Monday, January 11, 2010

New Year, New Ideas

I hope that this finds you in good health and warm weather! (I'll take one or the other). Since it's both a new year and a new decade, this seems like an auspicious time to let you know about some of my plans for the blog:

–a cross-blog interaction. The details are still being worked out, so I'll refrain from mentioning topic, participants, etc just now. I do hope that you will all get involved, as one of the perpetual goals of this blog is to encourage conversation, especially among people who otherwise would be unable to share ideas. 

–a long-term study of analysis and value judgement (those hardcore musicologists among you will recognize the name of Dahlhaus's monograph). I want to investigate what makes people think music is good or not. Notice that I did not say "what makes music good," as I am enough of a realist to understand the difficulty of that question, and it honestly interests me less than why people believe the music is good. I hope to involve several of my composer friends; as composers have a different technical understanding, and a different way of listening (as they have to be able to identify passages that "work" or not, and determine why), I hope that they will shed some light on this topic. 

–a long-term survey of people's musical perceptions. Several of you will be receiving facebook requests to answer some questions for me, both about your listening habits in general, and as applied to a couple short pieces/songs (and if you're not on facebook, please drop me a line if you'd like to participate!). This line of inquiry is part of my perpetual fascination with what people are hearing and what meanings they are constructing from the music, but it also has practical pedagogical applications. As I begin to prepare for teaching this summer and fall, I believe that understanding how a "typical" listener perceives and processes music will be invaluable.

As you can see, I am hoping to start more interaction and conversation, and am hoping to pose some general (although by no means simple!) questions: how do we listen? How do we assign value?  How do we decide what we like to listen to? How do we convey these ideas? 

Looking forward to this year with you!


  1. Sir,

    I am enthused to hear of your opening a discourse on the “goodness” of music; however ostentatious attempts at such a dialogue may be.
    Nonetheless, I will offer an alternate interpretation of Dahlhaus’s pontifications as evidenced by the often overlooked “Analysis and Value Judgment” in hopes of getting the preverbal ball rolling. Before doing so, however, the following caveat must be provided: it has been some years since I have read “Analysis and Value Judgment,” and, at the time, my German reading skills had yet to fully mature.

    That said, I seem to recall Dahlhaus’s thesis as an attempt to assert specific criteria for the categorization of music as either intrinsically “good” or “bad” without consideration for perception. Does Dahlhaus not state (I am, of course, surmising) that individual emotional and aesthetic reaction and commercial success should be denied inclusion into the deliberation of worth? If memory serves, then Dalhaus is suggesting that a person may loathe a “good” composition—take Penderecki’s infamous “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” as an example—though should, nonetheless, recognize the characteristics that make it inherently “good.” Transversely, one may be gripped by superlative elation upon hearing “Dance, Dance” by Fall Out Boy, though such a response does not negate the fact that the music in question is essentially “bad.”

    To address the topic of commercial success more specifically, it appears that Dahlhaus is of the opinion that the acceptance of “bad” music as anything but will result in the exaltation of ill-judged quality within the collective unconsciousness. Adorno echoes the concern of quality's perception being adversely affected by a collective dumb-ing down when he states, “Where they [the masses] react at all, it no longer makes any difference whether it is to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or to a bikini.” A simple reaction, be it however strong, is of no consequence when determining artistic worth. Similarly, defense of the position can be found in numerous ruminations of Plato as he wrote a great deal on the corrosive effects of “bad” music on otherwise “good” music and people.

    However, Dahlhaus’s position does open itself to debate as Dahlhaus is of the assumption—an assumption that has permeated musicological discourse since the inception of the field—that 18th and 19th century Western art music is the pinnacle of musical achievement and the paradigm by which all other musics must be judged. If such an supercilious and antiquated notion of musical hierarchy were to be purged and replaced by a partitioning of musical styles—that is to say, if a Fall Out Boy song were to be judged by criteria established by other Emo songs and "Threnody" against an approved tradition of the avant garde—then a truer verdict is possible. Despite this obstruction, I believe Dahlhaus’s central issue is valid: music, and all art, is in possession of specific characteristics that determine inherent worth or lack therefore and that this worth is uneffected by aesthetic perception.

  2. Tyler,

    thank you for your long and thoughtful response to my post; I would have replied sooner, but the depth and breadth of your comment prohibited intelligible reply any sooner.

    My understanding of the Dahlhaus (which you read in German? eek!) was that he believed one should not discount the emotional or affective. One could not rely solely on those responses, but, they serve as a perfectly legitimate jumping-off place for more formal study.

    One of the problems I have always had with the entire "people should appreciate good music whether they like it or not" thesis (and I appreciate the FOB jab, by the way) is that is smacks of the type of aesthetic, moralizing, "classical-music-is-edifying" way of teaching, presenting, and consuming music that I loathed in my undergrad. I believe it is very valuable, especially for scholars and teachers, to understand WHY "Threnody" can be good music, and to be able to articulate those good points. However, by so divorcing ones reaction to the piece from how one teaches/receives it, it almost seems that works people don't like are being thrust upon them because of their inherent "goodness." I'd wager many of us have had experiences where we've listened to a piece of music, not liked it, but then either felt guilty because it's by a "name" composer or because it's a canonical work. Sometimes I've gone back, knowing that people smarter than I have found much to get excited about in a piece, re-listened, and been excited too. I've also gone back and still not liked it. Perhaps the entire point of my education thus far would be nothing more than an attempt to justify *why* I dislike something "good."

    It's important to remember that much "classical" music was once quite popular. It's also important to remember that people can simply *like* music of whatever type for whatever reasons. While scholars and teachers need to be more detached regarding their analysis of works, this does not preclude them from being unable (mostly unwilling, in my experience) to "just like" something. And this is why I feel my blog-study will be so helpful, at least to me: most people (non-academic, non-musicians) perceive music VERY differently than we do. I feel that I need to understand how best they perceive music, in order to teach more effectively. This almost goes beyond Dahlhaus's point; it doesn't matter what's "good" or "bad," if my target audience does not hear in that way. How can I relate, or know what to expect, unless I try and understand how they hear music?