response to an email regarding semantics) I think your argument necessarily has to be partly about semantics. By saying that quality judgments are objective, one is redefining the term objective, because there is no physical reality to a quality judgment. There are objects, and there are quality judgments in relation to the objects, which necessarily must be subjective since they have no material existence. If the judgments were material, they could not relate in the same way to the object in question.

To touch on one of your (earlier) points, I agree with you that not everyone is equally qualified to perceive beauty. It goes without saying, as judgments regarding beauty must sometimes include sight and smell and hearing, and those things are denied to some people. But that still doesn't speak to the objectivity issue. My whole point is that subjective and objective realities both exist, but that things are either one or the other (as long as one agrees with the distinction). There are objects that are beautiful, but positing an objects’ physical existence is an objective issue, and positing its beauty is a subjective issue.

So applied to music, the written notes, and the sounds coming to our ears, and the vibration of strings, et al, all exist objectively, in as much as one agrees that these physical properties have a reality apart from our judgment (i.e. a tree in the forest would still make a sound if no one was there etc, you know, materialist dogma!) But if we are to have a distinction from that of a subjective reality full of beauty, poetic notions, opinions regarding a variety of issues, including the most subjective issue of all, the idea of a Creator Being, then we have to (should) use the distinction.

I'm not saying that the line is black and white, and obviously there are times when one has to think it through to figure out what counts as objective and subjective. But I think opinions about the greatness or non-greatness of music (belonging as those opinions do to the wider issue of beauty) are a fairly easy subjective case. I'd like to say more about your point regarding originality, among those other characteristics, being objectively valid measures, but I'll have to attack that one later.


Kelly O said...

You are such smartie! And hot, too.

heather said...

Originality only counts if it's original to me!