Sunday, September 16, 2012

Aesthetics of Popular Music

I'm just reading an excellent article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Aesthetics of Popular Music. I say 'excellent' because it is a very clear and well-written summary of the various positions philosophers have taken on the subject of aesthetics and popular music. But I had the odd sensation all the way through that many philosophers were skating around on the level of abstraction without ever coming to grips with the music itself. I found myself thinking that all the generalizations proposed were true--and that they were all false. All popular music is a trivial distraction? Some popular music is more than a trivial distraction? I find that I can simultaneously agree and disagree with almost every philosophical position on popular music! Why? Because I keep thinking, but which songs are you talking about?

You see, I think the problem is with the whole notion of generalization. Remember my posts on Scarlatti sonatas? Each one is different so generalizations, except the most trivial ones, are not possible. You have to take them as individuals to understand what is going on. I'm afraid the same tends to be true of all great music: the definition of a great piece of music includes the idea that it is unique in some way. This applies as much to popular music as it does to art music. The fact that much popular music is formulaic and industrialized does not mean that the outstanding examples are. Quite the contrary. How much like other popular songs is Strawberry Fields Forever? How formulaic is it?

But before going any further, let's take a look at traditional aesthetics. The article summarizes as follows:
Eighteenth-century philosophers organized a new field of study, aesthetics, around the search for a unifying principle for the disparate “fine arts” of post-Renaissance Europe. This principle would distinguish science and craft from such activities as music, poetry, theater, dance, painting, and sculpture. Following this precedent, most subsequent theorizing about music inherited distinctively modernist biases about art. Three ideas proved to be particularly relevant to later efforts to distinguish art from popular art. First, art is the product of genius. Art is constantly evolving, so successful new art involves progress. Second, the value of art is aesthetic, and aesthetic value is autonomous. Artistic value cannot be reduced to utility, moral effects, or social functions. Third, whatever is true about fine art is true about music.
In the 20th century some important new positions were stated, among them the critique of popular music by Theodor Adorno, a Marxist cultural critic. His position was:
In a commercial world where one popular song sounds much like any other, popular music cannot function as a medium of genuine communication. At best, a philosophically reflective stance sees that its standardization and commercial presentation reflects important facets of the socio-economic conditions that shape it. Its standardization reflects the alienating, oppressive standardization of modern capitalism.
More recent writers such as Richard Schusterman offer a defence of popular music:
Resisting the traditional association of form and intellectual engagement, he argues that musical form should be rooted in “organic bodily rhythms” and the social conditions that make them meaningful. Popular music’s continuing reliance on dance rhythms returns Western music to its “natural roots”. The fundamental structure of popular music lies in its bodily rhythms, so movement is necessary for appreciating it. Since these movements bear meanings, a genuine response to music is both physical and intellectual.
In a 1993 book Bruce Baugh:
proposes that rock music is best appreciated by “turning Kantian or formalist aesthetics on its head”, literally reversing traditional priorities. Rock places more value on performance than composition, more on material embodiment than structure, more on rhythm than melody and harmony, more on expressivity than formal beauty, and more on heteronomy than autonomy.
Against Baugh, James O. Young and Stephen Davies argue that rock and classical music do not invite evaluation under distinct standards. Young argues that Baugh merely shows that rock music tends to employ different means of expression, not that the music has different ends. The European concert tradition includes a great deal of music that prioritizes expressivity and requires performance practices that highlight the music’s material embodiment. Consequently, Baugh has not identified standards that are unique to rock.
There is a lot more in the article which is well worth reading in its entirety, but I think that the above quotes give an overall picture.

My problem with this is that I have the distinct impression that all of these approaches contain some grains of truth, but are crippled by generalizations that are not successful in that they take slices out of the repertoire that support the position and ignore a lot of music that does not. I have stated above my reservations about generalizations, but let me flesh it out a bit. One theory professor I had presented a 'scientific' view of theory once that can illustrate this. He proposed that the practice of music theory was "composition in retrograde" which is a nice phrase that reminds me of the principle in biology that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", a biological hypothesis that in developing from embryo to adult, animals go through stages resembling or representing successive stages in the evolution of their remote ancestors.

In doing 'scientific' theory, you look at different examples of, say, sonata form, and then construct a model of how sonata form works from which, if it is a good model, you will be able to compose new examples of sonata form that will compare successfully with the original ones. Sounds plausible, doesn't it? But of course, it is complete nonsense. No-one ever composed a sonata this way (except maybe for some students in the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century), least of all those composers whose sonatas are the ones we actually listen to: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. These composers, who created and used sonata form, had no textbook models. Haydn invented sonata form (though the basic harmonic principles were already there). Mozart and Beethoven were certainly inspired by Haydn. But here is why the scientific approach won't work: Haydn used the basic principles of sonata form differently in every piece! The textbooks often say that a sonata movement has two main themes, one in the tonic and a second in the dominant. But Haydn is notorious for writing lots of movements that have just one theme. Every great sonata movement by these composers is unique. Just to show you what I mean, here is the first movement from a string quartet by Haydn that uses just one theme:

And here is the first movement from a Beethoven sonata that sounds like no other. It is all about harmony and texture and is one of the first pieces to make particular use of the shimmering effect of the pedal. It does have a second theme, but that part of the movement also acts as a kind of development. Like the Haydn, this superb example of sonata cannot be generalized from:

What possible model of sonata form would be able to include both these pieces? And if the model does not, then how is it a good model of sonata form, because these two pieces are superlative examples!

Somehow I have written this long post without actually getting to the aesthetics of popular music! That reminds me of the great 18th century novel by Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that begins with his birth and then, by means of many digressions, ends up several months before his birth! What I have done here is to state why I'm not satisfied with most of the current and past thinking on the aesthetics of music. In my next post I promise to look at the aesthetics of popular music specifically and propose my own method, which is likely to show more the influence of David Hume than any of the philosophers quoted above.

Until then, enjoy this piece of 'popular' music. This performance by Joan Baez is not the version I wanted, alas! The original is the last song on Bob Dylan's 1966 album Blond on Blond. It's a twelve minute long 'folk song'.

UPDATE: I just heard that Jacques Barzun passed away today, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 at the age of 104! In his wonderful book, From Dawn to Decadence he lends support to my discussion above about the problem of scientific generalization and music:
"... history cannot be a science; it is the very opposite, in that its interest resides in the particulars."

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