Monday, September 26, 2016

The Aesthetics of Taste

I recently put up a post about crossover in which I said:
In order to believe that crossover really brings people into classical music you have to presume a theory of aesthetic taste that says that the same people who like unchallenging, formulaic and maudlin music will equally like demanding and emotionally profound music. You know anyone like that? Me neither.
I got one comment that disagreed:
I know plenty of people like that, and it would be easy for you to see the same, too. For years I have used to keep a record of the music I listen to. Among classical fans whose listening is documented there, it’s extremely common to see a Bruckner symphony or a Beethoven concerto followed by, say, a Kylie Minogue, Mylene Farmer, or Lady Gaga track. Perhaps these listeners consider both of the same ultimate worth, perhaps the lighter bit of music is just a palate cleanser after the heavy stuff. Rarely do I see people who listen exclusively to “demanding and emotionally profound music”.
I responded with a "thanks" because I really do welcome disagreement as it usually leads to two things: either I change my mind about something based on additional evidence, or I deepen my understanding of something based on further discussion. I would like to take a page from my old philosophy professor and re-word the comment. I think that the theory implied here is that in the case of people who listen to both popular music and classical music, they do so either because they consider them both of equal aesthetic value or that they consider the lighter music as a kind of palate cleanser--the sorbet in between the heavier courses at the musical banquet.

Now, as a matter of fact, I do happen to listen to popular music (defined as everything that is neither classical nor world music), though I don't do so on a regular basis. I tend to listen to two kinds of popular music: either music that came out when I was in my late teens and early twenties or music I discovered later on. But in these two categories, I have narrowed it down to music that seems to have stood the test of time. I listen to the Beatles, but not Herman's Hermits, Bob Dylan, but not Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, but not Madonna. So I would probably offer the argument that, even in pop music, it is possible to distinguish the lighter from the more profound. But at the end of the day I am going to say that while Bob Dylan is truly profound in his own way, the profundity comes more from the lyrics than the music. J. S. Bach is in no danger of being overshadowed by the harmonic richness of Bob Dylan. So I suppose that I might lean towards the idea the lighter music can act as a palate cleanser between heavier items. But I never listen that way! Do artists compose programs that way? Not to my knowledge, but I suppose it's possible. The question is, are there significant numbers of people who listen that way? Yes, that is very possible, but I might like to argue that they are passive, not active, listeners. As a passive listener, you go with the flow. But an active listener is more demanding and, at least as I see it, wants to delve more deeply, not take a musical break.

Am I all wet here? How do you listen?

Let's have some music to accompany your deliberations. This is Grigory Sokolov playing the Allegretto from Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata at a concert in Cyprus in 2006:


Anonymous said...

I no longer listen to pop music but, having been in an amateur rock band for years in my youth, I can claim some knowledge of the genre, and I wish to make one simple point by answering the following question: "Is there anything in pop music that provides a sensation one cannot get from classical?" I believe the answer is yes but it's a very narrowly defined sensation and it is almost entirely physical (as opposed to mental). It requires loudness, simple chords with usually suspended notes with compelling resolutions, and the power to capture your entire body in an almost hallucinogenic experience (requires no drugs or alcohol, however). You can get it from the Stones, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, electrified Dylan, etc. I also believe that anyone who's been with a rock band knows what I am talking about, just as many others will simply not know what it is. Loudness and power chords are often key.

I am not passing any value judgment here. I am only answering a specific question. Can pop music claim any originality? The corollary of this observation is that plenty of pop music that nothing singular or original to offer. You mentioned Joni Mitchell. There is nothing in her music that you can't find (improved) in the classical repertoire. But listening to, say, Purple Haze the right way gives you a musical experience that, I believe, is absolutely unique to pop music.

Harmonically, pop music has nothing new to offer. CLassical music and jazz are miles ahead. Melodically, however, some pop music can be very lovely and interesting (The Beatles, Paul Simon, etc) but harmonically there is no there there.

