Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to Listen to Music: The Boring Quotient

Remember when there used to be articles and books on this subject? Aaron Copland wrote one called What to Listen for in Music. But something changed or maybe a lot of things changed. Music became more commercially oriented, fewer people played music themselves and cultural relativism overruled aesthetic objectivism. I love the Beatles, but they were so enormously successful and made so much money (even in a 96% tax bracket) that pop music since has tended to be measured largely in terms of sales, not quality. In general, musical learnedness is fading away except in professional enclaves as fewer and fewer people, even among music lovers, actually read music. The path to relativism was made easier by these two other elements. If the aesthetics seem to matter less than record sales and if actual knowledge of the technical details of music is less widespread, then it is easier to sell the concept that all music is aesthetically equivalent.

Every composer and songwriter and musician knows this isn’t so of course. These people spend much of their time eliminating the bad stuff. A composer writes a page of music and erases half of it. A songwriter just throws a song away and starts over again. A musician practices slowly to improve his or her technique. An essential part of their work is distinguishing between good and bad.

Is the goodness or badness of music anything like an objective fact? As opposed to a mere subjective, and hence irrelevant, personal opinion? This is actually a pretty tough question to get at. In a trivial way, everyone’s opinion is valid and therefore there will never be universal agreement on aesthetic judgments. But this does not necessarily mean that judgments are impossible, just difficult. In another sense, it is obvious that objective aesthetic judgments are possible, though perhaps ‘selling’ them to the public today is difficult.

A number of other factors have influenced aesthetics in recent history. One important one was the growth of aesthetic ideology, the project of the avant-garde. Their version of musical progressivism left little room for traditional aesthetic judgments based on concepts such as beauty. Instead, the highest artistic value was to outrage the bourgeoisie. Current pop music has even adopted this value—or at least the pose of so doing. We can see that in artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna.

I can tell you how I make aesthetic judgments: I use something I call the Boring Quotient. I take a) the length of the piece of music, and b) the part I can listen to before boredom sets in, divide b by a, and the result is the BQ. Let’s open up YouTube and listen to "She Wolf" by Shakira.

 Starts with a much-used bass line, continues with the expected harmonies. Shakira’s singing is much like that in all her other songs. I started to lose interest around 2:00. [3:49-2:00 for a BQ of .57] For the purposes of this exercise I did NOT watch the video which would have made a big difference. I could watch Shakira all day. Heh. Next Beyoncé, "Sweet Dreams."

 I already know "Single Ladies" so that wouldn’t be a fair test. Oddly, this song sounds a lot like "She Wolf:" similar bass line, though articulated differently. Same tempo. And Beyoncé sounds like she usually sounds. Again, I’m not watching the video. I’m falling asleep and it’s about 2:20 [4:01-2:20 for a BQ of .55]. OK, I just glanced at the video when I was pausing it. That’s some top! I could watch her all day too. But the song? Nope. For something completely different I’m listening to "Falling Down" by Tom Waits.

I usually like Tom Waits, but without struggling to make out the lyrics, I’m getting drowsy and it’s only 1:45 [4:17-1:45 for a BQ of .35]. I’m going to take a break and go back and watch Sweet Dreams…

 Ok, I’m back. How does she keep them from popping out? Next, Bob Dylan. I’m just going to listen to the first song on YouTube that I don’t already know. It’s "Tangled Up In Blue" from a 1974 performance. And no, I’m not watching the video.

I have to say that all these numbers are nothing more than a record of one listening session. A different time might get different results. I usually like Bob Dylan, but this song doesn't keep my interest for too long: [4:27-2:26 for a BQ of .53] How about something classical? Hummel, Trumpet Concerto in E, 3rd movement (Marsalis).

[3:37-2:15 for a BQ of .64] Someone else who starts with ‘H’? Haydn, Piano Sonata in Eb (Horowitz)

[8:44-8:44 for a BQ of at least 1]. I made it all the way through that one, very nice piece actually. Well, I should really punish myself for enjoying that last one. That means Andrew Lloyd Webber. The first thing that comes up is "Music of the Night" from the Phantom of the Opera.

Agh, my interest dies a horrible death 0:45 in with the first really saccharine phrase. [5:15-0:45 for a BQ of .09, a record!] How about Bellini, the Symphony from Norma?

[5:42-2:20 for a BQ of .4] Bellini would have done better with an aria, of course. These choices are somewhat random. Next up, Brahms, Hungarian Dance #5:

[3:21-0.42 for a BQ of .13] I’ve certainly heard this before and don’t like it any better this time. Bach, Double Violin Concerto in D minor, 2nd movement, largo; I had to go a couple of pages deep in YouTube before I found a piece I didn’t recall. This is the slow movement:

[7:30-7:30 for a BQ of at least 1] The interesting thing here is that Bach is not doing anything wild, just working with the standard Baroque sequences, but it is beautiful and just unpredictable enough to be pleasing.

Now let’s do a comparison. There are certain pieces that I have been listening to for forty years and am even more interested in them now than I was the first time I heard them. The Beethoven late quartets are an example. The pieces by Haydn and Bach above I gave a BQ of “at least 1” because I made it all the way through. Well, if you listened once and were still interested, then it is likely you would want to listen again. For the Beethoven late quartets I can only give a rough estimate, but say I have listened to at least some of them every six months for forty years: that would give them a BQ of 80. I think this is reasonable, because when I first started listening to them, I probably played them once a week at least for a few years. So, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Music of the Night, .09 on the BQ meter, and Beethoven, late quartets, 80. Seems about right…

How do I listen? Well, obviously it is active listening, that’s why I get bored. If you are listening really actively, trying to hear every harmony and rhythm clearly and sense where they are going, then only the very best music is going to keep you interested. How much music you are familiar with is also influential. If you are a truly passive listener, then you can coast through a lot of music without much fuss. As soon as you start to dig into the music, you will develop likes and dislikes. Perhaps, after a while, you will develop finer and finer distinctions. Maybe you will even come to be eternally fascinated with Beethoven late quartets. Who knows?

[PS: I just wanted to mention that my BQ for Strawberry Fields Forever is probably, oh, I dunno, around 500…]

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