Thursday, September 20, 2012

Aesthetics: Some Hints from David Hume

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):

The great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one's observation.
Some people like Bach, some like Wagner, some like Beyoncé and some, shudder,  even like Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit in writing; and in blaming fustian, affectation, coldness and a false brilliancy: But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they had affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.
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.
There is a species of philosophy, which cuts off all hopes of success in such an attempt, and represents the impossibility of ever attaining any standard of taste. The difference, it is said, is very wide between judgment and sentiment. All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it. But all determinations of the understanding are not right; because they have a reference to something beyond themselves, to wit, real matter of fact; and are not always conformable to that standard. Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the only difficulty is to fix and ascertain it. On the contrary, a thousand different sentiments, excited by the same object, are all right: Because no sentiment represents what is really in the object. It only marks a certain conformity or relation between the object and the organs or faculties of the mind; and if that conformity did not really exist, the sentiment could never possibly have being. Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.
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.

But though this axiom ("de gustibus non est disputandum"), by passing into a proverb, seems to have attained the sanction of common sense; there is certainly a species of common sense which opposes it, at least serves to modify and restrain it. Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous. The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot, and while we admit it on some occasions, where the objects seem near an equality, it appears an extravagant paradox, or rather a palpable absurdity, where objects so disproportioned are compared together.
"Do not argue about taste" as the saying goes, is balanced by another piece of common sense that says that surely not all pieces of music are of equal aesthetic value? Are Beethoven and Justin Bieber of equal aesthetic worth? Hume sets aesthetics and ethics side by side in the way he handles them. In ethics this is the problem of relativism: everyone has a different opinion of what behaving ethically is, but surely not everyone's view is of equal worth. As Bertrand Russell put it, "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." Hume cites pairs of authors that are not as familiar to us as they would have been to his original readers. In doing so he is following a standard practice on this blog: I am constantly putting up clips of different music for you to compare. The Beatles vs U2, Bach vs Telemann. Some people's taste is truly absurd. We pretend to aesthetic relativism when we are talking about things that are more or less of a similarity: some people prefer Haydn to Mozart and vice versa. Nothing odd there. But when we compare two pieces of music that are of utterly different levels of quality, it is quite easy to discern the quality of the listener! If you love grindcore and hate Bach, I don't need to hear any more of your musical opinions!

 It is evident that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience...
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.


cnb said...

I had never really thought of Ringo as an outstanding drummer, but you make some interesting points here. I remember, years ago, seeing an interview with him on television in which, in response to the question of what he wanted to be most remembered for, he answered, "For being the best rock 'n' roll drummer in the world." It sounds like you think he may have a chance at it.

The number of truly creative drummers in the world of rock and pop music must be quite small, I think, largely because the music is so strongly defined by a steady beat, as you say. There's Jim Keltner, who worked with Ringo and many others. A drummer who has particularly impressed me in recent years is Jay Bellerose, who has worked with scads of people, and who always adds something special to the mix; a real musician. (I'd hunt down some links if I wasn't at work!)

It's funny that you should pick on U2. Their rhythm section, especially, was widely noted for being barely competent in the early years. They've improved in the meantime, but the U2-sound doesn't call for a great deal of subtlety. That said, I will confess that, on most days, if given a choice between The Beatles and U2 I'd probably choose the latter! I suppose that neither you nor Roger Scruton will talk to me again...

Bryan Townsend said...

Ringo always seems to get taken for granted, probably because he looks so ordinary and unpretentious. But wow, if you just start listening to what he is doing, it is amazing. There are really flashy drummers like Stewart Copeland with The Police, but Ringo is a 'musical' drummer and I hardly know of another one like him.

A lot of music is loved, I think, because it is predictable and soothing. It sounds just like you expect and makes for good background to your life. I just don't find that kind of music very interesting if you actually listen to it.

But have no fear, Prof. Scruton and I are still talkin' to ya!