Bryan Townsend said...

I assume you are the same Anonymous that posted the other comment?

Yes, you have isolated exactly what pop music has that classical music does not: a kind of somatic intensity. While classical music does have rhythmic intensity, it is of a different sort and interspersed with other effects. We find something of the rhythmic consistency of pop in the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but it is sublimated into something else.

Based on my own experience, like yourself playing in a band when I was young, I wonder if there is not something in pop music that is extremely appealing to the passions of adolescence?

Anonymous said...

I am glad you bring this up. Indeed, I wonder if it's not about certain hormonal dispositions of adolescence. I could listen to the same rock tune 10 times in a row and get chills down my spine each time. I've almost completely lost that ability, and I suspect that may have to do with age. While the music I listen to now (mostly classical) is infinitely richer and more rewarding, I can't help but admit that I sometimes feel a little pang of nostalgia about that loss.

My favorite pop musician these days is Leonard Cohen, but I suspect my preference has to do with the fact that he is really not much of a pop musician.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I could listen to Cream for hours when I was 19, but now only very occasionally! Mind you, when I got the DVD of their reunion concerts in 2005, I was able to recapture quite a bit of it. But now I listen on a lot more levels and so I expect more.

Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite pop musicians too, but yes, he is not much of a pop musician!

Anonymous said...

I am the original anon poster here (traveling and using a shared computer, not willing to log in with my Google credentials here). has nothing to do with FM radio. (There is some kind of streaming music feature somewhere on the site, but it is of little interest for most users, especially if one’s tastes include classical). Instead, it keeps a log of every track you play off your computer or other devices. The jargon for this is “scrobbling” plays. The sort of person who uses either rips every CD they buy to their media center and then never takes the CD down from the shelf again, or simply downloads the audio files from a pirate site.

So, every play of every track I have ever listened to all the way back to 2008 is logged at Similarly, one can view others’ listening histories. That’s why it’s very easy to see that few classical listeners listen to classical music (or “serious” genres) exclusively, and almost everyone likes to mix in some simple and not very deep pop music in. My own profile is pretty typical: my top 3 artists by plays are two classical composers, and then twee-pop band Belle and Sebastian. is a great resource for getting hard figures about what music is being listened too out there. How often has one heard the claim that some 20th-century composer has no audience beyond his fellow modernist composers? Well, at one can see how even avant-garde types have at least a couple of thousand listeners on the site, who (as one can see from profiles) are generally not musicians themselves. (This applies to baseless claims in pop music, too. I recently read a book where the author claimed that “no one listens to [early 1990s experimental electronic act] FSOL any more”, and shows over a million listeners for this artist. Whoops.)

Heartwarmingly, through internet filesharing any music is now freely available to anyone who wants to hear it, even if they live in countries where the CDs are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive: on one can see how, among other musics, the Western classical canon is scrobbled by people from Morocco to Indonesia.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for elaborating Original Anon! I've never "scrobbled" myself. It would indeed be fascinating and informative to have a record of everything you listen to. This is indeed illuminating! Do you have to be a subscriber or could I go to the site and check on how much certain composers are listened to? YouTube has a record of views, but it would be very time consuming to pull together.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hello Anonymous, re your comment about age, hormones and rock music, I'm heading towards 67 and have only just discovered rock. I can listen to some things over and over and still get goose bumps. I wonder at it. Wonder when and if it will wear off. Don't know how many hormones I've got left at this point. So there goes that theory. Could be incipient senility but I hope not.

Bryan Townsend said...

If there is one thing I know for sure it is that music is complex, people are complex, and people's reactions to and relationships with music are really complex! And I'm grateful for it, because I think it means that I will never run out of things to talk about on this blog.

Is it just rock music or are you starting to connect with all kinds of music for the first time?

Christine Lacroix said...

I'm still hanging around the Music Salon, discovering new music. Thanks for that Bryan!

Bryan Townsend said...

And we are delighted that you are here!