|David Hume (1711 - 1776)|
I'm sure you are asking yourself exactly the same thing I am: what is he wearing on his head? A velour tea cozy? But never mind. I was tempted to title this post "Of the Standard of Taste in Music", imitating the title of a very important essay on aesthetics by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 - 1776). One of the interesting things about Hume, apart from his stature (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls him "the most important philosopher to write in English") is that he is usually left out of most discussions of aesthetics, such as the one in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I was talking about in this post. I would like to have a look at Hume's essay, and add some of my own comments. First some quotes from Of the Standard of Taste (my comments will be in green):
Some people like Bach, some like Wagner, some like Beyoncé and some, shudder, even like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At first, objectivity in aesthetics might seem easy to achieve; after all, don't we all admire the same qualities in music: good tunes, good harmonies? When you ask what kind of music people like they might say they like all music or all 'good' music, but when it comes to describing exactly what is meant by good music, it turns out they meant quite different things.
Some philosophers tell us not to bother and point to the distinction between knowing something and feeling something--what Hume calls 'sentiment'. All sentiment is right: I can no more disagree with your feeling about a piece of music than I can with your sensation of pain at the dentist. On the other hand, I can argue with your understanding of something because that is based on "real matter of fact". Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 was premiered in 1808; that is a matter of fact. But how you feel when you listen to it is in you, not in the piece itself. A sentiment is a relationship between a piece of music and a listener and it cannot be mistaken the way an understanding can. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which means that beauty is what is perceived subjectively.
In another post I have tried to lay down some of what Hume calls the "rules of composition" and what I called "Aesthetic Virtues and Sins". Just as Hume says, these rules are not fixed a priori, but are gathered slowly through experience. I'm sure a thousand fugue composers tried different ways of answering the subject before they collectively settled on answering on the dominant. And then Beethoven found good reasons for answering on the subdominant. But in neither case did it come from an abstract concept.
There is quite a lot more to work through in Hume's essay, so I think I will stop here and leave you with a couple of clips to listen to while you mull over the above. By way of introduction, let me quote another philosopher, Roger Scruton, who has written extensively on music aesthetics:
It is only by making discriminations within the realm of popular music that we can encourage young people to recognize the difference between genuine musical sentiment and kitsch, between beauty and ugliness, between the life-affirming and the life-denying, the inspired and the routine--in short between The Beatles and U2.So one each from U2:
And those other guys:
Do you hear what Scruton was talking about? I wasn't even trying to exaggerate the differences. I picked the U2 song completely at random and choose a Beatles song written by their second-string songwriter, George Harrison.
UPDATE: If you don't know what to listen for, try just picking out the drumming. The U2 drummer is laying down an absolutely standard, heard in a thousand songs, rock drum part. The only thing remotely interesting is the 'fill' he does a couple of times. On the other hand Ringo, as he does with just about every song on the White Album, almost reinvents rock drumming. He gives us a minimal treatment here: a little snare, some castanets on another track, some nice high-hat work. Mostly he stays out of the way, adding touches here and there. Makes you realize how overdone the U2 drum part is... Then try listening to the bass line. Here's a hint, the Beatles song has a nice descending bass line. U2, I'm not sure what the bass line is. Listened to it twice and I can barely remember it: scattered and formless might be a good description. Anyway, listen a few times and try to hear how each group puts together their song.
UPPERDATE: I got a chance to listen to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" again (and by the way, that has got to be in the top five song titles, right?) and followed my own advice by listening just to the drumming. First of all, it is very delicate drumming, no pounding on the skins! The oddest thing I noticed is that I think he avoids putting anything on the 4th beat throughout the song (maybe a fill passes through it...). No back-beat! This is probably one of the things that gives the song its feeling of almost floating. A heavy back-beat, ubiquitous in rock and roll, gives a song a thrust all right, but it also tends to nail it down. Most of the time Ringo is giving us 1, 2 and 3. Nothing on 4. so where we are always expecting a heavy thump there, we just float... But keep listening, he is constantly varying the patterns, plus fading in other percussion instruments on another track: castañets, plus something going tickatick on the right channel but I'm not sure what it is--oh wait, I think it is sticks on the hub of the high-hat closed. Ringo really is the most creative drummer you are ever likely to hear.